A Champagne Super-Nova?

by Paul Knepper

The Yankees have become as synonymous with October as the leaves changing color and candy corn, but they were no sure bet to make the post-season this year. Coming out of spring training they had major question marks in the rotation. Ace CC Sabathia, unpredictable A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes, an 18-game-winner last season, were penciled into the first three spots in the rotation. It was the fourth and fifth starters that were a concern.

The Bombers suffered two major blows to their hopes for a rotation during the off-season when GM Brain Cashman lost his number one priority, prized free agent Cliff Lee, to Philadelphia and Yankee great Andy Pettitte decided to hang up his pinstripes for good. Those losses were compounded by the rival Red Sox apparent plethora of quality starters.

Cashman attempted to plug up the holes in the rotation by signing over-the-hill veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon to minor league contracts. Colon turned 38 in May, hadn’t pitched 100 innings in a season since he won the Cy Young award with the Angels in 2005 and sat out the entire 2010 season while undergoing controversial stem cell procedure on his shoulder. Garcia was another reclamation project who has lost a great deal of velocity after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2007. Nine years removed from his last all-star game, his E.R.A. hadn’t been below 4.00 since 2005 and he won a total of five games from 2007-2009.

Colon and Garcia’s main competition for the last two rotation sports came from unheralded rookie Ivan Nova. The Yankees signed the Dominican right-hander as an undrafted free agent in 2004, then lost him in the 2008 Rule 5 draft before re-signing him as a free agent a year later. The 24-year-old wasn’t considered one of the team’s top prospects and failed to generate the kind of hype surrounding Hughes and Joba Chamberlain a few years ago. He pitched decently over 42 innings during a cup of coffee with the big club in 2010, but didn’t appear ready to start for a playoff caliber ballclub.

Needless to say, the Yankees didn’t know what they were going to get from Nova, Colon and Garcia and were rested their pre-season hopes on Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes. So if somebody told Cashman in spring training that Burnett and Hughes would both have an E.R.A. over five and win 16 games between them, but the Yankees would easily win the A.L. East, he would have thought they were crazy. That’s exactly what happened.

Hughes’ velocity was down at the start of the season. He got shelled in the month of April and ultimately landed on the DL with inflammation in his shoulder. Burnett has a disaster, failing to bounce back from a putrid 2010 campaign and criticizing manager Joe Girardi in the process. The season could have been lost, but Colon, Garcia and Nova surprisingly picked up the slack.

Colon’s fastball began reaching the mid 90’s for the first time in years. He’s given the Yankees 150 quality innings and his E.R.A. just recently rose to 4.00 as he began to tire. Garcia’s been even more impressive. Relying on guile and changes of speed the one-time 18-game winner has kept hitters off balance all season long. He won 12 games, sporting a 3.62 E.R.A. and will likely be the team’s third starter in the playoffs.

But it’s Nova who’s been the most pleasant surprise among the Yankee starters. The right-hander throws five pitches well, though his two-seam fastball is his out pitch. Reaching the low 90’s on the radar gun, the two-seamer ties up hitters with  its late sinking action. Nova has shown unusual poise on and off the mound, especially following an undeserved mid-season demotion when Hughes returned form the DL.

Nova’s become manager Girardi’s second most dependable starter after Sabathia and a leading candidate for A.L. Rookie of the Year. He’s won 16 games in just 27 starts, including his last twelve decisions, the longest such streak by a rookie starter since Larry Jansen of the Giants did the same in 1947.

Nova seems poised to be a mainstay in the Yankee rotation for years to come, though as with any other Yankee, the true test is how he performs in the post-season. And with Garcia and Colon finallly showing signs of fatigue over the past few weeks, Girardi will be depending on his young right-hander even more so in October.

Nova will be slotted in the number two spot in the rotation, behind Sabathia, where he has big shoes to fill.  Over the past fifteen years, Pettitte set a pretty high standard for the number two starter, winning more post-season games (19) than anyone in Major League history, after often changing the momentum series with his Game 2 starts.

