Obviously, the Tigers have made enormous changes to the bullpen this year. First, there was the Fister Trade that moved Smyly back into the rotation. Next, it was the Nathan signing. Then, we signed Joba Chamberlain.
My first instinct: Great, another Yankee bullpen castaway in the form of Phil Coke. But then I dug a little bit deeper. Joba was a highly touted prospect selected 41st overall in the 2006 draft. If you remember, Joba was pitching crunch-time playoff innings against Cleveland as a rookie in 2007, known best for the infamous "bug game."
He had an amazing cup of coffee that year and a better 2008 where the entire Tri-State area was subjected to the drama surrounding his role in the rotation or in the bullpen. Regardless, he pitched just over 100 innings (12 starts, 30 relief appearances) with a 28.3% K%, 9.4% BB%, 2.60 ERA, 2.65 FIP, and only gave up 5 HRs en route to 3.2 WAR. Although he was good as a starter, his splits were even more phenomenal as a reliever as he had a 30.8% K%, 2.19 FIP, and 1.2 WAR in only 35 innings. If those numbers are extrapolated out to a full season (approx. twice the innings pitched) he is only bested by the absolutely dominant relievers of that year, including his teammate Mariano Rivera.
Dombrowski has shown that he is willing to take a chance on these "reclamation" projects that haven’t quite lived up to their potential. Some have failed, including Daniel Schlerath (selected 28th overall in the 2008 draft) and Dontrelle Willis (an 8th round pick but several good seasons including finishing as the NL Cy Young runner up in 2005). But, our favorite "reclamation" example is Max Scherzer. Scherzer was the 11th overall pick in that same 2006 draft. He had a good year in Arizona prior to the trade (9-11, 174 strikeouts in 170 innings, 4.12 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 3.0 WAR) but there were questions about his command and ability to give up the long ball. The command has significantly improved since the trade as his K% has increased from 23.5% to 28.7% and his walk rate has decreased from 8.5% to 6.7%. He is still prone to the long-ball, likely due to the fact that he is a hard throwing strike-out/fly-ball pitcher. But the improvement in his command transformed him from a middle of the rotation starter to a Cy Young winner.
Back to Joba, who had the worst year of his career last year marked by poor command (career high 13.1% walk rate) and a tendency to give up the long ball (8 home runs in 42 innings pitched). But he’s only 28 and still throws hard (his 94.6mph average fastball velocity ranked 75th out of 679 pitchers last year). But his fastball was never really his out pitch, his slider was. In 2008, Chamberlain possessed the 16th most valuable slider in baseball (for pitchers who threw at least 100 innings). Last year, it ranked 248th.
He has never really recaptured the magic seen in that 2007-2008 run. Perhaps, because in 2009, "new" Yankee stadium opened. One of the hallmarks of the stadium was to recreate the dimensions of the original Yankee Stadium including the "short porch" in right field measuring only 353 feet and 314 down the line. This is the same right field that allows left handed pull hitters to show a little more "pop" when playing in pinstripes. This is likely the reason that the newly acquired Curtis Granderson launched 84 HRs over his first two seasons in the Bronx with 47 of them coming at home (56%)
From 2007-2008, Joba only allowed 0.43 HR/9 which would rank him 12th out of 316 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. If you look at his splits at "old" Yankee stadium, he only gave up 0.29 HR/9, which would tie him for 4th. If you look back even further, he gave up the same rate (0.43 HR/9) over 83+ minor league innings. From 2009-2013, he has allowed 1.15 HR per 9 innings pitched, a figure that ranks 174th out of 225 pitchers who have thrown at least 300 innings. If you only include his home splits, that figure would increase to 1.26 ranking him 202nd.
The real evidence to this signing lies in the figures below. Using ESPN’s HR Tracker, we have two figures displaying the location/distance of all 8 Chamberlain HRs from 2013. The first overlay is for "new" Yankee Stadium, the second for Comerica Park.
Three of the 8 HRs would have clearly stayed in the park at Comerica. Three more could have hit the wall or been spectacular grabs by Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter. This is a classic story of "wrong place at the wrong time."
Want more proof? Just ask AJ Burnett. He signed a 5 year $82.5 million contract with the Yankees in 2009, ironically the same year that "new" Yankee stadium opened. From 2009-2011, he posted HR/9 rates of 1.09, 1.21, and 1.47. He was basically run out of town two years ago when the Yankees essentially paid the Pirates to take him off their hands. He responded by posting two of the best seasons of his career in Pittsburgh generating 7.0 WAR in total (21st best in baseball). Not ironically, his HR/9 rate the last 2 years have been 0.80 and 0.52, respectively.
Maybe Joba truly isn’t the same pitcher he was 5 years ago. But I bet that he’s not as bad as the one we saw last year. With the going rate of a win at $6-7 million, I’m willing to take a flyer on him for $2.5 million. Plus, the clubhouse could always use a little more mustache…