When Joba Chamberlain left Monday night’s game against the Texas Rangers in the fifth inning with stiff right shoulder, more than just the state of New York’s rotation was at stake.
Chamberlain has charted a course through twelve starts that rates better than most of the finest pitchers in baseball history—and of those who have neared Chamberlain’s immediate dominance, only injury has slowed them down.
Even including his injury-shortened Monday start in game the Yankees eventually lost 9-6, Chamberlain has posted outlandish numbers. In 65 1/3 innings as a starter, he has pitched to an ERA of 2.74, with 25 walks and 74 strikeouts, for a walks-per-game rate of 3.4, and a strikeout rate of 10.1. Even with the two home runs allowed Monday, Chamberlain has allowed a total of four home runs as a starting pitcher.
An easy way of determining how dominant Chamberlain has been relative to the league is to simply double his totals, since most number-one starters have had around 24 starts by now. His ERA would rank third in the American League. His strikeouts would be second in the AL, though his strikeout rate would be first by a wide margin—the difference in large part due to his first three starts, which were limited by pitch count. Simply put–he’d be among the clear leaders for the Cy Young Award.
But of these leaders, only Joba is compiling his success in the first starts of his career. Compare him to the beginnings of baseball’s best pitchers, and he blows most of them away.
Contrast his first twelve starts with those of Roger Clemens, who went on to become a Cy Young Award winner and MVP by age 23, and win 354 games. In his first 12 starts, however, Clemens, like nearly every young pitcher, went through difficulties adjusting to the major leagues. His ERA after 12 starts was 5.94. Clemens pitched 69 2/3 innings over those starts, walked 14, and struck out 57, and allowed 9 home runs. He certainly showed promise, but he was far from a number-one starter.
Greg Maddux is closing fast on Clemens, with 352 career victories. In his first 12 starts, he posted a 5.61 ERA. Steve Carlton, who won 329 games, pitching in the heart of the pitcher-friendly 1960s, posted a 3.22 ERA in his first 12 starts, but struck out just 33 in 58 2/3 innings. Randy Johnson had learned how to strike out hitters in his first 12 starts, with 57 in 61 2/3 innings—still not nearly at Joba’s level, and with a 4.52 ERA in the process.
Those who can approach Joba’s success over these early starts are rare, and were within sight of full-season dominance. Tom Seaver, though he pitched to a 2.39 ERA (again, in a much more pitcher-tilted era), struck out just 54 in 86 2/3 innings. It was no fluke—Seaver’s next four full-season ERAs were 2.20, 2.21, 2.82 and 1.76. Dwight Gooden posted a 2.88 ERA in his first 12 starts, striking out 93 in 75 innings. He was, of course, less than a year away from posting a 24-4, 1.53 ERA season.
The one recent counter-argument against Chamberlain’s 12 starts forecasting even greater dominance is, at first glance, Jared Weaver, who posted a 1.95 ERA in his first 12 starts for the 2006 Angels, but has hardly been an ace since, with a career 3.66 ERA. But notice that the batting average on balls in play for hitters facing Weaver during his rookie season was .238, well below the league average of .300. As that normalized to .316 in 2007 and .293 in 2008, Weaver’s ERA sought a more appropriate level. But Chamberlain’s BABIP entering Monday night’s game stood at .314—if anything, his ERA is a bit artificially high.
Still, as Kerry Wood—3.25 ERA, 107 strikeouts in 75 innings over his first 12 starts—can tell you, injuries can derail the dominance of a young pitcher like nothing else. Wood is currently experiencing his twelfth stint on the disabled list, his career as a dominant starter long since extinguished.
What a loss it would be for baseball if Chamberlain is seriously hurt. To judge by his early numbers, that shoulder injury is the only thing standing in the way of a Hall of Fame career.