New York Yankees' Bullpen: Lights Out In The Bronx
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.
Any discussion of the Yankee bullpen begins and ends with this man. He is the foundation that so much of the Yankees' success over the last two decades has been built upon. Of course, a closer has limited ability to influence a large portion of the game, but the psychological impact of Mariano Rivera looming beyond the outfield wall is immeasurable. For 16 seasons, opposing players and managers have known that if they are trailing the Yankees by the ninth inning, they may be better off planning for tomorrow's game.
At age 40, rumors over his imminent demise have continued to persist. After all, most baseball players are easing into retirement at his age, yet Mo finds himself still at the top of his game. Especially in this age of expanded testing for performance enhancing drugs, the player who extends his peak performance well past his late 30's is a rare breed.
Mariano not only is still finding success in the closer role for the Yankees, he is thriving, and en route to another one of his finest seasons. There may be a few chinks in the armor, as aches and pains prevent him from pitching a slew of consecutive games, and he has encountered physical issues that have shelved him temporarily a few times, but those concerns have rarely affected his performance on the mound.
With only two weeks left in the regular season, Mariano has saved 30 of his 33 save opportunities, reaching the 30 save plateau for the 13th season. If his numbers stand as they are, his ERA of 1.33 and ERA+ of 326 would be the best of his illustrious career. Furthermore, his WHIP of 0.81, opponents' batting average of .174, and opponents' OPS of .466 are all near career bests, and well below his career averages. Additionally, after allowing a career high(as a closer) seven home-runs in the first year of new Yankee Stadium last season, he has reduced that to one this year.
Despite one of the least surprising scouting reports in baseball history, Mo continues to baffle opposing hitters, eliciting some of the most feeble swings you'll see. Notorious for sawing off bats in the hitters' hands with his famous cut-fastball, rarely do you witness more than a few players actually hit the ball hard off Mo all season.
In addition to his mound dominance, Mariano is a superb athlete, capable of defending his position as well as anyone in the game. Always ready with the glove, Mo springs from the mound with his cat-like reflexes and sure hands, ably spearing anything hit in his direction. If he were on the mound more often, he would surely be amongst the Gold Glove candidates for the pitching position every year.
We know that there will one day come a time when Mariano Rivera is no longer closing games for the New York Yankees, but judging by his stellar 2010 season, that time has not yet arrived. It remains to be seen, how long Mo wants to continue pitching, but if his performance this year is any indication, he has it in him to cement his reputation as the best closer ever for at least a few more seasons.
Since breaking onto the Major League Baseball scene in 1998 as a flame-throwing youngster with a penchant for high strikeout totals, Kerry Wood has long been one of the exciting hurlers in the game. Unfortunately, various injuries have far too often robbed him of prolonged success, as he has only pitched a full season three times in his career.
Since becoming a reliever five years ago, his teams have worked to find ways to keep his talented arm on the field, with varying levels of success. Even this year, prior to joining the Yankees at the July 31 trading deadline, Wood hadn't pitched since July 11, spending those last few weeks in Cleveland on the disabled list.
His acquisition was not met with much fanfare, as no one knew what to expect of him, as he had been injured, and struggled mightily with the Indians in the first half of 2010. Everyone was aware of his potential, but the prospect of an injury-prone reliever with a 6.30 ERA wasn't the marquee trading target some fans had hoped for.
Well, after a recent run of some occasionally questionable moves, this is one that Brian Cashman got decidedly correct.
Although one cannot quantify Wood's impact on the Yankee bullpen other than through analysis of his personal statistics, everyone else has pitched better since his arrival. A slight disruption of the pecking order appears to have had a desirable effect on a few members of the relief corps, and it has served to improve the production of the entire group.
Wood himself, has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 20 2/3 innings since being traded to the Bronx, Wood has allowed a single run, for an ERA of 0.44, striking out 24, with a WHIP of 1.06. His opponents batting average of .157 and OPS of .480 have been stellar and the addition of his arm has provided Girardi with another hard-throwing option to help bridge the gap to Mo.
With Wood, Joba, Robertson and Logan, Girardi now has an enviable stable of hard throwing relievers at his disposal, any one of them capable of delivering a key strikeout and shutting down the opposition, which will be critical against the loaded offenses the Yankees will face in October.
Hoping to recapture the fist-pumping, fire-balling glory of his early days in the Bronx, the Yankees returned Joba to what many considered his natural role, that of eighth inning setup man for Mariano Rivera.
