The need for a lefty reliever

Hank: 'Prior? We don't want no stinkin' Prior.'
Grimsley affidavit unsealed

As has been the norm over the past few years, it appears the Yankees will be carrying 13 position players and 12 pitchers on their 25-man roster. In some ways, this is a luxury the Yankees can afford. As we mentioned earlier this week, the Yanks have a bit of roster flexibility on the offensive side, with backups Duncan and Betemit able to play multiple positions if needed.

If the team is going to carry 12 pitchers, some will argue that one of them has to be a lefty. I’m not quite sure I buy into that logic. There are a couple of questions that go along with this, which I’m not sure I’m able to answer.

First, what is the purpose of having a lefty reliever? Well, like having a lefty in the rotation, one purpose is to keep the opposition off balance. However, I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. Sure, you see lefties less often than righties, but ballplayers surely see enough of them that they’re not going to be overly affected merely by seeing someone throw with their left arm.

It seems that we’ve come to the consensus of late that the purpose of a lefty reliever is to come in and face “tough lefties.” Of course, there is plenty of debate about this as well. To the Yankees, this issue might be a bit more paramount, since they see David Ortiz multiple times per year. There are other big lefties in the AL East, too, including Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Nick Markakis. In addition, Matt Stairs and Brian Roberts have favorable splits vs. righties, and there’s always J.D. Drew, who could go out and have a year like he did in 2004. And then there are the other lefties the Yanks face from time to time, like Jim Thome, Travis Hafner, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jack Cust, Yankee-killer Garrett Anderson, and soon to be Alex Gordon.

So the second question is, does the value of having a better chance of getting these guys out justify a lefty reliever’s place on the 25-man roster, and more specifically, on the 12-man pitching staff? After all, none of these aforementioned lefties hit back-to-back in their respective batting orders. This leaves few options for the deployment of a lefty reliever if there are multiple strong lefties in a lineup. You either have him face one or the other, or you have him pitch to the righty in between. And since these lefties, for the most part, hit at the front or heart of their order, you can bet the righty in the middle is going to be a masher himself.

Clearly, the overriding criteria for a lefty reliever is that he fare well against lefty hitters. Bonus points go to the lefty who can also hold his own against righties. Problem is, pitchers who fit this description are rare. Combined with the general volatility of relief pitchers, it makes the search of an effective lefty arm sometimes grueling.

Two lefty relievers remain on the free agent market: Trever Miller and Jeremy Affeldt. After seeing mediocre colleagues Ron Mahay and J.C. Romero pull down some serious dollars, the remaining two are sure to be holding out for similar deals. And while it may be tempting to pick up one of them, I don’t think either will make much of a difference.

Miller had an off year in 2007 after quite a few above-average years. A quick glance might suggest that he’s a viable bounce-back candidate — I thought the same thing when I pulled up his Baseball Reference page. However, let’s look at the numbers beyond the ERA.

The past two years, he’s struck out about a batter per inning, which is always nice from a reliever. However, this is a recent trend. Before 2006, he had never hit the strikeout-per-inning mark, though he hovered at about seven per nine for most of his career. Also, since 2000 he hasn’t allowed more hits than innings pitched. Ah, but he’s got the blemish: terrible walk rate. Or at least inconsistent. He was able to keep his walks per nine below 3.00 in two seasons — 2004 and 2006 — and he was stellar at those times. The other years, though, he’s been above 4.00. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough of that garbage from our pen.

His splits against lefties in 2004 and 2006, unsurprisingly, were excellent. He even had decent splits last year, when he was pretty much crap. On his “off” years, though, he’s had trouble keeping his OPS below .700 against lefties. And, though it all, one theme remains consistent, even in his “on” years: he gives up WAY too many bombs against lefties. Doubles and bombs. Exactly what you don’t want from a reliever.

If you’re as sick of me of relievers walking everyone, you won’t even look at Affeldt. His BB/9 — even in 2007, when he had a decent year — is consistently over 4.50. He doesn’t strike out a ton of guys, either, which means that he’s allowing a lot of contact. Contact and walks. Not good. This has resulted in him allowing over a hit per inning every year of his career — except his contract year, of course. His splits are all over the place, but on the whole they’re not good against lefties at all.

I’d rather have no lefties in the pen than sign either of these guys. If Miller would accept a one-year deal, then maybe I’d consider, but it’s doubtful he’d do that. That leaves the Yanks with internal options: Sean Henn, Kei Igawa, Chase Wright, and possibly Ben Kozlowski, if they’re able to bring him back on a minor-league deal.

