Time and time again, we are reminded of the cyclical nature of the game of baseball. Streaks come and go, first half heroes go missing down the stretch, and things we thought we knew in May couldn't be further from the truth as the summer fades into autumn.
Remember when Dodger fans were discussing Andre Ethier as a Triple Crown candidate? Ubaldo Jimenez was going to win 30 games to become the first pitcher since Denny McClain in 1968 to accomplish the rare feat. Mark Teixeira is putting the finishing touches on his seventh consecutive 30 home-run, 100 RBI season, after an atrocious April, in which he hit a paltry .136 with only two home-runs and nine RBI. Yankee fans were once again fearful that his annual April slump would continue deep into the season, rendering him little more than a $180 million glove man. The Baltimore Orioles, after winning only four of their first 20 games in 2010, and standing at a woeful 32-73 on August 1, handed the managerial reigns to Buck Showalter, battling to a 25-15 record under new leadership, and returning respectability to a long-suffering franchise as the season dwindles.
Man, the times they are a-changin'. Such is the fickle nature of the baseball season.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the radically evolving performance of the Yankee pitching staff.
Prior to the season, the starting rotation was expected to be a strength of this Yankee team. Fresh off a World Series title, the staff boasted the three returning starters who carried the pitching load through October, Sabathia, Pettitte and Burnett, a burgeoning young ace in Phil Hughes, and Brian Cashman boldly reacquired Javier Vazquez to bolster the back end of the rotation.
According to plan, the starters enjoyed a stellar first half of the year. Prior to the All-Star break, Yankee starting pitchers compiled a magnificent 47-22 record, a collective ERA of 3.68, allowing opponents a batting average of .241, an on-base percentage of .309 and an OPS of .696. Sabathia, Pettitte and Hughes earned All-Star berths, and AJ Burnett flashed moments of brilliance before falling into his recent pattern of maddeningly erratic performances.
The second half hasn't been so kind, as a serious groin injury claimed Andy Pettitte while at the top of his game, Phil Hughes has tired noticeably as the season progresses, Burnett has been consistently unreliable, and Vazquez has been skipped or dropped from the rotation occasionally due to an inability to pitch to most American League lineups. Necessity forced emergency back-up Dustin Mosely into eight starts and prospect Ivan Nova was recalled from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make his anticipated big-league debut. Both have filled in admirably, but the Yankees had hoped not to require their services as they marched toward the post-season. Collectively, the starting staff is 22-20 with a 5.08 ERA, allowing opponents to hit .282, reach base at a .349 clip and an OPS of .812.
In the bullpen however, the picture has been drastically different.
While pitching decently in the first half, the Yankee bullpen owed much of their success to the stellar performance of the starting staff, and the ever-present savior at the back end, Mariano. Joba, Robertson and Chan Ho Park struggled greatly at times throughout the first half. Injuries claimed Damaso Marte and Alfredo Aceves for the remainder of the season. Boone Logan only played a part-time role until Marte's injury necessitated his full-time inclusion. The Yankee bullpen was hardly a point of confidence for anyone involved with the team.
As the season has progressed though, doubts have been subdued, fears calmed, and the bullpen is now viewed as a strength of this Yankee team. Whereas the rotation has faltered, the pen has solidified, rallying around a new recruit, and has replaced the starters as the rock of the pitching staff. While improving across the board, the bullpen has lowered its collective ERA from 4.14 to 2.25, its WHIP from 1.3 to 1.11, as well as increased its strikeouts per nine innings ratio from 7.4 to 8.1. Opponents are only hitting .204 in the second half against Yankee relief, and only reaching base at a .287 clip.
Let's take a look at the primary contributors to the Yankees' new-look bullpen. If the rotation can recapture a portion of its early season success and work in concert with the now-dominant relief corps, the Yankee pitching may have the ability to carry the team on another run deep into October.