Following the disappointment of his 2009 foray into the starting rotation, and the team's subsequent mishandling of his protective innings limits, many felt Joba lacked the mental fortitude to be a starter, preferring to see him rear back and unleash heat upon only a few batters, rather than attempt to navigate a lineup multiple times.
Out of the pen, his velocity was greater, his stuff was crisper, and he didn't have to subdue the trademark Joba intensity that so endeared him to Yankee fans. He could throw heat, ask questions later, ferociously pumping his fist in celebration as he gunned down hitters late in ballgames.
Through the first six weeks of 2010, the plan was working superbly. Joba had rediscovered his mojo, serving to dominantly bridge the gap to the immortal Mariano Rivera. He was striking out over a batter an inning, opponents were only hitting .197 against him, he had a WHIP of 1.00 and an ERA of 2.16. The Joba we knew and loved had finally returned.
Unfortunately, shortly after mid-May, Joba lost his way, and his confidence was soon to follow. Suddenly, he seemed entirely hittable, bouncing sliders and grooving fastballs, seeing his ERA balloon to an unsightly 5.95 on July 25. Some even wondered if he would finish the season as a major leaguer, as I did in this piece, or possibly wearing another uniform.
Suddenly however, something transpired. Joba Chamberlain found his command, once again rediscovered his tantalizing abilities, and became a highly valuable member of the Yankee bullpen down the stretch. He returned to the form that had so impressed in the first six weeks of the season, pitching even slightly better than during that period. From August 1 onward, Joba has pitched 17 innings, striking out 14, compiling a 2.12 ERA, a WHIP slightly under 1.00, and allowing an opponents batting average of .177. It may be too small of a sample size to declare him fully returned to his prior form, but his performance has certainly earned the confidence of Joe Girardi once again.
Maybe not so coincidentally, Joba's return to dominance began right around the July 31 trading deadline, when the Yankees acquired Kerry Wood from the Cleveland Indians. Of course, it may have occurred naturally, but one can't help but wonder if the arrival of Wood served to spark something within Joba and helped him to overcome his earlier issues. Maybe the element of competition let Joba know that he was no longer Girardi's automatic eighth inning choice and that his very future in pinstripes may potentially be threatened.
Whatever the catalyst that helped Joba return his productive self, the sinking feeling that accompanied Joba as he emerged from the Yankee bullpen has disappeared for now. If he is able to continue that upward progression, the Yankee relief corps should be a strength as the team heads into October baseball and beyond.
Following his emergence as a late-inning bullpen threat during the 2009 championship season, big things were expected of David Robertson entering 2010. Along with Joba Chamberlain, he was considered a prime candidate for the eighth inning setup role that was vacated when Phil Hughes returned to the starting rotation. In 2009, his strikeout rate of thirteen per nine innings, ranked second only to Dodgers' closer Jonathan Broxton.
Once 2010 began however, he struggled to regain the form that he displayed in 2009, fighting with his command, and getting hit, hard and often. Throughout April and May, he was being shelled regularly and many feared that his breakout 2009 season was a fluke. Prior to the All-Star break this year, Robertson owned a 5.46 ERA, a WHIP of 1.79, an opponents' batting average of .305 and an OPS of .825, unimpressive to say the least.
Although included in his dismal first half numbers, David began to turn his season around in June and aside from one terrible outing on July 2, has never looked back. After the poor appearance on that day, when he allowed five base-runners and four earned runs in one and one third inning, he then rattled off a stretch of 19 scoreless outings. Even including that day, since the beginning of June, Robertson has been stellar. In 37 2/3 innings from June 5 onward, he boasts a 2.15 ERA, 44 strikeouts, only 28 hits allowed, and an opponents OPS of .604.
Since his disappointing start to 2010, David Robertson has salvaged his year, turning what could have been a lost season into an overall impressive campaign. Although his walk rate could stand to be reduced, he has restored Joe Girardi's faith in him, and can once again be viewed as a viable option in critical situations. If the Yankees find themselves in a jam where they could use a strikeout, David Robertson could very well be the young hurler to get the call.
Boone Logan's Yankee career began with him being nearly an after-thought in the deal that brought Javier Vazquez back to the Bronx.
Considering that they traded away Phil Coke in the Curtis Granderson trade, as well as Michael Dunn to Atlanta, and the fact that there have always been concerns about Damaso Marte's health, it made sense to take a chance on the hard-throwing lefty, even if he had yet to find success at the big league level.
