It was a pretty spectacular trip to the West Coast for the Yankees last week. Six wins in seven tries, a fun little day while the Cliff Lee drama unfolded on Friday and starting pitching of the highest level in every single contest. There were only two blemishes to the whole trip.
The first is that the Yankee bats continue to be absolutely useless when facing Felix Hernandez. King Felix has tossed complete games against the Yankees in their last three meetings, including 18 innings of one-run ball this year. Since Seattle has about as good a chance of making the playoffs as a Nickelback tribute band playing the Garden, that's not a significant problem. The same can't be said of Joba Chamberlain.
Chamberlain was responsible for the only loss of the trip on Saturday when he relieved Javier Vazquez in a 1-0 game, promptly loaded the bases and gave up a grand slam to Jose Lopez of the Mariners. It was a scene far too familiar to the Yankees this season, following a script so well-worn that the whole thing seemed to play out in slow motion with the endgame in sight before Lopez even stepped into the box.
It was the sixth time this season and second time this month that Chamberlain has coughed up a lead. They've all been dramatic failures, such is life in late-inning, high leverage territory, and it would be tempting to say that those flameouts have obscured an otherwise fine season for Chamberlain. It just wouldn't quite be true.
In the parlance of the statistical world, Chamberlain has great peripherals. His strikeouts per nine innings, walk rate, home run rate, Fielding Independent Pitching and True ERA are all terrific. The only noticably poor metrics are ERA and batting average on balls in play, both of which would indicate that he's simply been victimized by bad luck when batters to get wood on the ball. That's true, to a degree, but it doesn't really tell the whole story.
His strikeout and walk rates demand further investigation. Although his rate of each per nine innings is a big improvement on last year and in line with his past work as a reliever, he's well off his previous numbers when it comes to percentage of batters faced. He's not pitching many innings and has pitched fractions of innings on several occasions, two things that inflate the per nine stats which might make the batters faced numbers more informative about his actual performance.
There's also the sticky problem that many of his worst performances have come in some of the situations where the Yankees needed him to be his absolute best. There's no handy stat that tells us how clutch a player might be, despite what many people believe, but there does appear to be an issue with Chamberlain this season. It's a small sample size and more of a notion than a defensible fact, but it is one that makes you look for what can be fixed.
One answer might be pitch selection. Chamberlain has started the vast majority of hitters he's faced this season with fastballs and he almost exclusively throws fastballs if he doesn't get strike one. When he does start with a strike, he's holding hitters to a 458 OPS. When it's ball one, they are tuning him up with an OPS more than 300 points higher. That's not all bad luck. Teams know these numbers and know what to tell their hitters to look for when they step in against Joba. Mixing in more curves and throwing the slider as something other than a two strike pitch are two ways Chamberlain could look to screw up the patterns and find more success attacking opposing hitters.
The problem with that and any other suggestion is that it is awfully hard to work things out when you're pitching the eighth inning of close games for a team with designs on a world title. It is a problem, maybe the only one the Yankees really have, and it is one that's going to loom large when the second half gets underway.