Joba's first-start disaster

Phenom Chamberlain fails to get out of the third inning, but his conversion's just starting.

Published June 4, 2008 10:00PM (EDT)

Now that New York Yankees phenom Joba Chamberlain has begun the conversion from reliever to starter, the "make Joba a starter now!" mob has put down its pitchforks and torches.

Ready to pick them up: The "Joba should be a reliever!" mob, which got some torch fuel when Chamberlain failed to survive the third inning of his first start Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays. A task for the eagle-eyed: See how many people you can spot in the second mob who were also in the first.

Chamberlain only gave up one hit in his two and a third innings Tuesday, but he walked four and balked once, throwing only 32 strikes in 62 pitches and leaving with a 2-1 lead that was quickly a 2-2 tie and eventually a 9-3 loss. The Jays' big inning was a six-run seventh, one frame before Chamberlain's usual appearance as a reliever.

"Joba as starter not a smart move for Yanks," reads the headline on Ian O'Connor's Fox Sports column, though I hasten to point out that O'Connor is not a mob-jumper. He didn't like the idea when it was still just an idea.

The argument's a pretty simple one on both sides. As a starter, Chamberlain figures to pitch about three times as many innings as he would out of the bullpen. As a reliever, the innings he'd pitch would be more important, higher leverage innings, as the sabermetricians say, in which he'd be protecting ties or small leads late in games.

Also, what works out of the bullpen doesn't always work in the rotation. Relievers can go all out for their one inning and don't face the same batter twice in one night. Starters have to pace themselves to go six or seven innings or more and find ways to get the same hitters out a second, third and fourth time in the same game. O'Connor argues that Chamberlain's adrenaline-powered, fist-pumping routine as a reliever won't translate to the long haul of starting.

Most starters make pretty good relievers, but even great relievers are often failed starters. Chamberlain need look no further than the guy he's setting up, Mariano Rivera, who became arguably the greatest relief pitcher of all time after posting a 3-3 record and a 5.94 ERA in 10 starts in his rookie year.

I'm in the mob that thinks all those innings starters throw outweigh the leverage of even a closer's innings. I think if you have a guy who can pitch well as a starter, he should start. Maybe Chamberlain can't, though he did fine in college and the minors as a starter. One bad start doesn't mean much.

I know a guy who gave up 7 earned runs in four innings in his first big-league start. He got sent right to the bullpen, where he pitched well for a while before getting his second start the next year and giving up six runs, though only two earned, in four and two-thirds innings. But he stayed in the rotation. Carlos Zambrano.

It certainly makes sense to give Chamberlain a shot at starting, by which I mean, let's say, the rest of this year. If it doesn't work out, he can go back to the bullpen. That career path was just fine for Rivera.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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