One of the minor stories of the first half of the season has been the difficulties that Joba Chamberlain has had. It's hard to believe that it was before just last season that when the Yankees were entertaining the possibility of relegating the young pitcher to the bullpen as the set-up man, some complained that it would be a waste of talent. Joba, they claimed, would be better off as a starting pitcher because he could dominate games, rather than only innings or batters. There's a stigma attached to relief guys as many believe that if they had the stuff to be starters, they'd be starters. But the demotion to the bullpen means they're lacking something in their games.
It's hard to believe after the way Joba's career got started that anyone could accuse him of missing anything. He was downright scary to face, and the prospect of a decade or more of Joba games sent general managers across the league shivers. My, how things have changed.
To this point, Joba's been one of the worst relievers in the league, being sent out there repeatedly mostly due to the hype behind him instead of being benched in order to figure out what's going wrong. But if you look at the list of others who are facing similar problems this season, you'll note that Joba isn't alone in his difficulties. Sure, nobody else matches the unparalleled rise and fall that he's had; still, some of the names atop the list of plagued pitchers will remind you that these control and dominance issues are relatively common among closers and set-up men. If you want to blame Joba or the Yankees for applying too much too fast, take a second to consider how former regular closers like George Sherrill and Bob Howry, and set-up men like Brendan Donnelly and Hideki Okajima have fared in their appearances this year.
What's different about Joba is his exposure. Those others struggle in silence, being thrown out on the mound in hopes of fixing what's going wrong. If they don't get straightened out, at the end of the season we'll chalk up their poor performances to a bad year that can be explained by all kinds of things ranging from bad situations to bad teams to bad composure. Joba, on the other hand, gets scrutinized and chided for every bad appearance. After all, he's not even starting the games and getting blown out. That would be understandable. But he's just a relief pitcher who has to come in certain spots to shut down the opponents. He's well rested and ready. How hard can that be?
See, that's the double standard at play with regard to how we view relievers. On the one hand, we want to believe they're worse than starters because they lack the durability or drive or whatever to pitch long innings. Yet, when they mess up, we don't use that same thinking to say that that's what you get when you throw a second-rate pitcher up there. Rather, we expect them to perform well in their roles because they're major league players, after all, who should be able to face two or three batters at a time and give their best stuff. When they don't, we royally roast them for losing games for our teams.
Maybe it's time to begin to believe that relievers have the same issues that starters do. It's not the part of the game that you pitch that determines how your arm and mind hold up; it's the pitching itself. Maybe Joba would right this ship if he felt that his role as a set-up man wasn't a demotion at all and that he hasn't been labeled second-rate.
This post originally ran on The Sports Nook blog.