Joba Chamberlain

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Joba Chamberlain
born Justin Louis Chamberlain

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Biographical Information[edit]

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At one time, Joba Chamberlain was the most ballyhooed pitcher in all of Major League Baseball. He was a 21-year-old sensation who dominated out of the New York Yankees bullpen in 2007, becoming such a commodity that the club invented "Joba Rules" to limit him and prevent him from overwork. A shoulder injury and a brief, unsuccessful transition to starting pitching gradually reduced his effectiveness, and he made his final appearance in the bigs at just the age of 30.

Chamberlain attended college at Nebraska-Kearney, where he was 3-6 with a 5.23 ERA as a freshman, improbably possessing the best ERA as well as the most strikeouts (49) on the team. He was 4-4 with a 1.36 ERA that summer in American Legion ball while batting .505 with 11 home runs. In 2005, Joba transferred to the main campus of the University of Nebraska and had a 10-2, 2.81 record with 130 strikeouts in 118 2/3 innings. He led the 5th-ranked Cornhuskers in strikeouts and was second in wins, finishing one strikeout behind Big 12 Conference leader Max Scherzer and tying for third in the Big 12 in wins. He made the All-Conference team and was named Newcomer of the Year. Collegiate Baseball ranked him a third-team All-American. The hefty hurler slipped to 6-5, 3.93 his junior year with 102 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings. Originally considered a top-10 pick, his stock dropped due to injuries. He was selected with the 41st pick in the 2006 amateur draft by the New York Yankees, compensation for the loss of Tom Gordon to free agency. Scouted by Tim Kelly, Joba signed for a $1,100,000 bonus, but did not pitch in the minors that year. It was the highest a Native American player had gone in the history of the MLB amateur draft.

Joba was 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA for the West Oahu CaneFires in the 2006 Hawaii Winter Baseball season, ranking fifth in the league in ERA and his 46 strikeouts were second to Rick van den Hurk. He made the league All-Star team, joining van den Hurk, Atsushi Nohmi and Kanehisa Anime as the pitchers. Baseball America rated him the top prospect in the league, right ahead of John Mayberry Jr. and 7 spots ahead of Ian Kennedy, picked by the Yankees earlier than Chamberlain in the 2006 draft. Baseball America also rated him having the best fastball in the Yankee system.

Joba got off to a quick start in his first season in the minors in 2007, going 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in 7 games for the Tampa Yankees, allowing 25 hits, walking 11 and striking out 51 in 40 innings. He pitched the 3rd inning for the US in the 2007 Futures Game. He walked Michael Saunders, who stole second and scored on a Chin-Lung Hu single before Chamberlain settled down to finish the inning without further damage. He was promoted from Tampa to the Trenton Thunder and had a 4-2, 3.43 record for them, striking out 64 in 39 1/3 innings. He was moved up once more, to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. In his AAA debut, he pitched 5 scoreless innings and whiffed 10 to give him 125 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings through July 26th. Chamberlain was 1-0 in 3 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, fanning 18 in 8 innings while allowing no runs and 5 hits. That made him 9-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings in his first year, allowing a .198 average. He was called up to New York to replace Brian Bruney.

In his first major league game on August 7th, Joba relieved Jim Brower against the Toronto Blue Jays in the 8th inning and struck out his first major league opponent, Ray Olmedo. He tossed 2 scoreless frames, walking 2, whiffing 2 and allowing a hit. Through his first 3 major league games, he had allowed no baserunners in 3 more innings, while striking out 6 more. The Yankees' top brass, concerned about potential overuse for their new commodity, officially enacted "Joba Rules" to prevent him from being overused. This prevented him from pitching on consecutive days. Additionally, each inning he would pitch in a game would determine how many days off he would receive before his next outing. Through his first month in the bigs, he had allowed 0 runs (earned or unearned) while striking out 19 men to just 4 walks in 14 2/3 innings. On September 12th, he was finally scored upon, albeit in unearned fashion, when he allowed a run to the Blue Jays due to an error by Alex Rodriguez. He allowed his first earned run his next time out, against bitter Yankee rivals the Boston Red Sox, surrendering a home run to third baseman Mike Lowell in a game the Yanks eked out, 4-3. Then it was back to scoreless domination, recording his first save in a 1 1/3 inning outing against the Jays on September 23rd. He finished his first regular season 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA, with only 6 walks to a filthy 34 strikeouts in 24 innings. His fairy-tale first season ended on a strange note, when in the ALDS, he was bothered by an invasion of midges at Jacobs Field, uncorking two wild pitches that allowed the Cleveland Indians to tie Game 2, eventually winning the game, 2-1, and the series in 4 games. He allowed 2 earned runs in 2 outings totaling 3 2/3 innings for a more pedestrian 4.91 postseason ERA.

The big story in New York prior to 2008 became whether Joba should start or relieve. This controversy would endure for each of the next two seasons. Joba began 2008 in the bullpen, but when the Yankees' starting rotation was beset by injuries, the pressure to have him start became relentless. He was eased into the job, pitching well, but not picking up many wins. Just a week and change after outdueling Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox, the first sign of Joba's mortality became evident, when he departed a start against the Texas Rangers on August 4th with a shoulder injury. He was placed on the injured list and shut down for the season immediately. Years later, Yankee GM Brian Cashman would admit to Mike Francesa on WFAN that Joba was never the same again after this injury [1].

