Under certain conditions, Chamberlain can help Tigers in 2014

Joba Chamberlain has had some success as a reliever in the past. He'll have an opportunity to pitch the 8th inning for Detroit in 2014.

Joba Chamberlain has had some success as a reliever in the past. He’ll have an opportunity to pitch the 8th inning for Detroit in 2014.

Of all the moves that Dave Dombrowski has executed this winter, perhaps the one that has received the least publicity is the signing of reliever Joba Chamberlain. If the Detroit Tigers had announced this acquisition seven years ago, it would have made back-page headlines. But things have changed drastically, as they usually do in baseball.

Back in 2007, when the New York Yankees made a strong second half run toward the pennant, no Yankee was more critical to the surge than Chamberlain. Prior to Chamberlain’s recall from Triple-A, the Yankees’ seventh and eighth inning bullpen strategies had fallen into a quagmire. Joe Torre had searched far and wide for a competent set-up reliever, before the Yankees’ high command settled on Joba.

Chamberlain became a dominant force in the eighth inning (and sometimes in the seventh and eighth), giving the Yankees their most effective bridge to Mariano Rivera since the days of Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton. Chamberlain also evoked comparisons to a young Rivera, who had initially served as the game’s best set-up reliever, in front of former closer John Wetteland. Chamberlain stirred up memories of another dominant Yankee middle reliever of years gone by, a sidewinding right-hander named Ron Davis, who once set the table for a Hall of Famer named Goose Gossage.

Based on pure talent, Chamberlain should have been better than Davis, who was primarily a fastball pitcher. When Chamberlain first came up, he had two killer pitches: a fastball that approached 100 miles per hour and a devastating slider. As a backup, he had two other pitches, a curve ball and a change-up. There was talk that Chamberlain’s stuff was too good to waste in the bullpen, that he would one day prosper as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

As it turned out, Chamberlain didn’t come close to matching what Davis once did as a Yankee and later as a Twin. The Yankees did experiment with Chamberlain as a starter, but injuries hurt his development, as did a lack of conditioning. The Yankees shifted him back to the bullpen, but he never regained the dominance of his 2007 and 2008 seasons. At times he could throw fastballs that topped 95 or sliders that fell off the table, but he failed to do so with any kind of consistency. He also showed little grasp of how to pitch, how to set up hitters, and how to mix his pitches properly. When he got to two strikes on a batter, he tended to fall in love with his slider, but he struggled to throw it over the plate and too often failed to finish off hitters with a third strike.

Off the field, Chamberlain made some poor decisions. The first occurred after the 2008 season, when he was charged with speeding and driving under the influence. He eventually plead guilty to drunk driving and was placed on probation.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011, Chamberlain reported to Yankee camp and continued efforts to rehab his arm. One spring day, he made another foolish decision by jumping on a trampoline with his son at a children’s fun park. Chamberlain dislocated his ankle on one of his landings, delaying his rehab and his eventual return. His lack of judgment infuriated Yankee management, which openly criticized him for his poor decision-making.

In 2013, Chamberlain reached rock bottom. Once again neglecting his conditioning, he put on additional weight over the winter; to be quite honest, he never looked larger than he did in 2013. He pitched terribly in relief, struggling with his command and control, allowing 26 walks in 42 innings. He also became susceptible to the home run ball, permitting eight balls to leave the yard, an unacceptable rate for a pitcher used as infrequently as Chamberlain.

Off the field, Chamberlain exacerbated the situation by continuing to make enemies within the Yankee organization. In particular, he became embroiled in an ugly incident during a Yankee series in Kansas City. As Rivera conducted a Q-and-A session with a number of reporters in the dugout, Chamberlain laughed and joked loudly just a few feet away, to the point of interrupting the media session. Rivera tried to quiet him down, but Chamberlain only exacerbated the situation by losing his temper and telling River, “Don’t ever shush me again!” It was unprofessional and immature behavior to begin with, not to mention incredibly stupid. In challenging Rivera, one of the most beloved and revered of all the Yankees, Chamberlain basically cemented the end of his career in New York.

As checkered a career as Chamberlain has had, none of this is meant to say that he is a bad guy. I think it’s more a matter of laziness, and a lack of smarts, especially when it comes to the art of pitching. I also believe that he needs a change of scenery, which the Tigers will obviously be able to provide. If nothing else, he will benefit from the backdrop of Comerica Park, a ballpark far more forgiving than the new Yankee Stadium.

But can the Tigers get Chamberlain to return to the form he once flashed in 2007 and 2008? Manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones can extract more from Chamberlain if they first set down some conditions; let’s call them the Joba Rules 2.0. First, they need to insist that he gets into better shape; the extra weight that he has carries has hurt his stamina. (Not everyone can pitch with a body like Rick Reuschel, Wilbur Wood, or even Mickey Lolich.) Second, the Tigers need to call all of Chamberlain’s pitches for him. The catchers cannot allow Chamberlain to shake them off; otherwise, he’ll keep throwing that inconsistent slider and keep missing with it in key counts. The Tigers have to insist that he throw fewer sliders and more fastballs, with a curve ball mixed in every once awhile. Even with the loss of some velocity from his early days, Chamberlain’s fastball is still his No. 1 weapon against hitters.

All in all, there is little risk in signing Chamberlain. At worst, he’ll continue to flop and be reduced to a mop-up role, while costing the Tigers roughly $2 million in salary, a pittance in today’s game. At best, if the Tigers can help him control his weight and his pitch selection, he could emerge as a reliable eighth-inning bridge to another new acquisition, Joe Nathan. It’s the epitome of a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Tigers, and it just might strengthen one of the team’s weakest points of 2013. It is certainly a gamble worth taking.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.