Joba Chamberlain

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Joba Chamberlain
born Justin Louis Chamberlain

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Biographical Information[edit]

Joba Chamberlain was a top prospect in the New York Yankees system before making his major league debut in 2007, his first pro season.

After high school, Chamberlain went to Nebraska-Kearney, where he was 3-6 with a 5.23 ERA but had the best ERA and 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 K in 118 2/3 IP. He led the #5 team in NCAA Division I in strikeouts and was second in wins. He was one strikeout behind Big 12 Conference leader Max Scherzer and tied for third in the Conference in wins. He made the All-Conference team and was named the Newcomer of the Year. Collegiate Baseball ranked him as a third-team All-American.

The hefty hurler slipped to 6-5, 3.93 his junior year with 102 strikeouts in 89 1/3 IP. 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.

He was 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA for the West Oahu CaneFires in the 2006 Hawaii Winter Baseball season. Chamberlain ranked 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 as having the best fastball in the 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 IP. 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 then 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 then 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 IP 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 K in 88 1/3 innings in his first year as a professional, 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 went 2 scoreless frames, walking 2, whiffing 2 and allowing 1 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 enacted special "Joba rules" to prevent him from being overused in spite of his success. His fairy-tale first season ended on a strange note, when in the ALDS, he was bothered by an invasion of midges in Cleveland, OH, losing a game to the Cleveland Indians.

The big story then became whether Joba should start or relieve, the controversy lasting for the next two seasons. He 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, and then being shut down at the end of the season. He ended the year 4-3, 2.60, in 42 games, including 12 starts. He spent most of 2009 as a starter, but had trouble going deep into games and seemed to lose 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 in relief as the Yanks conquered the World Series. In 10 appearances, he gave up only 2 earned runs and won one game in the World Series. Then 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. Over the period, he had pitched well 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, however, as he experienced problems with his mechanics and was hit hard, in spite of throwing his fastball at a much higher velocity than when he was a starter. In late July, Girardi moved him away from 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 in that area when Andy Pettitte decided to retire. 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 though - 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 while playing on a trampoline with his five-year-old son at a kid's center with athletics activities. 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. However, Chamberlain was released from 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 to the mound 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 1 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 an inning and a third as the Yankees were swept in four games.

Chamberlain started the 2013 season in the Yankees' bullpen and made 10 appearances in April, picking up his first save since 2010 along the way, but on May 2nd, he was placed on a crowded disabled list retroactive to April 28th, with a strained muscle in his side. He came back at the end of May, then was healthy the rest of the way, logging 45 appearances. His record was 2-1 with the one save, with an ERA of 4.93 in 42 innings. He had now fallen well down the Yankees' bullpen totem pole, and was rarely used in key situations. Seeing his future with the Yankees blocked, on December 12th, he decided to move to the Detroit Tigers as a free agent on a one-year deal.

Chamberlain had a pretty good season for the Tigers in 2014, as he went 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 however. In Game 1 on October 2nd, he relieved Max Scherzer with one out in the 8th, with a runner on second base and Detroit trailing, 4-3, but an error by SS Andrew Romine, a stolen base and a single resulted in two more runs, and he gave way to Joakim Soria without having recorded an out; the Orioles 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 into the game 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 would eventually score as the Orioles scored 4 runs to turn their deficit into a 7-6 lead. In spite of those difficulties, he re-signed with Detroit for 2015, but fell in the depth chart. In the first days of 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. As no one showed interest in his services, he was released on July 10th. 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 did pitch 6 times for them, with no record and a 7.94 ERA, but did not impress enough to be put on the postseason roster as the Royals won the World Series that fall. He was a free agent again after the season and this time signed with the the Cleveland Indians on December 1st, returning to the site of his epic battle with midges as a rookie in the 2007 Postseason.

Joba 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, but he did not have any decisions (win, loss or save). He made his final appearance on July 3rd, however, 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. However, he never made it back to the majors.

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

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