Blessed with the greatest closer in the history of the sport looming to shut down opposing rallies late in ballgames, the Yankees had often struggled in the transition from starting pitching or middle relief to their legendary relief ace, Mariano Rivera.
Relief pitchers are often an inconsistent breed, dictated by the nature of their profession, and the small sample sizes that their body of work reflects. What can look like a dominant performance one day, can appear to be utterly disastrous the next if a few of the results are slightly different.
They don't have the luxury of working out of jams or turning an outing around following a rough beginning. A difficult start to a relief appearance generally ends it rather quickly and defines the outing until the pitcher gets another opportunity, on another day, to wipe the slate clean.
Try as they did, the Yankees couldn't quite get the mix right in recent years. During their dynasty run in the late '90's, they had a lethal combination at the end of games, first Mariano handing the ball to John Wetteland, then various incarnations involving Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson giving way to Mo.
For years, the Yankees attempted to replicate that late-game magic, importing the likes of Steve Karsay, Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon, Kyle Farnsworth, among others, in an effort to build a stable bridge to Mariano. Never have they been able to solidify that transitional aspect of their bullpen in a manner that they were accustomed to several years earlier.
In recent seasons, the expectation was that Joba Chamberlain, the hard-throwing Nebraska kid with the wicked slider, the one that baited us with his tremendously dominant debut in 2007, would eventually inherit the closer's role. He didn't quite pan out, and the Yankees converted him back to a starting pitcher, the role that he was accustomed to throughout his pitching life. His career is now on hold as he recovers from Tommy John surgery earlier this season.
Phil Hughes had a dominant stretch in 2009, but once the playoffs arrived, he didn't resemble the shut-down reliever he was all season. He too resumed his regular role as a starting pitcher, and after a breakout 2010, has regressed mysteriously in 2011.
There was Kerry Wood in 2010, who arrived as a cast-off from Cleveland, and turned in one of the most dominant stretches of his career. Unfortunately, he didn't want to stay with the Yankees, and returned to his longtime home in Chicago.
This offseason however, the Yankees made all the right moves, signing dominant closer Rafael Soriano to a huge contract in order to serve in the vital setup role. They addressed their left-handed specialist issues by signing the ever-reliable Pedro Feliciano from the crosstown Mets to flesh out their new-look bullpen.
The baseball world looked on in awe as the Yankees flexed their financial muscles and addressed one of their perceived flaws, instantly turning their bullpen into a significant strength.
This is baseball however, and things don't always work out according to plan.
From the outset, the incredibly talented, re-worked Yankee bullpen ran into issues. Feliciano's season was ended in spring training by a significant shoulder injury. Soriano struggled then turned up injured as well, and Joba, who had looked great early, experienced elbow pain, and was eventually lost for the year after it was decided that he required Tommy John surgery.
Somehow though, in the midst of the second week of September, the Yankees are the winningest team in the AL, and their bullpen is one of the best in all of baseball. At 3.07, their bullpen ERA is the lowest in the AL, their 75 percent save percentage is second to only Detroit, and their strikeout rate per nine innings trails only the White Sox relief corps.
Despite the challenges that they've endured, the bullpen has persevered, and has remained a strength for the Yankees, rather than succumbing to the various issues that they have faced.
Let's examine the primary contributors to see if we can determine how the Yankee bullpen has remained a dominant force, despite the numerous injuries to key personnel throughout the season.