Joba wrapped 2008 with a 4-3, 2.60 record in 42 games, including 12 starts. He spent most of 2009 as a starter, but had trouble going deep into games and had lost velocity when compared to his performances out of the bullpen. He was 9-6, 4.75 in 157 innings. Manager Joe Girardi put him in the bullpen when the Yankees reached the postseason, deciding to go with only three starters, and he pitched well as the Yanks seized the World Series. In 10 appearances, he gave up only 2 earned runs and won one game against the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, Game 4 at Citizens Bank Ballpark. In 2010, he was in contention to become the Yankees' fifth starter, but lost out to Philip Hughes and returned to the bullpen to be Mariano Rivera's set-up man. He had pitched fine as a starter, but had been simply outstanding as a reliever, keeping alive the controversy over what his optimal usage should be. Things changed in 2010 as he experienced problems with his mechanics and was hit hard, in spite of throwing his fastball at a much higher velocity again. In late July, Girardi moved him out of the set-up role in order for him to work out his problems in less stressful circumstances. He finished the season with a record of 3-4, 4.40 in 73 games with 3 saves but pitched all right in the ALCS, giving up a single run in 3 1/3 innings facing the Texas Rangers.

Joba was back in the bullpen at the start of 2011, and was not seriously considered for a starting spot even after the Yankees were left thin when Andy Pettitte retired. He was pitching much better than in his previous two seasons, with a 2-0 record and 2.83 ERA in 27 games as one of two set-up men for Mariano Rivera, when he was placed on the disabled list on June 8th with what was originally described as "discomfort" in his pitching elbow. The issue turned out to be much more serious - a torn ligament requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery. He suffered a further, and potentially much more significant, setback on March 23, 2012 when he dislocated his ankle playing on a trampoline with his five-year-old son at a kid's center. He underwent surgery for an open dislocation, but lost so much blood that there was concern for his life. The injury seemed to preclude any return that year, and may well have turned out to be career-ending. Chamberlain was released from the hospital three days later and told media that while the injury was serious, his life was never in danger and no bones were broken. He stated he was still planning to return before the end of the season. True to his word, he made his first appearance on August 1st, giving up 2 runs in 1 2/3 innings in a 12-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles. He went 1-0, 4.35 in 22 relief appearances the rest of the way and struck out 22 batters in 20 2/3 innings. In the postseason, he pitched a scoreless inning of relief in extra innings in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Orioles, then made three more scoreless appearances in the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, although he only worked 1 1/3 innings as the Yankees were swept in four games. He started the 2013 season in the Yankees' bullpen and made 10 appearances in April, picking up his first save since 2010, but on May 2nd, he was placed on a crowded disabled list with a strained muscle in his side. He came back at the end of May and was healthy the rest of the way, logging 45 appearances. His record was 2-1 with the one save and an ERA of 4.93 in 42 innings. He had now officially fallen from grace in the Yankees' staff and was no longer used in key situations. Seeing his once bright future with the Yankees was now completely erased, on December 12th, he moved to the Detroit Tigers as a free agent on a one-year deal.

Chamberlain had a pretty good season in 2014, finishing 2-5, 3.57 with 2 saves in 69 games. He was a set-up man for closer Joe Nathan, striking out 59 in 63 innings while allowing 57 hits and 24 walks. He struggled in the Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles. In Game 1 on October 2nd, he relieved Max Scherzer with one out in the 8th, a runner on second base and Detroit trailing, 4-3. An error by shortstop Andrew Romine, a stolen base and a single resulted in two more runs, and he gave way to Joakim Soria without recording an out; the O's eventually scored 8 runs in the inning to blow the game open. In Game 2 the following day, things did not go any better. He came on in the bottom of the 8th with a 6-3 lead, but after one out, he hit Adam Jones with a pitch and gave up singles to Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce before again giving way to Soria; all three baserunners scored as the Orioles scored 4 times to take a 7-6 lead. Despite those difficulties, he re-signed with Detroit for 2015, but fell in the depth chart. In early July, he was designated for assignment after putting up a 4.09 ERA in 30 games, logging only 22 innings with 2 losses as his only decisions. He was released on July 10th after no one claimed him. The Toronto Blue Jays signed him a couple of weeks later, but he never pitched for them before being released again on August 14th. Two days later, he landed with the Kansas City Royals. He pitched 6 times, with no record and a 7.94 ERA, not impressing enough to make the postseason roster as the Royals won the World Series. He was a free agent again and this time signed with the the Cleveland Indians on December 1st, returning to the site of his epic battle with midges. He bounced back to a certain extent with the Indians in 2016, pitching 20 times with an ERA of 2.25 and only 12 hits allowed in 20 innings. He made his final appearance on July 3rd, after having spent time on the DL with a muscle strain, then was designated for assignment on July 4th and released a few days later. As a result, for the second straight year, he pitched for the AL champion but did not see any action in the postseason. After sitting out the rest of 2016, he signed a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers on January 24, 2017. But he never made it back to the majors and retired that October, leaving many fans to wonder "What could have been?"

Sources: University of Nebraska bio, Minorleaguebaseball.com, Hawaii Winter Baseball website, 2006-2007 Baseball Almanacs, The Baseball Cube

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