It's easy to forget that Joba Chamberlain was the low-risk flyer the Tigers signed after claiming Joe Nathan as their big offseason prize. It was supposed to be the steady-as-ever Joe Nathan settling the bullpen with Chamberlain getting a chance to prove himself and remake his value heading into next year. Things change quickly.
The Tigers have had six regular relievers and a rotating seventh wheel all season long. Drew Smyly, Corey Knebel, Robbie Ray, Jose Ortega, Luke Putkonen, Justin Miller, and even Danny Worth have all thrown innings out of the pen this year, but they all have seen too little action, aren't relievers, or both. The Tigers have had six regulars and Chamberlain, the high-risk-high-reward guy, is the steadiest of them all.
To date, Phil Coke and Joe Nathan have both pitched very poorly no matter how you like to measure these things. Coke has a 6.00 ERA and Nathan's is 7.04 (all numbers through Sunday). If you like FIP, Coke's is 5.22 and Nathan's is 4.95. Their WPA and RE24 are equally as bad and their WAR obviously follow suit. Nathan and Coke might not be terrible forever, but they have been to date.
Ian Krol's strikeout and walk rates look fine, but he's already surrendered three home runs and is stranding more of his own runners than you'd expect him to going forward. He hasn't allowed a ton of runs if you're looking at ERA, but the overall profile has been that of a middle reliever. Evan Reed's been a bit of a mirror image. The peripherals look a little better than the performance, but he's more of a middle relief option as well.
Al Alburquerque has been solid and has limited his walks tremendously, but he's found a bit of a homer problem of his own. Serviceable, but always slightly unsteady. The man we trust, somehow, is Joba.
His strikeout rate is back up to 2008 levels. The 2013 walk rate disaster is gone. He didn't allow his first home run until Sunday night, but it isn't due to pure luck considering that he has a much lower fly ball rate than his career norm and if you aren't allowing fly balls, you're not going to allow as many home runs.. His FIP and xFIP are terrific and his ERA is still a respectable 3.29 even after the Ortiz home run and a .343 BABIP. Joba Chamberlain, trusted reliever.
If asked to spot the difference, the increased reliance on his curveball sticks out like a sore thumb. He's traded in a whole bunch of fastballs for curveballs, while also throwing his slider plenty.
If you watched the ESPN broadcast on Sunday you probably noticed their lack of recognition that Chamberlain has two distinct breaking pitches that come in about five or six miles per hour apart with the curveball providing more horizontal and vertical movement.
He's been more willing to come inside to lefties and righties than he had been in recent seasons and batters are having a more difficult time making contact on his pitches outside of the zone. When batters make contact this year, it's weaker than it has been since his earliest days in the show. This all seems to point to something real.
"When batters make contact this year, it's weaker than it has been since his earliest days in the show."
Chamberlain had Tommy John surgery in June of 2011. If you follow the normal rehab calendar, a pitcher is usually back after 12 months and throwing more like their old self in about two years. That would have been last year for Joba, but remember he badly injured his ankle in March of 2012, which delayed his return until that August. That would put him on track to find his stuff right around now. Hopefully that's the case and what we're watching is a talent guy finally pitching at full strength.
From a purely economic standpoint, Chamberlain's $2.5 million salary has already been paid for at least twice over. There are rarely bad one year deals and this was a perfectly fine deal at the time. It looked like a nice little gamble and has turned into a near necessity given Nathan's struggles. The best reliever in the Tigers bullpen right now couldn't get someone to pay him $3 million this winter and the worst one is guaranteed $20 million through 2015. It's a little easier to stomach the latter if you figure the former is basically covering his losses, both financially and on the field.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44