Young pitchers, particularly the superhuman ones, are fragile goods and unreliable. Twelve months ago, at the age of 20, Phil Hughes was Roger Clemens, only better. Then after six innings of no-hit ball against the Rangers, he pulled a hamstring in the seventh. Later on came an ankle injury. This year, Hughes is winless and, along with the youthful Ian Kennedy, is part of the shambles of the starting rotation—the shambles that makes Hank Steinbrenner wonder why Joba is sitting around waiting to pitch in relief.
Still, despite himself, Steinbrenner is on to something when he worries about underusing Chamberlain. In his current job, setting up Mariano Rivera (as, everyone notes, Rivera once set up John Wetteland), Joba is working on only a small part of the craft of pitching. He doesn’t worry about upsetting the hitters’ timing or fooling them into getting wrong, let alone working out a plan for a second or third time through a batting order. He flattens them with the hard stuff—a 10-pitch eighth inning against Cleveland in his return to the mound, an 11-pitch eighth inning the next day—and leaves them helpless for Rivera.
But only Rivera has ever been Rivera. And he was in his mid-20s when he reached the big leagues. Chamberlain’s debut was more like an extended version of the first season of a 21-year-old pitcher named Armando Benitez. The first thing Benitez did on a major-league mound was to strike out Albert Belle. Throwing 98 mph, he went on to strike out 14 hitters in 10 innings, giving up only one run.
Why tamper with success? Benitez became strictly a short-haul pitcher, averaging only 55 innings a year. He never had to work his way into and out of a fourth-inning jam, then come back for the fifth. By the numbers, he had a long and successful career. Ask a Mets fan if Benitez got his talent’s worth.
Between the perils of too much and too little work—the strain of the starter and the ease of the setup man—there is another, less sparkling option. “The best place for a rookie pitcher is long relief,” Earl Weaver wrote in 1984, in Weaver on Strategy.
The Weaver method would have Chamberlain cleaning up after the other pitchers, keeping the game together through the middle innings, stringing together experience while building up his endurance. But Earl Weaver didn’t manage in New York. The only game he was trying to win at was baseball.