For the first half of the 2014 campaign, Joba Chamberlain was a rare bright spot in the Detroit Tigers bullpen. He compiled a 2.63 ERA and looked every bit the part of a dominant relief pitcher. His Yukon Cornelius beard and fun-loving personality quickly made him a favorite of fans, contrasting sharply with Joe Nathan's struggles with both hitters and fans in the closer role.
But as the dog days of summer set in, the season quickly went sour for Chamberlain as he struggled to a miserable 4.97 ERA in the second half, culminating in two disastrous relief appearances against the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Division Series. As it turns out there have always been two Joba Chamberlains, one of great talent and potential, and one of odd and disastrous mishaps, wild inconsistency, and injuries. The 2014 season was more than just a roller coaster of a season for Chamberlain, it was a microcosm of his whole career.
Chamberlain was drafted 41st overall in the 2006 MLB Draft by the New York Yankees. After tearing through three minor league levels to reach the majors in the second half of the 2007 season, Chamberlain quickly became something of a media sensation in New York. He carved up hitters with triple digit heat and a fierce slider, allowing just one earned run as he racked up 34 strikeouts in 24 innings.
Chamberlain's aggressive style on the mound quickly inserted him into the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox, as they engaged in a heated stretch drive late in the 2007 season. He was ejected from an August 30 game against Boston for throwing two pitches over Kevin Youklis' head.
Unfortunately, his season came to a bizarre denouement in Game 2 of the ALDS, when he was attacked by a plague of midges that infested the field. Chamberlain uncorked consecutive wild pitches in his distraction, allowing the Cleveland Indians to score the game-tying run. The Indians eventually took the game, and the series.
Chamberlain returned in 2008 to post excellent numbers, but his season was curtailed by rotator cuff tendinitis that ended his short tenure as a Yankees starter. While he returned to pitch well down the stretch, the injury also marked the end of sustained, consistent success for the righthander. For the rest of his six-year tenure with the Yankees, Chamberlain would be wildly inconsistent, never pitching well for more than brief stretches.
In 2011 he went down for the season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. In addition, while recovering from surgery, in March 2012 Chamberlain suffered an ankle dislocation in a trampoline accident. He returned to the mound later that year, but was never able to harness the form that had once made him one of the game's bright young stars. His time with the Yankees ended in disappointment after the 2013 season.
It's difficult in retrospect to guess what Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski saw in Chamberlain when the team signed him to a one-year, $2.5 million contract before the 2014 season. He'd posted a 1:1 ratio of strikes to walks in the second half of 2013. However, he had managed to stay relatively healthy for one of the longest sustained stretches of his career.
Brought in to fill a middle reliever slot, Chamberlain found himself in a key role rather quickly after Bruce Rondon's injury. He did a great job of stabilizing the Tigers' 'pen, while dominating like the Joba of old. If the Tigers hoped to catch lightning in a bottle, it seemed as though they had in the first half. So what went wrong in the second half?
The story begins and ends with the slider. A potent weapon for Chamberlain in the first half, it absolutely abandoned him in the latter part of the season. A superb K/9 of 9.56 plummeted to a 6.75 mark, accompanied by a spike in walks. His BABIP remained essentially unchanged, eliminating the luck factor. But while velocity on all his main offerings remained stable -- and his fastball and curve continued to induce a lot of ground balls -- the slider lost a substantial part of it's movement. It wasn't just a case of hanging them. Instead, the pitch was lifeless, a round, white gift basket for hitters that at times must have looked like a batting practice speed fastball as it limped to the plate.
The reasons for this aren't certain, but it's easy to speculate that Chamberlain simply ran out of gas. He pitched 63 innings, easily the most he'd thrown since 2010, the year before his elbow surgery. Perhaps the workload took it's toll on his oft-injured right arm. That doesn't reconcile well with the consistent velocity of the pitch over the course of the season. However, it's possible that fatigue was a factor and Chamberlain simply compensated with more effort, losing his ability to get the proper bite on the pitch in the process.
For Chamberlain to be of much help to the Tigers bullpen in 2015, he and manager Brad Ausmus are going to have to find a way to keep him fresh over the course of a long season, and find a way to get a similar number of innings out of him. If he can return to his early 2014 season form and sustain it, Chamberlain could still potentially do a lot to bolster the Tigers reliever corps. If he can't, then Chamberlain may lose his last, best chance to find his way back from the wilderness to success.
Chamberlain was signed by the Tigers to a one-year, $1 million contract for the 2015 season. Another $500 thousand is available in incentives for innings pitched. If he were to win the Cy Young Award, his contract calls for a $100 thousand bonus. His sense of humor, or his agent's, is intact.
Stats and Projections
I'm going to lean toward the Steamer projection here. There's a fair chance we could see the good Chamberlain in stretches, but coming up on four years since Tommy John surgery, and even longer since his last great season, it's really hard to picture him finally sustaining a high level of performance.
Chamberlain does induce a high percentage of grounders particularly with his curveball, and if he's able to use it more in place of the slider -- and put the Tigers improved defense to work behind him -- there's a chance he'll be able to sustain at least moderate success. But it takes a leap of faith to hope for too much more, and if things are closer to the ZIPS lines, he may not last the season.