Saturday, January 23, 2010

Joba Chamberlain 2010: Starter or Reliever?

According to most, Joba Chamberlain will be competing with Phil Hughes for a spot in the Yankees rotation in 2010. That alone makes valuing him a difficult proposition. His poor performance in 2009 adds another layer of complexity. Chamberlain is going to be a high risk, high reward pick this year, and whether he's a successful one will come down in large part to whether the Yankees choose to make him a starter or a reliever.

In 2008, pitching sometimes in relief and sometimes as a starter, Chamberlain struck out 10.58 batters per nine innings and walked 3.50. Combined with his 52.0% groundball rate, I was convinced he would be one of the best starting pitchers in baseball in 2009. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. He was worse in all area, as he struck out only 7.61 per nine innings and walked 4.35. His groundball rate was also substantially worse (42.9%). What happened? Is it possible that the move to full time starting, along with a dose of bad luck, could make the same guy who was so good in 2008 pitch so poorly in 2009?

Probably not. According to pitch/fx experts, Chamberlain appeared to have lost something off his fastball. In cases like this (a young pitcher losing some effectiveness), I think it's often a warning sign about major injury problems. On the other hand, it's also perfectly possible that the winter off will give his arm a chance to recover from whatever was ailing it. Whatever projection you use for Chamberlain this year, don't count it. Evaluate whether you can afford the risk of a totally lost season vs. whether you need the upside to be competitive. And keep in mind that for formats with an innings pitched limit combined with few roster spots for relief pitchers, Chamberlain may have some unique value as a relief pitcher who has starting pitcher eligibility.

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