A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six shooter, he fires until it's empty then takes the gun and throws it at the villain.
Joba Chamberlain came aboard with very little fanfare last winter just prior to the MLB Winter Meetings. The Detroit Tigers had been making plenty of noise throughout the early weeks off the offseason. Dave Dombrowski had pulled off the Prince Fielder/Ian Kinsler blockbuster trade. Then he made the Doug Fister ball-buster. Joe Nathan was signed to a $20 million commitment soon thereafter. It was a busy time and losing Chamberlain in the shuffle of news was understandable.
Signing Chamberlain seemed to many like an insignificant shot in the dark to add some depth to the bullpen for middle inning work at best. The expectations probably could not have been much lower considering the roller coaster of a career Chamberlain had experienced in New York. The coaster was at a definite low point in the ride when he left the Bronx.
"Oft-injured and sporadically effective" was about the best you could say. Chamberlain had posted a 4.93 ERA in 45 appearances for Joe Girardi in 2013 before hitting the free agent market. Detroit would end up signing him to a very affordable one year, $2.4 million contract.
However, as is often the case, you can never really bank on what to expect from a reliever. The Tigers' young flamethrower, Bruce Rondon, didn't make it past the halfway point of Spring Training. Tommy John Surgery beckoned. Suddenly there was a prime set up role available in Detroit.
Signing Chamberlain would initially look as a solid move to bolster the bullpen as he quickly claimed the gig. Proof once again that a healthy reliever who throws hard has a shot due to the small-sample nature of their line of work.
The 2014 Campaign
Chamberlain started off the season a little quietly allowing runs in his first two outings, including taking the loss when he allowed a 10th inning run in Chavez Ravine in an April 8th loss to the Dodgers. Little did anyone know what was about to follow.
Chamberlain was about to start a run from that point through July 23rd that would see him not charged with a run in 39 of his next 43 appearances. Make no mistake, for the first half of the season, the most successful relief pitcher wearing the Olde English D was the big guy with the rapidly bushifying beard.
How was he doing it? He was doing what most successful relievers do: miss bats. For the months of April and May combined Chamberlain would keep his strikeout percentage north of 30 percent. Above his career norms and the highest clip since bursting onto the scene as an upper-90s flamethrower in New York in 2007 when he fanned 37.4 percent of the hitters he faced.
Chamberlain no longer throws as hard as he did then but he was finding some solid bite and command on his curveball/slider combination. He was also augmenting his nifty strikeout rate with a reduced walk rate below his career norms. More strikeouts and fewer walks. We can talk about other factors, of course, but just doing those two things is usually enough to find some success. Allowing practically no homers was a nice bonus as well.
Chamberlain rather quickly assumed the prime set up role taking over the eighth inning. He was rolling along so smoothly there was no shortage of wonder to be found among Tigers observers about Joba taking some save opportunities the more Joe Nathan continued to struggle finding his footing on the season.
Then the dog days of summer came around. During the month of July, even though Chamberlain would get decent results through the first half of the month, there were signs of erosion to note. His walk rate would reach double digits at 10.3 percent for the month (and then tick up in August to 12 percent). His strikeout rate was also plummeting to a troubling 12.8 percent even with the All-Star Break tossed in for some rest during that stretch.
When looking up some reasons for his struggles around that time it jumped off the page to see how little Chamberlain was throwing his fastball on the season. He was well off the usual career usage of his heater. For a pitcher who can throw 95 miles per hour, few seem to throw it so seldom and trust it less in big spots. Chamberlain was simply reduced to spinning off-speed stuff at hitters on a consistent basis.
Joba only threw his fastball 44 percent of the time in 2014 while more than doubling the previous career rate of using his curveball, to 21.1 percent of his pitches. He was getting predictable and big league hitters usually like "predictable" unless it's Aroldis Chapman predictably buzzing 103 mile per hour filth past them.
Chamberlain's ERA soon was heading north. A tidy 2.63 first half ERA was replaced by an unsightly 4.97 ERA in the second half. Most other stats you care to look at moved in the same direction. What was once a solid looking season that had many wondering if a lucrative extension was in the cards was quickly meandering in other directions that looked a lot less attractive to his future employment.
In short, the magic was gone and Joba was just another guy trying to get the season to the finish line without really blowing a gasket.
Putting aside the rough finish to his season, when you look at the contract signed by Chamberlain and the limited expectations most probably had for him when the season started, the signing was a limited success.
The Tigers received over a half-season of quality work from a guy signed off the free agent scrap heap. That's not bad. It's not really Chamberlain's fault the Tigers had no one else to pick up the slack when his season started running on empty.
It's not Joba's fault his manager kept him in a prime role even when it was clear to almost everyone that a change was needed even if it meant seeing if Mike Henneman was in shape enough to toss a few innings.
It's not Joba's fault that Joakim Soria was deemed "the 7th inning guy" when he arrived and then subsequently got hurt to have his season go mostly off the rails.
It wasn't really Joba's fault when Baltimore fans appeared to be cheering his entrance while their club was down three runs. He never should have been summoned.
Brad Ausmus was inclined to sink or swim with Joba. As Dan Quisenberry noted in the quote above, Ausmus was going to keep firing his Joba-gun until the chamber was empty. No matter what. I can't fault Joba for taking the ball when told. Any competitor is going to want to get the chance. It's up to the manager and the GM to have other avenues to take when a guy is struggling.
Chamberlain kept the late inning bullpen afloat for over three months by hook or by crook. No matter the final view of his season, he helped the Tigers stay together for a long enough stretch to appreciate. For what was spent and what was expected...that was good.
Chamberlain's slow downward spiral over the second half of the season probably does save the Tigers from over-committing resources to a reliever of Joba's stature. The "four year/$50 million deal" an unnamed major Detroit scribe speculated about on Twitter was always a bit of hoot to contemplate and never in the cards. But in early July it was easy to see the day the Tigers might go for a two or three year deal.
Those days are long gone. Chamberlain is a guy you ride year-to-year and see how it goes. Versions of what he did this year will probably be in his future if healthy. Good stretches for a few weeks followed by fallow periods. Missing some bats with well-placed curves and sliders soon to be followed by a string of pitches finding too much plate.
If the Tigers can get him back on a one year deal for a minimal raise (or one year plus an option or cheap buy out) there is no real risk to bring him back and living with the ups and downs.
If Chamberlain's reps can find him a two or three year deal from some club willing to dive into the deep end of the pool for Joba, then the Tigers should happily thank him for his efforts in Detroit and wish him all the best in his new locale.
Dave Dombrowski can then rather easily troll the free agent refuse pile to dredge up a couple of more options to be "the next Joba."