As the old adage goes, pitching wins championships, and history has demonstrated that a team needs at least two hot starters to survive and advance in the playoffs. Sabathia is a pretty safe bet to pitch well in the big games ahead. If the Yankees are going to pop champagne after a 28th World Series championship Nova needs to pitch like a star.

Missing the King

When baseball fans think of the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s, players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Paul O’Neill and David Cone quickly come to mind. Yet, it was seldom used backup catcher Jimmy Leyritz who kicked off the dynasty with a memorable blast in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series.

The Yankees faced the defending champion Atlanta Braves in that series and looked over-matched during the first two games in New York as the Braves took a commanding 2-0 lead. They bounced back to win Game 3, but found themselves in dire straits after falling behind 6-0 early in Game 4. The Yanks scraped together three runs in the sixth inning and, with the score 6-3 going into the eighth inning, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox called on his closer Mark Wohlers to shut down the Yankees over the final two innings.

Wohlers was an All-Star that season, armed with a 100 mph fastball, he was one of the most intimidating closers in baseball. He began the inning by surrendering back-to-back singles to Charlie Hayes and Darryl Strawberry. After Mariano Duncan grounded into a fielder’s choice, Leyritz stepped to the plate with one out and two men on.

At the time, Leyritz was better known for his loquacious personality and idiosyncrasies at the plate than his production on the field. Since being called up by the Yankees in 1990, he’d platooned at third base and served as a backup catcher. He was an average hitter who never smacked more than 17 home runs in a season.

The Ohio native often arrived at the ballpark wearing a cowboy hat and boots. His teammates nicknamed him “The King,” due to his large ego, and on a team composed of reserved professionals, he was the one Yankee sportswriters turned to for provocative quotes.

The right-handed Leyritz had a unique batting stance, which many fans tried to emulate. He kept his front leg straight and stiff, while placing his weight on his back knee, which was slightly bent. As he waited for the pitch, he dangled the knob of the bat in a circular motion behind his head. Then, after each pitch, he twirled the bat at waist level, like a baton.

Leyritz had entered Game 4 of the ’96 Series in the sixth inning as a pinch hitter for catcher Joe Girardi. He looked confidant, as always, as he stepped into the batter’s box to face the hard-throwing Wohlers. “The King”  worked the count to 2-2, then fouled off two blistering fastballs just to stay alive. In the seventh pitch of the at-bat Leyritz caught up to Wohlers’ heat and jacked a hanging slider over the leftfield wall at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, tying the game at 6-6.

With one swing of the bat, “The King” completed the Yankee comeback and shifted the momentum of the series. It was the biggest home run by a Yankee since Bucky Dent’s blast against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1978. The Yankees won the game 8-6 in the 10th inning and finished off the Braves in six games. They went on to win three more World Series over the next four years.

Leyritz’s sensational shot wasn’t the only dramatic postseason homer of his career, either. The previous year, he hit a walk-off shot against the Mariners in the 15th inning of Game 2 of the ALDS. As a member of the Padres in 1998, he launched three long balls in the NLDS, one of which tied the score in the ninth inning of Game 2 and another in the seventh inning of Game 3 that turned out to be the game winner.

In a second go-around with the Yankees, Leyritz let fly a solo bomb in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ‘99 World Series. It was the last major league home run hit in the 20th century.

The Yankees had a young Jorge Posada in the farm system so they let Leyritz sign a free agent deal with the Anaheim Angels after the ’96 season. He went on to play for the Rangers, Red Sox, Padres, Yankees again and Dodgers, before hanging it up after the 2000 season. During a career that spanned eleven seasons, Jimmy Leyritz compiled a .264 batting average and hit 90 home runs, though “The King” earned his ransom when the games mattered most. He retired with eight post-season home runs.

Saturday was Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, one of the more glorified traditions in sports. There were several Hall of Famers on hand, including, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Reggie Jackson. Joe Torre received a rousing ovation for his first appearance at Old Timers Day and many of his former players participated, such as, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez, who took his former teammate David Cone deep. But the man that kicked off the most recent Yankee dynasty was conspicuously absent.

