In the aftermath of the Joba Chamberlain injury news, you’ll hear and read a lot about what his role was, what it should have been, and if his inconsistent role contributed to his injury. He was a classic floor wax/dessert topping pitcher: a starter before he was a starter-turned-reliever that had designs on starting. He makes look like Tom Glavine. Was Chamberlain jerked around more than any other pitcher in recent memory?
Suppose it would help to define "jerked around." For the purposes of this discussion, "jerked around" means three consecutive seasons with different roles. So reliever, starter, reliever would qualify, but reliever, reliever, starter wouldn’t.
With that, here are the top-three jerked-around pitchers of the past 10 years:
3. Ryan Dempster
Dempster was a high-octane Marlins prospect who kept getting worse and worse as a starter in each successive season -- it’s pretty hard to find guys who move their ERA from the threes to the fours to the fives to the sixes in four straight seasons. He was traded to the Reds for what was (then) a steep package of Juan Encarnacion and Wilton Guerrero. He was even worse as a Red, and released in 2003.
The Cubs picked him up on a lark, put him in their bullpen, and eventually he became their closer. After a particularly bad season in relief, someone in the Cubs’ organization said, "Say, you know that inconsistent reliever we have? What say we make him a starter again?" It made no sense, and it worked magnificently. Dempster had three straight seasons with over 200 IP and an ERA+ of 112 or better.
2. Brett Myers
For non-Phillies fans, this move was the most amusing of the bunch. It was like putting a bee in a glass jar and shaking it. Look how mad! And Phillies fans had a right to be. Myers was the best young pitcher the team had seen in years, and after three inconsistent seasons, he finally rewarded the Phillies’ faith by becoming a solid, above-average starter with the potential to improve. Then, for no real explainable reason, the Phillies made him a closer after three bad starts in 2007. He did well, so of course the Phillies moved him back to the rotation the following season. It was a bizarre detour in an inconsistent career.
1. Kelvim Escobar
The progression of Escobar:
The Angels were pretty sure what he was, but the Blue Jays had absolutely no idea. He was a dictionary that they used to keep the screen door open, but he was always there in case they needed to know how to spell "vacillating." He was all things to the Jays at all times -- and he was usually mediocre to poor.
Is there anything up there that sheds light on what happened to Joba? Well, judging by these results, he could either have been on his way to three straight stellar seasons as a starter, he could have had a good season as a closer before being mediocre before being good before being mediocre, or he could have flamed out when he was 31.
Which is to say, we have no idea. If everyone knew what caused ligament tears, they’d stop doing it. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t annoying as all heck to watch an arm like that get jerked around, but a lot of pitchers with set roles get injured too.
Joba was never left in the same role, but all that really means without a big scientific study is this: Joba was never left in the same role. Anything else is just a guess.