Joba Chamberlain hopes healthier lifestyle will pay dividends for Tigers

Detroit Tigers pitcher Joba Chamberlain stretches during the Detroit Tigers pitcher Joba Chamberlain stretches during the team's first day of spring training for pitchers and catchers, in Lakeland, Fla., Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Gene J. Puskar

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LAKELAND, Fla. - With seven years of major-league experience in a Yankees uniform, Joba Chamberlain seems not only comfortable but nearly sage-like in his maturity as he embarks on the next phase of his career with the Detroit Tigers.

"Life is about the things you add and subtract each year," he said, wiping the sweat from his brow after a vigorous spring training workout.

Chamberlain, 28, has added a beard (something forbidden by the Yankees), glasses ("they make me look smarter," he said) and a personal chef who has him eating vegetables and appreciating the taste of fish for the first time.

Things he has subtracted include dairy products and high-fat foods, 20 pounds and the daily pressures associated with pitching in New York.

Working at an opportunity

Chamberlain signed a one-year, $2.5-million deal as a free agent in December. The Tigers hope he and closer Joe Nathan will be significant additions to the back end of a bullpen that was an Achilles' heel last season.

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"He's been upbeat, having his fun but getting his work done," said the Tigers' new manager, Brad Ausmus. "His bullpens have been crisp. When he's throwing his bullpens, it seems like there's a mission to it."

Chamberlain said he is on a mission, not just to regain the health and pitching prowess that made him the Yankees' first-round pick in 2006 and the toast of the town in 2007, but to establish a healthy lifestyle for his 7-year-old son, Carter, for whom he shares custody.

"It was about being able to see what I needed to change," he said. "When I hired a chef, it was a lifestyle thing. It was for me to be in the best shape I could be in, coming to a new team and making a new start. But it was creating a lifestyle for my son as well.

"I told my son what I was doing -- that Aaron [Young, the chef] was going to come in and cook for us. Now he reminds me: 'Dad, you don't eat cheese.' He keeps me on my Ps and Qs when we go out to eat."

Fish has become a major part of the Chamberlain dining experience.

"I probably went to a restaurant and ordered fish maybe three times in my life," he said. "I even played in Hawaii for two months [and didn't eat it]. Being from Nebraska, you're never really a 'fish' guy. But Aaron kind of made me eat fish -- and made me like it. I've become a huge salmon guy."

Listed at 6-2, 250, Chamberlain said he's lost about 20 pounds in two months, thanks not only to Young but to Tigers strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett.

"Everything feels better now when I'm on the mound," he said. "I feel more fluid."

Chamberlain was nimble enough to win the Tigers' first Ragball Fielding Championship -- a drill among pitchers and catchers. In 223 innings as a reliever, Chamberlain never has been charged with an error.

"That's because I'm an athlete," he told Gold Glove outfielder Torii Hunter, seated kitty-corner across from his locker at Joker Marchant Stadium.

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Healthy outlook

Part of Chamberlain's excitement stems from being injury-free. He said he pitched through minor discomfort until an MRI revealed that he needed Tommy John surgery in 2011. His return to form was slowed by a broken ankle (suffered in a trampoline accident) in 2012 and an oblique strain last season, when he pitched only 42 innings with less-than-acceptable results for the Yankees.

"I don't walk people,'' he said, "and I had a terrible year walking people last year. I just couldn't locate my slider."

As a result, he gave up 26 walks and eight home runs in 42 innings. His ERA was 4.93 and his WHIP, 1.346 entering the season, was a whopping 1.738.

"He's reported in very good shape. You can tell he's focused," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Sometimes people just need a change of scenery and a fresh thought process. We're hopeful that can be the case here."

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With the Yankees, Chamberlain was alternately coddled and yo-yo'ed around. The so-called "Joba Rules" limited his workload as a reliever in his first two seasons before he was abruptly cast in a starting role. He made 31 starts in 2009 before returning to the pen.

Chamberlain said he harbors no ill will toward the Yankees.

"I learned a lot," he said. "When I first got to the big leagues, I had no idea what I was doing. Now I have a better idea of how to pitch to slow the game down. I still throw hard, but there's so much more to it than that."

If Chamberlain didn't know what he was doing, batters certainly didn't when he burst on the scene. His 0.38 ERA through his first 19 major-league appearances produced a buzz in the Bronx and created expectations that might have been unreasonable.

Chamberlain is 23-14 with a 3.85 career ERA, respectable numbers but not the cumulative record of distinction for which he had aspired and the Yankees had hoped.

"I wouldn't change anything," he said. "At 28, I've had a great career so far -- just the good fortune and pleasure to be on that mound for seven years. It was all a learning curve for me, preparing me for this point in my career. There is no situation on a baseball field that I haven't been through.

"It was great to play at the old [Yankee] Stadium. I had a tremendous opportunity to open the new stadium and to win a World Series. The experiences in New York taught me to be a better teammate and a better father. I've learned to be patient and take the good with the bad."

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