What is Joba's optimal role?

Many are wondering where Chamberlain will be most effective for the Yanks
03/03/2008 4:02 PM ET
By Matt Bouffard/

Joba Chamberlain throws during a bullpen session.(AP)
Joba Chamberlain's role for the 2008 season continues to be one of the more compelling stories of Yankees Spring Training. Chamberlain has the goods to be a number one starter in the future, but because of his youth - he's just 22 years old - the organization is looking to limit him to approximately 145 innings pitched this season. The current plan is to have him start the season in the bullpen and transition to the rotation later in the year.

A better plan — one that simultaneously maximizes the value of those 145 innings and best maintains Chamberlain's long-term health and continued development - is to keep him in the bullpen and use him whenever the Yankees need him most, as opposed to slotting him into a specific role. Let's look at why.

Moving Chamberlain directly from short relief to starting creates a real injury risk potential to his arm. Therefore, the Yankees will undoubtedly allot some of his 145 innings to the process of "stretching him out," where he gradually increases his work load.

The problem is that the conditioning process necessary for the mid-season transition will likely have Chamberlain wasting precious innings pitched. He'll face needlessly long relief appearances to build stamina, intentionally truncated starts that burden the bullpen, or worst of all, a minor league starting stint where he will burn innings that offer no benefit to the 2008 Yankees.

Despite his rookie status, Chamberlain projects to be one of the top pitchers on the Yankees' staff this season, with PECOTA projections of:

65 games
15 games started
145.2 innings pitched
162 strikeouts
55 walks
3.39 ERA

Because of his anticipated effectiveness, Chamberlain must be allowed to pitch as many valuable innings as possible, within the constraints of his organizational limit.

Given the apparent depth of Yankee starting pitching at both the big league and upper minor league levels, and a bullpen that is highly suspect beyond Mariano Rivera, Chamberlain offers the most value to the Yankees as a relief pitcher in 2008.

But rather than using Chamberlain in a traditional "set-up" role, where he would generally pitch one inning per appearance, the Yankees would be wise to use him in a role we'll call "shut-down". That means manager Joe Girardi should bring Chamberlain in the game anytime between the fifth and eighth innings, when crucial outs need to be recorded. For example, if the Yankees are leading 4-3 against Boston in the fifth, with runners on first and second and David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez coming up, the Yankees would be better served with Chamberlain attempting to shut down the Red Sox rather than a tiring Ian Kennedy or whomever was pre-ordained to be the "fifth inning guy."

And if that scenario had presented itself in the seventh instead of the fifth inning, then the Yankees would again be better served with Chamberlain on the mound rather than Kyle Farnsworth or the pre-ordained "seventh inning guy".

The premise here is that it's optimal for overall team performance if the best pitcher (or second best pitcher in Chamberlain's case, behind Rivera) pitches when most needed, as opposed to during a pre-set portion of the game that may or may not be important.

Rivera is a good comparable for what we can expect from Chamberlain from a statistical perspective this year. 1996 was Rivera's second in the majors, just as 2008 will be for Chamberlain. With new youth on the roster and a new coaching staff in the dugout, just as it is now, Rivera threw 107.2 innings over 61 games in 1996, all in relief. He finished 8-3 with a 2.09 ERA, 5 saves, 130 K, and a 0.994 WHIP. Rivera's 1996 rates of 10.87 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and 3.82 strikeouts per walk (K/BB) are similar to Chamberlain's 2008 PECOTA of 10.01 K/9 and 2.95 K/BB.

Last year, the average Yankee starter lasted 5.2 innings and Yankee relievers threw 529.2 innings over the course of the year. Dispensing Chamberlain in relief for all 145 of his allowed innings would account for roughly 25 percent of the innings the Yankee bullpen will need to pitch in 2008. That would reduce the number of innings the team would need to coax out of Farnsworth, LaTroy Hawkins and other less reliable or unproven relievers. It would also give the Yankees a horse in the bullpen who would allow fellow young pitchers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to pitch 5-6 innings per start and keep them under their 2008 innings limits.

Since 2001, the Yankees reliever with the most appearances has averaged 78 games. The Yankees could deploy Chamberlain two to three times for each turn though the starting rotation, ensuring he has adequate rest based on innings pitched and pitch counts. That would place him at about 80 appearances, and he could throw one to three innings per appearance to get to his 145 inning limit. This would give the Yankees a huge bullpen weapon to record key outs throughout this season, and with proper preparation during the off-season and next year's Spring Training, Chamberlain would be in a good position to pitch about 180 innings as a fulltime starter in 2009.

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