It was the eighth inning, and the game was getting out of hand. A 6-4 lead had quickly evaporated and turned into a 10-6 deficit. Now, with runners on second and third and still only one out in the inning, the team needed a "stopper" out of the bullpen. Joba Chamberlain answered the call, only to walk the first batter he faced, then give up a grand slam. It felt fairly predictable, and if the manager had been paying attention to Joba's trends all year, he shouldn't have been terribly surprised. The manager, in this case, was Ned Yost, Brad Ausmus's strategical doppelgänger -- a German word meaning "for crying out loud, not you too!"
And if you were a Tigers fans who happened to catch that game in September of 2015, you may have experienced another German word: schadenfreude, which is just a pretentious word used by pretentious writers trying to pretentiously avoid saying "misery loves company." After all, the citizens of Tigertown had seen this tragi-comedy plenty of times before. There was something deeply satisfying, in an unhealthy sort of way, about seeing another manager make the same mistake -- especially Yost.
Before we start slinging numbers around, though, here's a fun fact: back when the Marlins put Miguel Cabrera on the trading block, the Yankees were interested in acquiring him (hey, who wasn't?), but according to MLB Trade Rumors, were "very reluctant to trade Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, or Ian Kennedy." I guess that says something about how highly Joba was valued as a prospect. Mostly it just says "LOL Yankees," though.
Joba Chamberlain was picked up in December of 2013 as a one-year "reclamation project," and for the first half of the 2014 season, he made Dave Dombrowski look like a genius. Through July 23 of that year, Chamberlain pitched better as the eighth-inning setup man than the guy he routinely gave the ball to in the ninth, closer Joe Nathan. Then he whizzed the rest of 2014 down his pant legs, and forgot to wash those pants before the 2015 season.
You want a chart? Here's a chart:
|Thru 7/23, 2014||2.40||2.63||1.137||.212||.290||.274||.564||8.9|
|Rest of 2014||5.82||4.20||1.708||.299||.370||.414||.784||7.5|
There are probably reasons for all of this, but frankly, do we even care? It's not like Joba is coming back to pitch for the Tigers. Of course, that's what I thought at the end of 2014 after Joba posted a 108.00 ERA in the playoffs (there are zero typos involved there) and was a major contributor to the Tigers' early postseason exit. For whatever reason, Dave Dombrowski decided to give Joba another contract in February of 2015, and the rest is history and mopey songs from the late 90s.
Ok, you want a reason, even if it's just a partial reason that probably raises even more questions? Back on May 6 when Joba blew a three-run lead against the White Sox and lost the game for the Tigers, radio color analyst Jim Price talked endlessly about Joba's propensity for throwing too many breaking balls in a row. With two men on base, facing Melky Cabrera, Joba threw two sliders in a row, one of which never came back. He tried a curveball-slider sequence to Jose Abreu that resulted in a base hit, and another curveball-slider sequence to Avisail Garcia that resulted in a go-ahead RBI.
In the June 25 game against the White Sox, with the bases loaded in the tenth inning of a tie game, Joba tried a curveball-curveball-slider-slider sequence against Carlos Sanchez that ended with a bases-clearing triple, and the Tigers lost that game as well. Maybe his slider was too easy to read, mabye it didn't break enough, and maybe Jim Price was right: he just didn't mix his pitches well enough. (The grand slam surrendered while pitching for the Royals in the game mentioned above came off a fastball-slider sequence, though, so maybe it's as simple as saying his slider stopped being a good pitch for him.)
Looking back, the Tigers had worse problems than Chamberlain. But when he was on the mound he played with danger until it caught up with him. For a while his numbers stated that he was doing well, but also showed that he was getting lucky thanks to defense. At the time, Chamberlain's issues were a big problem. At the end of the year his performance would have been an improvement in the 'pen, and that speaks to just how bad the bullpen became.