Leyritz has spent the last few years fighting serious criminal charges. His blood alcohol level was above the legal limit when he was behind the wheel during a car accident in 2007 that resulted in the death of the other driver. In November 2010, he was acquitted on a charge of DUI Manslaughter, but convicted on the misdemeanor of driving under the influence. Perhaps the Yankees are letting the dust settle before they invite him back.

Despite his mistakes he’s sure to receive a thunderous applause the next time he appears at the stadium. “The King” remains a crowd favorite in the Bronx and his home run in Game 4 of the ‘96 World Series will forever be a part of Yankee lore. Old Timers day isn’t the same without him.

The Unremarkable Odyssey of Joba (Steve) Chamberlain

by Paul Knepper

On August 7, 2007, the Yankees called up 21-year-old flamethrower Joba Chamberlain to fill their desperate need for a set-up man for Mariano Rivera. All the kid did was strike out 34 batters, while allowing just one earned run in 24 innings and help the Yankees recover from a dreadful start of the season to earn the Wild Card. Like that, Joba Chamberlain was the most popular athlete in New York.

Born Justin Chamberlain, his baby cousin called him Joba because he couldn’t pronounce Justin. Chamberlain once said that he thought the name sounded “dynamic,” so he adopted.

Dynamic, was how Yankee fans saw the 21-year-old with the rising fastball that reached triple digits at times on the radar gun. He complemented the heater with a filthy slider in the low 90’s. In addition to his nasty stuff, the rookie had swagger. He gyrated and pumped his fists on the mound after big strikeouts and though many opposing players thought he was showing them up, his emotion invigorated a veteran Yankee team that had been plodding through the season.

The man with the dynamic name was also a public relations man’s dream. Newspaper and television headlines ran with the obvious Jabba the Hut Star Wars references and the Yankees jumped on the phenomenon by selling “Joba Rules” t-shirts, a play on the innings and appearance limitations imposed on the youngster by the organization. Fans and writers began comparing him to another husky right-hander, Roger Clemens, and some proclaimed him the eventual replacement for the great Mariano Rivera.

Soon we learned that Joba was raised by a single dad, Harlan Chamberlain, who’s confined to a motorized scooter due to a childhood bout with polio. Harlan is also a Native American and has several relatives who still live on the Winnebago Indian Reservation where he was born. The TV cameras caught the elder Chamberlain, whom Joba described as his best friend, shedding tears of pride as Yankee fans serenaded his son the first time he witnessed Joba pitch in the big leagues in person.

As Joba-mania reached a level of hype not seen in New York since Doc Gooden, I grew skeptical. Sometime during his splendid run in the summer of ’07, I began calling him Steve. It was my way of staying grounded as a Yankee fan. I knew that more than likely, Joba would have fairly ordinary career; It was his name and story that were somewhat unique, and that’s what fans hung on to. I was convinced that if he were a white man with an ordinary name like Steve, instead of a Native American named Joba, there would have been much less hype.

I recognized that Chamberlain’s stuff was electric and there’s no denying the quality and impact of his performance upon being called up to the big club, but I didn’t believe his talents were as rare as many Yankee fans did. Every season several teams around the league call up a pitching prospect or two who throw in the mid to upper 90’s. The majority of them don’t develop into top line starters or closers, even among those who experience immediate success as Joba did.

Most pitchers who thrive immediately are unable maintain their production, either due to the psychological rigors of being a major league pitcher or because the hitters in the league make adjusts and catch up to them. The other major obstacle to long term success for a young flamethrower is arm trouble. For every great strike out pitcher who had an illustrious career, you can point to two who burned out early. The statistics were simply not in Chamberlain’s favor.

Another red flag was the small sample size of Joba’s success. He hadn’t been a huge prospect like fellow ’07 call-up Phil Hughes and since he’d pitched just a season and a half of minor league ball the Yankees had a limited body of work from which to evaluate him. He hadn’t pitched nearly enough innings to demonstrate that he could be an effective starter at the major league level, as the Yankees projected.

