Confidence is, of course, central to becoming anything of relevance in the big-leagues, including (and especially) a successful starting pitcher. With a five-man Spring Training competition scheduled to determine the Yankees’ final rotation spot, no one seems more confident about his chances than the young Nebraskan, Joba Chamberlain. Last night, at the Thurman Munson Dinner in midtown Manhattan, when asked about the looming spring showdown between he, Phil Hughes, Chad Gaudin, Alfredo Aceves, and Sergio Mitre, the always upbeat Joba said, “I’m going in with the mind-set that it’s mine.” Joba’s unmistakably assured tone indicates that the 24-year old views the fifth spot as his property, a property he must protect in the coming spring, particularly from the likes of his friend, Phil Hughes.
In his latest piece, Joel Sherman of the NY Post writes that “the No. 5 starter competition between Chamberlain and Phil Hughes is almost over two weeks before pitchers and catcher even report,” with Hughes – not Joba, who posted a 4.82 FIP over 157 1/3 innings while in the rotation just a season ago – as the perceived victor. According to Sherman, the “Yankees never would admit it publicly, but if the season were to begin today, Hughes would be in the rotation and Joba would be Mariano Rivera’s primary set-up man — and, perhaps, heir apparent.” Sherman believes this to be the case because of Joba’s temperamental disposition, last season, as a starter – he often seemed tentative and uncertain – versus his disposition as a reliever in the postseason, when he appeared much more confident and aggressive. As stated by a Yankees official who recently spoke to Sherman, the differences in character between the two roles “was hard to miss.” For this reason, Sherman concludes that Hughes will inevitably triumph over his counterpart, Joba.
However, in my honest opinion, such a thought – this idea of conferring a valuable rotation spot to a pitcher based on temperamental perceptions – seems particularly nonsensical. For one, Joba Chamberlain’s seemingly tentative and meek personality as a starter can easily be explained by the common growing pains experienced by most young starters and which Joba was obviously no exception to in 2009 (despite Sherman suggesting otherwise). This – the rotational hardships he faced – in turn, influenced his outward character (it is difficult to be confident and aggressive when you struggle performance-wise). In addition, one must also consider that, as a reliever, Joba, for the most part, only utilizes two of his pitches—a fastball and a slider. Completely scrapping a few offerings and simplifying one’s game-plan is generally the norm for any starting pitcher turned reliever, as the fastball increases in its velocity and can be relied upon more often. Thus, it is considerably easier for Joba to “look” confident as a reliever because he is only throwing two of his pitches. As a starter, however, the entirety of his above average repertoire comes into play, and Joba must pick and choose specific pitches from a situational perspective. Hence the frustrating shake-offs and perceived timidness. This, then, is not, as Sherman would like us to believe, a matter of temperament, rather, it is a matter of experience – or, in this case, a lack thereof – and learning how to perform as a starter on a full-time basis.
Therefore, in the end, I refuse to believe that the Yankees would fall victim to the so-called logic outlined in Sherman’s piece and dictate season roles based on subjective evaluations of player temperament. Instead, they will consider a number of quantifiable and tangible elements (e.g., statistics, innings limit, velocity, mechanics, etc.) when reaching a decision, for this is how roles are ultimately distinguished. There is no particular personality that is specific to the role of starter, just as there is no preset character specific to the role of first baseman, utility infielder, setup man, closer, and so on and so forth. If this was the case and Joba Chamberlain’s strut-brandishing, fist-pumping, fiery demeanor means that he is better suited for work out of the bullpen, how, exactly, would you explain the existence of this guy:
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