It feels like Joba Chamberlain has been around forever. And given how many twists and turns his career has taken him through, it’s not a farfetched notion.
But in reality, Chamberlain is just 28 years old.
Eight seasons ago, the pitcher initially won over the easily dismissive New York Yankees’ fan base by tossing an electric 0.38 ERA (versus a 1.82 FIP) over 24 relief innings in 2007.
The following year, after spending a half season in the bullpen, the Yankees decided to hand Chamberlain starting honors on June 3, 2008. Even though he didn’t last three innings in his first start, the right-hander’s eventual yearly 2.76 ERA (versus a 2.90 FIP) as a starter impressed the Yankees enough to award Joba a rotation slot the following season.
Yet, the Nebraska native’s pitching role became a polarizing topic within the pinstripe organization. His 4.75 ERA (versus a 4.82 FIP) as a full-time starter in 2009 prompted the Yankees to continually flip-flop the young pitcher’s role over the next few years—which often elicited grumbling from the bleachers.
But more importantly, it’s quite possible Joba’s constant shuttling from rotation to bullpen and then back to rotation (and then back to the bullpen), perhaps even contributed to the various arm injuries he began to encounter. Yes, even with the infamous “Joba Rules” in place.
In fact, the once promising star spent a whopping 280 days on the disabled list from 2011 to 2013—including two separate Tommy John surgeries.
The mighty fell hard. Despite once being considered Mariano Rivera‘s eventual replacement or at least a top-of-the-rotation mainstay, the Yankees decided against re-signing Chamberlain this offseason. And hoping to find a diamond in the rough, the Detroit Tigers inked the free agent to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
On the surface, Chamberlain’s 4.02 ERA, park-adjusted 108 ERA+ and 1.40 WHIP thus far in 2014 all seem rather pedestrian. But considering the right-hander is dealing with an astronomical .447 BABIP, Chamberlain’s 1.31 FIP is much more indicative of his performance over his past 15.2 innings.
And while Chamberlain’s 2014 fastball’s average is clocking in at 1.6 mph slower than his career rate, the reliever is still sitting down batters at a 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings ratio—his best career showing.
Joba has witnessed several improved skills in 2014, too. According to Brooks Baseball, the 28-year-old has thrown seven percent more pitches in the bottom part of the zone this year than from 2007 to 2013.
His reduction in mid-to-high zone pitches could also be a factor for Chamberlain’s new-found long-ball stinginess. Despite sporting a career 10.6 percent home runs per fly ball rate, Joba has yet to allow a dinger in 2014.
The reliever is also throwing a much more effective curveball this season, as batters are hitting a collective .180 wOBA against (versus his career .255 wOBA against), per FanGraphs’ PITCH/fx.
With Joe Nathan entrenched as the Tigers’ closer (despite an ugly 4.51 FIP), Chamberlain doesn’t appear to be in line for many saves this season. But perhaps for the first time since his 2007 season, Joba can simply concentrate on finding outs—instead of attempting to fulfill unattainable, New York expectations.