Like everything else pertaining to the Yankees, their prospects and young stars receive greater hype than those in other organizations. I’d seen way to many uber prospects and fast starters pass through the Yankee organization, only to disappear into oblivion. Over the previous two decades there was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, Kevin Maas, Ruben Rivera, Brien Taylor, Drew Henson, Sam Militello and Russ Davis, to name a few.

I’d also seen what the media could do with an intriguing story line. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez had an impressive career with the Yankees, especially in the playoffs, however, it was his story that made him a compelling figure. He arrived in New York through a remarkable, if not entirely true, tale of fleeing Cuba on a raft in shark infested waters. Combine that with a classic nickname, a distinctive leg kick and an air of mystery that arose from his refusal to conduct interviews, based on his supposed inability to speak English, and you have a media sensation.

Yankee fans, starving for a young pitching prospect, were particularly susceptible to the Hollywood storyline. The last Yankee farmhands to develop into consistent contributors on the rubber were Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, both of whom made their Pinstripe debuts in 1995. New Yorkers were also wary of losing the arms race with the rival Red Sox, who had traded for Josh Beckett during the winter of ’06, signed Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka prior to the ’97 season and had two promising young starters of their own in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

The Yankee organization also contributed to the expectations for Joba by the way they handled him. General Manager Brain Cashman made it clear that he intended to build the team around Chamberlain, Hughes and fellow hurler Ian Kennedy. Chamberlain was branded untouchable during Cashman’s trade negotiations with the Minnesota Twins for their star pitcher Johan Santana.

Cashman was afraid to blow out his prize possession’s arm, so he had manager Joe Girardi handle his young stud with kid gloves. The team announced during spring training of 2008 that Joba would begin the season in the bullpen, in order to limit his innings. In mid May, Girardi announced that Joba would join the rotation and after being stretched out in the minors he made his Major League debut against Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays on June 3rd.

Chamberlain had mixed success in the rotation before being placed on the disabled list in August with rotator cuff tendinitis. He was 3-1 as a starter with eight no decisions and finished the season with a 2.60 E.R.A. and 118 strikeouts in just 100 innings.

Following the 2008 campaign, the Yankees indicated that Chamberlain would be in the rotation in 2009, in what many in the organization expected to be a breakout year for the fireballer. But, Chamberlain’s fastball, which cracked triple digits in ’07 was topping out at 92-93 M.P.H. and decreased in velocity as his pitch count climbed. He lost control of the strike zone and his confidence spiraled downward.

To make matters worse, the Yankees instituted a low ceiling on his pitch counts late in the season in order to preserve his arm. Then Girardi moved him back to the bullpen for the playoffs in 2009, where he served as Rivera’s set-up man during the team’s championship run. Once again, Chamberlain didn’t know what his role was with the team.

Heading into the 2010 season, Girardi declared an open competition for the fifth spot in the Yankees rotation between Chamberlain, Hughes, Alfredo Aceves and Sergio Mitre. Hughes won the job and Chamberlain was banished to the bullpen once again, where his velocity was still down and control continued to suffer. His E.R.A topped out over five at the All-Star break, though he finished the season strong.

The Yankees didn’t exactly give Joba a vote of confidence by signing former Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano in the winter of 2011, to a staggering 3 year $35 million contract to be the set-up man and eventual successor to Rivera, the role Joba was once supposed to fill. Chamberlain still hadn’t fully regained the pop on his fastball, though he pitched well early in the season, posting a 2.83 E.R.A in 27 appearances.

Then his career took another turn for the worse when he tore a ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm last week. Joba required the dreaded Tommy John surgery, which will keep him off the field for 10 to 14 months. The procedure has become commonplace in baseball and many players have returned to form a year or two later. Some have even throw harder after the surgery than they did before the injury. However, for many players the procedure essentially marks the end of their career, as they never regain their pre-injury form.

Joba burst onto the scene like a rock star and emerged as the crown jewel of the Yankee farm system, projected to be either a future number one starter or Rivera’s successor. Four disappointing years later, he blew out his arm like so many hot shot hurlers before him, and at the age of 25, his career is in jeopardy. Even if he fully recovers he’s likely destined for a career in middle relief. If his name was Steve nobody would even remember him in 20 years.