Henn survived the winter cuts and is out of options, so he’s likely to get the first nod. I’m not sure what the team’s plans for Igawa are, but starting him off in Scranton seems the ideal scenario. Chase Wright posted decent lefty/righty splits in AA, so there’s a chance he could serve as a bullpen lefty in the future. But, since he struggled at the AAA level, there’s little chance he breaks camp with the team.

Personally, I’d rather carry an all-righty bullpen than hand the spot to Miller, Affeldt, or Henn. It appears the Yanks are hearing those sentiments on the former two, but not on Henn. He’s probably going to have to fail at the Major League level again before the Yankees sever ties — and who knows how many games he’ll screw up by that point?

The overall idea is, why carry a lefty reliever if you can’t find any such players who can serve the purpose of having a lefty in the pen? It makes no sense to me.

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Hank: 'Prior? We don't want no stinkin' Prior.'
Grimsley affidavit unsealed
  • mehmattski

    I agree 100% Too bad there will be some crappy lefty on the bullpen right next to our crappy “he’s good cause he’s a veteran” righty LaTroy Hawkins anyway. It takes a radical who is unafraid of criticism to buck Conventional Thinking, and tht rarely happens under the microscope in NY.

  • ikl

    i think that the fact that Henn is on the roster is a strong indication that he going to get another shot next year unless he really messes up in Spring Training. Same for Bruney, who is also out of options, I think. So this gives us Rivera, Farns, Hawkins, Henn and Bruney. So the bullpen picture is actually not that unclear – there are just two spots that seem wide open and our extra starter may well get one of them. The bullpen concerns me a bit – on paper this is not a very good bullpen, but we are largely stuck with it unless we cut people or there are injuries. Hopefully the Yankees will figure things out by June or so before they lose too many games because of it.

  • Steve S

    I agree to an extent. Its not as important as people make it out to be. The only thing I would raise is that these managers still think “conventionally” so the availability of lefthanders in the bullpen impacts things throughout a given game. That though is not enough to pay these kind of dollars to guys who are completely ineffective. I think everyone has to take it easy with hawkins. Middle relievers are a complete gamble, whether they are young or journey men. You never know when theyll have a great year (see Tanyon Sturtze in 2004). Sometimes you have to roll the dice. Maybe Hawkins, can log some innings and help with the development of Ohlendorf and others (rather than Kyle saying anything).

  • Mooks

    I get the feeling the Yankee Bullpen strategy can be summed up in a few words.

    Surivive until the all-star break, and then let the reinforcements from the minors come in and save the day.

    Make due with what you got, and wait until the kids come up (or a in season trade).

  • Geno

    I agree. Give the spots to the best arms we’ve got, regardless of which arm they throw with. Sometimes it’s easy to out-think yourself, especially when “it’s the way we’ve always done it”.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    ….there’s always Ron Villone….

    *ducks*

  • LLOYD BANKS

    Mooks,

    While I agree with you in regards to the Yankees supposed “bullpen strategy,” that strategy is asbolutely terrible. Our bullpen is horrendous and with heavy pitch restrictions on 3/5 of the rotation, we are susceptible to falling in big trouble, early.

    While I know the general sentiment of this site says otherwise, I personally believe that passing on Mahay was a mistake. Since when did the Yankees become penny pinchers? I’m not certain, but I was of the impression that he signed like a 2yr 8mil deal with KC. With a payroll over 200 mil, why not take a chance on a guy who has a below 3 ERA and pitched very effective last year from the left side.

    And do you guys honestly think Sean Henn is the answer? He’s absolutely terrible and got lit up nearly every time he pitched last year (I could pitch better than him from the left side and i’m righty). His ERA was in the 9’s in September.

    I know I’ve said this before, but i’ll say it again – I DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW THE YANKEES CAN GROSSLY OVERPAY FOR THEIR ‘CORE’ FA’S BUT ALL OF A SUDDEN STOP SPENDING WHEN THE PITCHING NEEDS IT MOST. We paid Posada, Rivera, and Arod a TON of money this offseason (all 3 of them are overpaid). While i agree that it was imperative to get those guys back, once we did, you cant all of a sudden cry poverty and say “we dont have enough money to sign Santana, or Mahay, or etc.” I mean, pitching wins fellas. Whats the pt of signing aging veterans to overpriced contracts if you dont establish strong pitching around them. Who cares that we have Posada and Arod back if our pitchers cant get out of the 5th inning and our bullpen has the highest ERA in baseball.

