In naming Phil Hughes their fifth starter and sending Joba Chamberlain off to an unspecified role in the bullpen, the Yankees tacitly acknowledged that in their frantic efforts to protect Chamberlain's health by limiting his innings, they had failed to develop him properly. But considering the bizarre way in which they're treated their talented young right-hander the past two seasons, it's not a surprise.
After struggling with his command early last season, Chamberlain caught fire in the immediate aftermath of the All-Star break, allowing just two runs in three starts. The Yankees picked that moment to impose the Joba Rules 2.0, and it was no coincidence that Chamberlain was no longer the same pitcher. The mental effort he needed to succeed on the mound was hijacked by his absorption in "The Rules." Would he be yanked in the second inning if he burned too many pitches? If he was given a quick hook, would he pitch again in five days or ten?
It says something that Chamberlain was bumped from the playoff rotation for Chad Gaudin, a pitcher the Yankees just released. The move liberated Chamberlain, at least to a certain extent, and he looked more like a pitcher and less like the oppressed last man on Kafka’s pitching staff. His aggregate postseason performance (6 1/3 innings, nine hits, two runs, one walk, seven strikeouts) was effective but hardly dominating. In his attenuated spring training performance, Chamberlain was neither, allowing 10 hits, seven walks, and 12 runs in 6 2/3 innings.
That last number, 6 2/3, is key to the Yankees' confession of Chamberlain confusion: It’s a tiny sample by which to judge a pitcher who is not only a three-year veteran, but has finally arrived at the Yankees’ arbitrarily determined point of physical maturity, the moment when there would be no more rules. They wouldn’t judge CC Sabathia by fewer than seven innings -- indeed, Sabathia has been hit hard this spring, but it’s assumed he’s working his way into shape. In Chamberlain’s case, it is impossible to separate the struggles of March from those of August and September. However well Hughes pitched in the 2009 regular season, no matter how promisingly he pitched this spring, there can be no clearer admission that the Yankees no longer know what they have in Chamberlain than their willingness to demote him from the rotation based on such a small sample.
The sad truth of pitching is that it may be inherently injurious. Until the moment pitchers can wear a monitor that gives teams a real-time look at the inner workings of their arms, there is no sure way to prevent pitching injuries. Sure, there are common-sense things to avoid, like 150-pitch outings in a cold April rain. But to pretend, as the Yankees did, that they could spot the injury inflection point and somehow steer Chamberlain around it was no more than the wishful thinking of a team that hadn’t reared a young pitcher in years and had no clue how to go about it. Now they have a pitcher who is theoretically healthy but has diminished control and reduced velocity, and looks over his shoulder when he pitches. As BP’s injury expert Will Carroll wrote, “Joba may be remembered as the nadir of the 'save young pitchers' movement. Everything they did was to keep him healthy. Well, he is." In other words, congratulations, Yankees. You got what you wanted, but lost what you had.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.