Thursday, July 16, 2009

A deceptively simple cause for Joba's problems

Tonight, I appeared as a guest on Steve Keane's Pro Baseball Central show on BlogTalkRadio.

Through much arguing and bickering about the importance of the eighth inning and what will happen when Mariano Rivera's contract expires, there was a point raised that I found worthy of further investigation:

Among the many reasons cited for Joba Chamberlains's inconsistency and lack of stamina, I have not yet seen someone tackle the issue of whether or not Chamberlain's lack of innings pitched--both in college and in the minor leagues--and the affect that might have on him now.

If you look here, you can see Chamberlain's innings totals for both his time in Nebraska and his time with the Yankees.

What do you notice?

Chamberlain did not even pitch 100 innings in the minor leagues; at Nebraska he did not reach 120 innings.

This season, he's already logged 89 innings--and if we keep the Verducci Effect (the idea that excess increases in innings pitched from year to year substantially increases injury risk) in mind, he probably won't top 130 IP--perhaps 140 if the Yankees are feeling like living on the edge with a pitcher who sustained a can't-be-overlooked shoulder injury last season.

How does this compare with others?

Roy Halladay, since he's topical, pitched about 640 innings in the minor leagues; with about 150 or so (if my random mental math is accurate) after his first call up to the major leagues.

Dan Haren pitched 472 innings in the minors; about 128 of them coming after his first call-up to the majors.

Justin Verlander pitched only 118 innings in the minors (over one season), but preceded that with three straight 100+ innings pitched seasons in college ball--Chamberlain only had two years at Nebraska and only pitched more than 100 innings in his first season.

Johan Santana pitched 340 innings in the minors; some after his first call up but the majority before.

Notice a pattern here?

It would seem, then, that there is perhaps a case to be made for "Joba hasn't pitched enough" as a reason for his depleted stamina--which in turn means lower velocity, more hittable pitches and shortened outings.

Now, there are some things to consider:

1) Chamberlain was injured in college--which is part of the reason he fell to the Yankees as low as he did in the draft.

2) He was rushed through the minors because he had been pitching so well--and also because the 2007 Yankees needed pitching help like, uh, (pick your own grossly inappropriate comparison)

3) Going from 89 innings pitched in 2006 at Nebraska to 112 innings pitched in 2007 for the Yankees at multiple levels was a 23 inning increase--perhaps not the Verduccian 30, but for a guy coming off an injury, probably close enough. I'm not sure how many innings pitched he was on pace for before he got hurt in 2008, but it's probably safe to assume that again the Yankees would have been toying with the Verducci line.

Now, already at 89 innings pitched, it doesn't seem likely that Chamberlain will be able to pitch himself out of August without really risking damage, which, of course, would create a whole other set of problems--but you knew this already.

At the time, back in 2007, I don't remember there being too much debate about Chamberlain being rushed--the team's needs were that desperate at the time. In the off-season, Chamberlain was hailed as untouchable by the fans when discussing Santana rumors, but no one--or nearly no one--suggested Chamberlain be sent back down to the minors to build up arm strength, even though the conversion from reliever to starter would surely require that.

It is--perhaps in some sick sense--almost amusing that an issue we as fans (and even writers) have seen as so complicated and so mysterious might actually be really simple: he hasn't pitched enough.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure how you'd address that situation. We're already at a point in the season in which even if you did send Chamberlain back to the minors to work on his pitches, he's pitched so many innings that it's hard to see exactly how beneficial it might be.

It's certainly, however, a warning sign--if the Yankees did trade Chamberlain for Halladay and Toronto did have Chamberlain pitch substantial innings in the minors to build up arm strength and stamina (given Toronto's history in developing--or, as it were, not-- pitchers, they'd probably take this to the other extreme), Chamberlain could yet end up being the effective starter the Yankees hoped for in the first place.

What it seems we're seeing now, then, is all the development and growing pains that should be happening at the minor league level--only it's not at the minor leagues; it's at the majors, where the hitters (excluding those on the Royals, Padres and Mets) don't let mistakes go unpunished.