    I really think that Cashman needs to stop crying about money, and take that extra step to solidify a Championship. You cant tell me that an 8-10 million K to Mahay would be too costly against the teams budget. I’d rather us take more chances and spend more money on pitchers than againg veteran position players (see Damon, Giambi, Posada, Abreu).

    And in regards to our farm system, yea, their nice players, but we cant honestly rely on them to be “the answer” the second half of the season. With the exception of Joba, nearly every Yankee farmhand who was called up to round off the bullpen got bombed last year (see Veras, Henn, Britton, Bruney). While I left Ohlendorf and Ramirez off that list, they weren’t anything to write home about either. IMO, we can’t honestly go into next year expecting a lot of these guys cause 90% of them just dont have it. We need to make moves and take risks on “proven” ML relief pitchers. Sure its nice to hear about a homegrown player helping his team on the ML level, but in reality, that doesnt happen all that often in Yankee-land (9/10 of those guys pitch mop-up duty), and we’d be wrong to think its all of a sudden going to start now.

    • Glen L

      Mahay
      IP ERA ERA+ WHIP K/9 BB/9
      2005 35.7 6.81 68 1.766 7.8 3.8
      2006 57 3.95 117 1.439 8.7 4.0
      2007 67 2.55 173 1.328 7 4.5

      His K rates aren’t awful, but his BB rates are bad … we also should keep in mind he pitched half the year in the NL last year … he’s an OK reliever .. but i see absolutely no reason to believe we can’t get that same production from a kid we already have making the minimum

      just because a reliever is a veteran doesn’t mean he’s better than a kid .. the padres consistently have a great bullpen and most of it comes from within, look at cleveland this past year as well

    • mooks

      Hey, I didn’t say it was a good strategy.

      But its the one they seem to have chosen.

      I expect them to try and make some inseason “tinkering” and trade some prospects at some point to land a decent reliever (lefty or otherwise), and at the same time, pray like hell that Dave Eiland is a pitching guru in line with Leo Mazzone (who is currently at home collecting $500,000 for this year).

      Best case scenario…..hell, I’m a realist, and not necessarily a optimist, though I do have some hope for some of the kids, but the lefty’s in the system are not good or are to many years away and not ready yet.

  • Count Zero

    “Clearly, the overriding criteria for a lefty reliever is that he fare well against lefty hitters. Bonus points go to the lefty who can also hold his own against righties. Problem is, pitchers who fit this description are rare.”

    That’s the crux of the matter right there. I totally believe in the effectiveness of loogy matchups — they can save you in a tight spot. But it doesn’t work with just any loogy — and really effective loogys are hard to find. I don’t think any of these choices are effective loogys. Out of them all, Miller might be the closest. If Igawa could ever learn to pitch instead of throw, he could make a really effective loogy. But I guess the odds of that are about 20:1 against.

    Don’t put a leftie on the roster because it’s compulsory — do it because he has shown he can be a really effective loogy. Otherwise, I’ll take the best pitcher regardless of which arm he throws with.

  • http://samiamsports.blogspot.com SAMIAMSPORTS

    well written and i agree.

  • kanst

    Being a lefty is just one point for a reliever. I would rather have a good righty reliever then an average lefty. Just get guys who can get both side out.

    Lloyd Banks, I think its pretty clear what Cashmans standpoint is. If he deems that a player is the right fit then money isnt an object but he doesnt want to spend money on guys who dont fit. Ya Mahay would have been nice but at 2 years 8 million that is way too much. His career ERA is 3.9 and he walks 4.5 per 9. Personally I dont see him as any better then Hawkins.

    If we end up with a good lefty on our roster I bet it is either Kei Igawa or Jamie Walker. Kei showed good stuff but no feal whatsoever for pitching. If he can figure that out he would be a good reliever. If the O’s trade Bedard they will be in complete rebuild mode and will have no need for a lefty like Walker. We could throw them a prospect like McCutchen and have our lefty

  • Kevin23

    I’d rather see Huston Street than any of these guys. I’ll take my chances without a “loogy”.