The 6' 5" Logan had always been viewed as a pitcher with a great arm, but during his first few seasons with the White Sox and Braves, he had continually been hit hard and lacked precise command. His effectiveness against left-handed hitters however, made him an attractive candidate for a specialist's role.
Early in 2010, Logan's performances were forgettable, as he failed to impress, and found himself shuttling between the Bronx and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Once Damaso Marte's injury troubles proved to be too much during early July, the Yankees found themselves without a lefty in their bullpen, so they gave Logan another opportunity to win the job.
After being called up on July 17, Boone Logan seized his opportunity with the big league club and has done nothing but impress. Since that day, over the course of 27 games, Logan has tossed 18 1/3 innings, notching 23 strikeouts, only six walks, with a WHIP of 0.93 and owns an ERA of 0.98. In that stretch, all opponents are only hitting .167 against him, with an OPS of .519. In fact, the home-run that he allowed on Tuesday in Tampa, was only the first earned run he had allowed since July 18, a stretch of 25 consecutive appearances.
Always tough on lefties, he has been precisely that this year as well. Left-handed hitters are batting .174 against him with a minuscule slugging percentage of .203. Out of 78 lefties he has faced, Logan has struck out 28 of them.
Despite the disappointing loss of Marte, Boone Logan has stepped in effectively, helping to minimize the impact of Marte's absence. If the Yankees are to advance deep into October once again, the services of Boone Logan will surely be necessary to neutralize the big left-handed bats on some of the playoff-contending rosters. With hitters such as Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Ryan Howard, Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez amongst that group, he will have his hands full, but thus far, Boone Logan has proven up to the task.
After being bought by the Yankees last August from the San Diego Padres, Chad Gaudin came to the Bronx and became a valuable member of the Yankee bullpen. His versatility enabled him to make several spot starts down the stretch, and serve as a swing-man in the bullpen along with Alfredo Aceves.
Returning in spring of 2010, Gaudin had an awful spring, eventually being released by the team in March and getting picked up by Oakland, where he had pitched a few years ago. Upon returning to Oakland, he pitched to the tune of an almost nine ERA, and was subsequently released in mid-May.
The Yankees, finding themselves without Alfredo Aceves, due to a disc problem in his back, and suffering through the utter ineffectiveness of Chan Ho Park, had a need for another bullpen arm, so they took another chance on Gaudin. A pitcher of his level of versatility will often find his services desired.
This time around, the Yankees have only found work for Gaudin in the bullpen, as his starting skills have yet to be required. He has performed solidly, providing Girardi with a long-man in the pen, capable of going several innings if a starter leaves the game early, or can perform mop-up duty when called upon. His stuff is good enough to pitch in more critical situations if necessary, but not every reliever can be a setup man.
Since July, Gaudin too, has been highly effective, helping to give Girardi confidence in any name he calls from the pen. In the last two months, Chad has thrown 26 2/3 innings, sporting a 3.38 ERA, and only allowing opponents to hit .230 against him.
Hopefully the Yankees won't need emergency starts out of him this season, but as the team heads toward October, with a playoff berth virtually a certainty, it would behoove the team to rest a few crucial relievers down the stretch, keeping them from for the playoffs. Chad Gaudin, while he won't likely see much action in the post-season, could very well serve a significant team-oriented role with the 2010 Yankees and help them in their effort to repeat as World Champions.
Sergio Mitre doesn't get much respect amongst Yankee fans. After missing a year and a half following "Tommy John" surgery, Mitre struggled through a difficult 2009, as he worked to regain his arm strength. The results weren't often pretty, and many fans took to calling him "meat tray" for the tender morsels he served up to opposing hitters.
From his time in Florida though, Joe Girardi was a fan of Mitre's, and his patience in the pitcher with the heavy sinker has paid dividends for the Yankees in 2010. Another versatile bullpen arm, Mitre has made a handful of spot starts for the Yankees this year, but has found the most success in the bullpen.
As a reliever, in 35 2/3 innings, Mitre has allowed opponents to hit only .205 against him, with an impressive WHIP of 1.04 and ERA of 2.78. His sinker has induced several key double plays which can be a crucial weapon in any bullpen's arsenal.
Mitre has rewarded Girardi's faith, and finally recovered from his elbow injury may have found himself a niche in the New York bullpen.