Joba’s Mangled Ankle: A Pitching Dream Deferred

After the Yankees were bounced from the 2007 playoffs, Hank Steinbrenner was upbeat in an interview with the New York Times’ Murray Chass. Despite the Bombers’ seventh consecutive sour October, Hank had three reasons to believe in a bright future:

The brightest part of the Yankees’ future, Hank said, is their young pitchers, including Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. “We have the best young pitching in baseball,” he said, “not just in the majors but in the minors coming behind them.

At the time, it was hard to disagree with him. Hughes had been around for a while, a can’t-miss prospect who went from untested in 2004 to solid in 2005 to virtually unhittable for the Double-A Trenton Thunder in 2006. Kennedy and Chamberlain were drafted with the No. 21 and 41 picks in the 2006 draft and rapidly made their way through the minors.

Chamberlain, who quickly became just ‘Joba’ to the media and fans, made the most impressive impact of all. A midseason call-up in 2007, Joba put up 1996 Mariano Rivera-esque numbers and unleashed one of the overpowering arsenal of pitches I’ve ever seen (more on that later). With Kennedy and Hughes shining in the minors, New York appeared to have the foundation of an elite starting rotation for years to come.

How high were the expectations for the young trio? Way back in November 2006, before any of them had debuted in the majors, Baseball America’s John Manuel projected each of them as starting pitchers on the 2010 Yankees.

It’s been a long, torturous way down for Yankee fans since then.

On Friday, the Yankees announced that Joba, in the final stages of his yearlong rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery, had suffered an “open ankle dislocation” while at a playpark with his young son, possibly from jumping on a trampoline. It’s about the worst thing that can happen to an ankle, medically defined as “a dislocation complicated by a wound opening from the surface down to the affected joint.”

Joba’s still in the hospital and will be for several days, and we probably won’t know for several months whether he can get healthy by season’s end. But with Joba eligible for salary arbitration after this season, it’s not farfetched to say that he will never throw another pitch for the Yankees.

Joba’s not the only former blue-chip pitching prospect to fall far, far short of expectations. Arm trouble has sidelined Hughes in two of the past four seasons, and his career record is just 36-23. Kennedy, at least, has been a contender for the Cy Young Award — only it was as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he has starred after consistently under-performing in New York.

All told, the troika of pitchers deemed “can’t-miss” by Steinbrenners and scouts alike has won a total of 57 games for the Bombers. And more than a handful of those wins were as relief pitchers.

Yankees fans completed the five stages of grief on this issue a long time ago. Somewhere along the line, the “Joba Rules” t-shirts were put in the back of the closet, the “Huuuuughes” chants reduced to a murmur, Kennedy forgotten even before he left the team. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when each pitcher moved from “he’s a star” to “well, maybe he can turn it around” to “WTF” to “he’s a bum and a washout”.

Maybe it was when Hughes discovered he was nearsighted and starting wearing glasses on the mound (it worked for Ricky Vaughn in Major League, but not for Phil).
Or when Kennedy went down with an aneurysm under his right armpit in May 2009, a precursor to being traded to the D’Backs in the offseason.
Or when we were treated to the horrific scene of Joe Girardi trying to choose between an ineffective Hughes and a less-effective Joba to get four outs and hold a two-run lead in Game 5 of the 2009 ALCS. I was at a launch party for my friend Andrews’ web series, snuck out to the bar upstairs and watched numbly as Hughes and Joba (both supposed to be ELITE STARTERS at this point) combined to give up four hits, a walk and three runs before getting an out. Needless to say, we lost that game.
Or when Hughes inexplicably lost 3-5 mph on his fastball before the 2011 season and spend three months on the DL with “arm fatigue” and non-specific shoulder inflammation.
Or when Joba was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his pitching elbow last June and underwent Tommy John surgery.
Or when Kennedy went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA for Arizona last season and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting.
Or after Friday’s apparently life-threatening trampoline incident.
Maybe we all should have known it was good to be true on Oct. 5, 2007 — or as it’s better known, “The Bug Game.” The scene was Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, a lovely stadium with a killer nickname (natch) near the shores of Lake Erie. The Yankees were down 1-0 to the Indians in the ALDS and desperately needed a win to avoid an 0-2 series deficit.
I was covering girls’ volleyball for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that night and was out of radio contact for three hours (this was in the dark days before everyone had smartphones). When I left my car and turned off the radio broadcast, the Yankees were up 1-0 in the third inning. The game was certainly far from over, and the Bombers weren’t gonna score a lot of runs against Fausto Carmona, who was at the brief height of his powers. But I thought as I left the car: If we can just get it to Joba, we’ll be fine.
Before you laugh, you have to remember just how good Joba was for those glorious late summer weeks in 2007. He came up in August with laughably precise innings restrictions (the Joba Rules) and, for lack of a better word, just started shredding it.
Even the numbers don’t do it justice, but they are nonetheless astonishing. In his first 10 appearances, Joba allowed five hits and four walks in 12.1 innings. In his first 12 appearances (16 innings) he didn’t allow a run. He had eight holds, two wins and a save in 19 total games played — without a blemish. He gave up one earned run total for an ERA of 0.38. His WHIP was 0.75 (Mariano Rivera posted a WHIP lower than that only once). He struck out 34 and walked six. He gave up just one home run. He was perfect in nine of 19 games.
And the Joba Experience was better qualitatively than quantitatively. I know that sounds crazy, but I was there. After the first few lights-out relief appearances, it became clear that this kid had something special. He threw 97 with movement consistently. His slider that year, put simply, was the best I’ve ever seen. And his boyish exuberance on the mound (punctuated by his guttural yell/fist pump combo after ending an inning with a strikeout) rubbed off on everyone in the old Yankee Stadium.
So during those weeks, the buzz would begin around the fifth inning if the Yankees had the lead, assuming the Joba Rules allowed him to pitch that day. The murmurings would grow louder as the game went on and reach a roaring crescendo when Joba came rumbling out of the bullpen. The fans expected to see something approaching perfect pitching, and during that stretch in 2007, they were not once disappointed. Every time, without any exceptions, he met or exceeded the sky-high expectations of the Yankee crowd. If you didn’t see it, you could hardly believe it.
So when Joba came out on that muggy October night to protect the Yanks’ 1-0 lead, it seemed like a sure bet. And in the seventh inning, it was — Joba got two quick outs, and Rivera was just one scoreless inning away. Then the midges came.
To be fair, the bugs were there all game (though the eighth inning was by far the worst). And Carmona pitched through the worst of it without surrendering a run. But Joba’s thick neck was the most popular resting spot for the godforsaken bugs. Joba threw just seven strikes against 13 balls, two of them wild pitches. The second wild one scored Grady Sizemore to tie the game at 1-1. Cleveland went on to win the game in extra innings, and just like that the Joba mystique (and soon the Yankees’ season) was over.
In the moment, it was a frustrating freak occurrence that was in no way indicative of any future troubles (how often do bugs re-enact the climactic scene from The Birds?). Looking back… let’s just say it was the first of many freak occurrences for Joba, Hughes and Kennedy.
Now Joba’s season (and Yankee career) is likely over. Hughes is struggling to win the No. 5 starter spot. Kennedy is the ace of the Diamondbacks staff and one of the best young pitchers in baseball. And the 2007 dreams of a 1990s Braves-esque pitching dynasty seem like a lifetime ago.
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1 Comment

  1. The Joba story has turned out to be an epic tragedy. And you can’t really blame the Yankees management for this screw up.

    Reply

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