In the summer of 2007, Joba Chamberlain was huge. And I’m not talking about his waistline. When he was called up, he was perhaps bigger in New York — a baseball town above all — than Tim Tebow or even Jeremy Lin would become. You probably remember exactly where you were when he debuted in Toronto. Anyone can look up the stats: a 2.45 ERA in 88 innings across three levels of minors in his first professional season, followed by 19 transcendent relief appearances in August and September where he maintained a nearly 13-strikeout-per-nine rate.

Small sample size, I know. But then the midges happened.

And the Joba Rules went into effect.

It’s Academy Awards season right now. Anne Hathaway is considered the front-runner for Best Supporting Actress for Les Mis√©rables. As she sings in the movie, vis-√†-vis Joba…

“Then it all…went…wrong…….”

You can pinpoint exactly where the decline began. On July 29, 2009, Chamberlain pitched eight shutout innings at Tampa Bay for his seventh win of the year. He was still striking out about eight men per nine, plenty good for a starting pitcher. But he’d also thrown over 110 innings at that point, and with the team ticketed for the playoffs, they started to pull back. Only twice over the season’s final two months would he complete as many as six innings. Through the end of the World Series, Joba threw only 53 more frames in 2009. He squeaked by as a reliever in the playoffs, only walking one, but that low total came from leaving a lot of hittable pitches (.400 BABIP against) over the plate.

Which was all part of a larger problem. Before going back to the bullpen, Chamberlain gave up 40 runs in his final 46 innings as a starter. The Joba Rules necessitated a seven-day layoff after the Tampa Bay game, and when he finally took the mound again, he surrendered seven walks and two home runs. His command was all over the place. Joba actually began 2010 as the eighth-inning reliever, but various factors gradually took their toll to the point where he enters this year, unlike those Academy Award hopefuls, as a man seemingly without a role. Now, it’s up to NoMaas to be his casting agent. Here are the five nominees…

As much flak as we gave Joe Torre for abusing relievers, his team-mandated handling of Chamberlain as a rookie in 2007 was judicious. Joba pitched in 19 of the Yankees’ final 50 regular season games, not a ridiculous amount. His outings fluctuated between one batter and two full innings, never pitching before the seventh, but never locked down to any one inning. With Chamberlain building back his arm strength (his average fastball velocity last season was the highest it’s been since 2008), now might be the time to experience the energy once again.

From 1997 through 1999, Ramiro Mendoza made 35 starts for the Yankees, covering 215.2 innings, but also pitched an additional 172 innings across 98 relief appearances. In that three-year span, he pitched 17 relief stints of less than one inning, but Torre kept him stretched out enough to throw a complete game shutout in May of 1998. He defined the term “swingman,” a role in which Chamberlain excelled in 2008. These Yankees, however, have shown no interest in turning Joba back into a starter of any kind, so this scenario is highly unlikely. In fact, it seems like David Phelps’ wheelhouse for 2013.

Following a season-ending injury in 2000, Mendoza returned in 2001 just as effective as he’d always been. Except this time, he contributed almost exclusively out of the bullpen. He stepped into the rotation for two turns in place of an injured Orlando Hernandez in June 2001, but otherwise made 116 relief appearances over that season and the next. Torre would often bring him in as early as the fourth or fifth inning and let him go for a while, but at no point did he seem like a mop-up reliever.

Remember? Two years ago, David Robertson (coming off a horrific ALCS against Texas) was supposed to be the man without a place, with Chamberlain pitching the seventh and Rafael Soriano, the eighth. But then both of them got hurt while Robertson pitched out of his mind, and so you have the current Robertson-Mariano Rivera combination. Joe Girardi, always a fan of designating certain innings for specific pitchers, used Joba as the seventh-inning prelude to Phil Hughes and Mo in the 2009 postseason. There’s no reason #62 can’t thrive in that Paul Quantrill spot now.


This is the end nobody wants to see. Remember the 2001 playoffs, when the Yankees essentially ran out a seven-man pitching staff — four starters plus Mendoza, Rivera and Mike Stanton? I fear we might be looking at Joba as the Mark Wohlers (not that Mark Wohlers) or Jokin’ Jay Witasick of this year’s bullpen, just carrying everybody else’s bags. I hope it doesn’t happen.

Who do you think the winner will be?