Joba Chamberlain has lost weight during the offseason. (Scott Halleran / Getty Images)
Detroit — No, it’s him. Joba Chamberlain.
Never mind what he once looked like. That was the old Joba, the Yankees-era Joba, before he signed with the Tigers and began a transformation the Tigers believe will extend to the bullpen and perhaps be bolder than even his new cosmetic profile.
But that’s some makeover a 28-year-old right-handed reliever has brought to Motown.
He wears glasses now “’cause I think I look smarter,” says Chamberlain, who also adds, conveniently: “I don’t take things too seriously, if you can’t tell.”
He sports a broad swath of whiskers that nicely landscapes his formerly beefy face.
“I can have a beard now,” Chamberlain explains, with a grin that tells you how delighted he is to have escaped the Yankees’ rigid moustache-only policies in New York.
“I could have had a moustache. But I’m not Tom Selleck.”
This is how it goes for 20 minutes as Chamberlain regales a small media crowd inside the Tiger Club at Comerica Park as TigerFest unfurls on a frigid winter Saturday.
Chamberlain is making his Tigers debut, at least in the flesh, which happens to be “15 to 20 pounds” less than he was carrying before he signed with the Tigers six weeks ago.
Chamberlain was placed on a conditioning and nutrition program designed and supervised by Javair Gillett, the Tigers’ strength and conditioning coordinator. The new program, which has resulted in a new Chamberlain, is part of a long, two-year recovery from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
The regimen is so customized to Chamberlain’s needs it involved the hiring of a personal chef, Aaron Young, who has become a pitcher’s super-hero in the weeks since Young began serving up protein-rich, sugar-poor menus.
“My chef’s been awesome,” said Chamberlain, who during this interview is talking with the verve of a televangelist. “He’s my best-kept secret.
“I probably had fish in my life three times. I would try it but I never would order it. Now, I have it three or four times a week.”
This is all great as far as tributes to nutrition go. The Tigers, of course, signed Chamberlain in December to a one-year deal ($2.5 million) with thoughts that a man with a high-velocity fastball and some past success with the Yankees might be precisely the brand of affordable arm they were hunting for their relief corps in 2014.
“We like him, we’ve liked him in the past,” said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager who insists Chamberlain will reclaim his old high-horsepower ways. “He’s in great shape. Sometimes, you need a change in scenery. We think he’s going to be a very important part of our bullpen.”
That would be contingent on Chamberlain cleaning up some ugly numbers from 2013. He pitched in 45 games, spanning 42 innings, in his comeback from 2012’s ligament replacement surgery on his throwing elbow.
Chamberland was socked for 47 hits, while he struck out 38 batters and walked 26. Those digits were worth an ERA of 4.93 and a far worse WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 1.73
His fastball wasn’t behaving, nor, more tellingly, was his slider, which Chamberlain acknowledges is “the pitch that got me to the big leagues” after he was a first-round pick from the University of Nebraska in 2006.
“I walked too many batters last year,” Chamberlain said. “It was frustrating. I don’t walk guys. Part of it is trusting my fastball again, too.”
None of these struggles and revelations surprised the Tigers. It is generally agreed in the world of Tommy John rehabilitation it takes two full years before a pitcher regains his old sizzle and control.
The 24-month process means, in the Tigers’ view, Chamberlain will be at full throttle in 2014 and perhaps rack up numbers closer to those he had for the Yankees in 2008, when in 42 games he had a 2.60 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP, with 118 strikeouts in 100-1⁄3 innings.
“It’s tough coming off it,” Chamberlain said, speaking of his Tommy John comeback. “But this whole offseason has been unbelievable. Just playing catch now feels totally different.”
He also began throwing two weeks earlier than schedules normally call for. And that pleases the Tigers when marshaling bullpen help has been a front-office project since the Tigers last played a game in October.
Chamberlain is revved. He was a free agent at the end of 2013 and didn’t plan on shopping much beyond Detroit as long as the Tigers were interested. And after last year’s injuries and bad late-innings experiences helped sabotage their World Series plans, the Tigers appreciated that high-bore fastball and slider combination a healthy Chamberlain features.
“It was the first place I wanted to play,” Chamberlain said of his romance with Detroit. “From afar, I could see the ballclub and the fun they have.
“Playing baseball should not be pressure. It’s a game. I chose to join a great team, and a great organization, in a great sports town.”
Even if it meant bagging the cheese and crackers and goodies that previously had been part of Chamberlain’s fun-loving life.
Meals did an immediate 180-degree turn once Young went to work.
Breakfast , typically, now consists of three eggs — only one of which can contain yolk. Alongside his eggs, Chamberlain can enjoy one-half of an English muffin, or a tortilla, and maybe a small orange juice.
Lunch is “some type of chicken, fish, rice, and vegetable.” Occasional snacks are allowed, which consist of fruits or almonds. And water. Always, there is water.
“I probably go to the bathroom 14 times a day,” said Chamberlain, who, face it, is a baseball player who comes by numbers easily.
His evening dinners are more of the same: fish, steak, or chicken, accompanied, he says, “by a buttload of vegetables.”
Gone from his former dietary delights are dairy products, including those cheese fries he once ate by the kilo.
“Now, when I have a cheat day, you feel like death,” said a Nebraska native who is one of only three non-Hispanic Native American players in the big leagues (Jacoby Ellsbury and Kyle Lohse join him). “At an airport, instead of pizza, it’s easy for me now to get a banana and a spinach salad.”
He isn’t specific about his weight ahead of the personal chef’s arrival, or what it might be today. But he concedes, “I was too big. North of 250. It was just unhealthy.”
New food, a new body, a new disposition toward baseball — Chamberlain is feeling the difference. The Tigers have been of a mind that Chamberlain could be a textbook case of the player who would get the maximum from a job relocation.
New York, they have said, and Chamberlain acknowledges, probably was never the right spot for a man from Nebraska’s plains. Chamberlain is good friends with Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, also a former Cornhusker.
Detroit? The parties are in agreement: This has a chance to work.
“There’s something about the Olde English D I love,” said Chamberlain, continuing with his charm offensive. “This is a team where they’re not happy just getting to the World Series. Mr. Dombrowski, Mr. Westhoff (John, Tigers legal counsel and contract negotiator), they’re here to win. Now you know why people want to play here.”
And why, in his case, they’re even crazy about eating here. It’s a new menu, a new life, a new chance for a pitcher who was perhaps craving more than people realize a fresh start in a game, and in his life.
Key dates for Tigers
Feb. 13: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Lakeland, Fla.
Feb. 17: Full team reports to spring training.
Feb. 25: First spring training game, against Florida Southern, at Lakeland, 1 p.m.
March 29: Final spring training game, against Washington, at Nationals Park, 2 p.m.
March 31: Regular-season opener, against Kansas City, at Comerica Park, 1:08 p.m.