  • Glen L

    Mahay
    ———–IP—-ERA—- ERA+—-WHIP—- K/9—-BB/9
    2005— 35.7– 6.81—- 68—— 1.766—- 7.8—- 3.8
    2006—- 57 —-3.95 —–117—- 1.439—- 8.7—– 4.0
    2007—- 67 —-2.55—– 173—- 1.328—- 7.0—– 4.5

    hopefully that’s easier to read

  • ceciguante

    i mostly agree with this post and comments — don’t waste $$ on lefties for lefties’ sake. but i still see a yankee bullpen that is a real weakness and will blow a bunch of games in morale-crushing fashion, just like last year. soft underbelly still needs to be fixed. if i am boston, detroit, cleveland, LAA, etc., i CAN’T WAIT for the 6th/7th/8th against these yanks. these are not the 90s late game assassins we knew and loved.

    how about hughes for k-rod?

    (kidding! relax…)

  • LLOYD BANKS

    Mooks,

    Sorry buddy, I wasnt saying that you agreed with it, I was just agreeing with that it appears that the Yankees have undertaken that approach. It wasnt an attack on you per se, as much as it was an attack against this new ideology of the Yankees.

  • http://riveraveblues.com Mike A.

    It’s not worth the effort to go out and either spend big money or trade away young talent to get a guy just because he’s a lefty, unless he’s an absolute stud.

    Edwar should be effective against lefty batters with that crazy change.

  • nick blasioli

    our bullpen is the worst in the al east…no playoffs with those guys….better do something soon…maybe its already to late…the yankees just wait to long to make deals…santana would fix many problems tht the yankees have right now…

    • ikl

      Assuming that we give up Kennedy, Hughes or both, the bullpen is one problem that Santana wouldn’t fix. In fact, depending on what we give up, the trade could even make it worse.

      I think that there is a good chance that our bullpen will be decent by July – there are a lot of options in the organization now. Most of them will probably not be good, but we really only need three or four of the unproven pitchers to come through. I agree that the early part of the season could be pretty painful though . . .

    • Jerry

      Our bullpen is not as bad as Tampa Bay’s pen.

  • gregori

    how is it that the yanks, with their 10,000 deep pitcher talent in the minors, can’t manage to pry away a stud like marte from pitt. he makes over minimum wage which means he’s availible. overpay with minor talent to get aplayer you need and a rare commodity.

    • http://yankeesetc.blogspot.com/ Travis G.

      i think they’re looking at Marte.

      is it wrong of me to think Edwar and Ohlendorf can do a decent job (if used correctly)? i know edwar walked the world in his call up, but the 2 week layoff for a changeup pitcher didn’t help and and may have started a tailspin.

      • Kanst

        I agree completely I think they can both be very good late inning relievers, which is why I am in no rush to trade for/sign a reliever

    • ceciguante

      gregori-
      completely agree. if the yanks have so much pitching depth, and the setup role is a glaring weakness, why not overpay a little from a strength to fill that weakness? travis, i don’t think it’s wrong to HOPE edwar and/or ohlendorf and/or any of the other mud we have to throw against the wall might stick, but i think RELYING on that strategy is a mistake. yanks shouldn’t field another $200M team w/o a top setup man or two — it’s ridiculous, and it costs us every year in october. do we have to learn that lesson again the hard way like we did last year when CLE shut us down with the rafael brothers and we had no answer??

      i like marte’s numbers. 33yo to start the season, consistently above league performance, lefty, very low hits, usu low BBs & WHIP, good Ks, AL experience, $2.6M salary = reasonable these days. go get him! our bullpen makes me queasy.

      • Rob_in_CT

        And where did Cleveland get the Rafaels? At least one of them off the scrap heap, if I recall correctly.

        I’m not as sold on Marte as you are. Even if I was… ok, I’d be interested (and the Yanks are, as far as I know), but at what cost?

        I have to agree that Sean Henn is clearly not the answer, though.

        • Rob_in_CT

          And, actually, the Yanks *did* have an answer: Joba. He was the best relief pitcher in the ALDS, period… but he blew the bugs game.

          The rest of the series is on Wang and the bats, not the lack of a lefty reliever.

  • http://dunnp@bc.edu paul dunn

    THe Yankees need a lefty reliever. It would be great to have an all righty bullpen in which the righthanders had no problem with lefties, but such is not the case. When Mike Stanton was at his best, it didn’t matter. But the problem is identifying a quality lefty. For example, a couple of years ago the Orioles overpaid for Steve Kline who was coming off of shoulder surgery. He had a horrible season and the O’s let him go. The following season Kline had a solid year with the Giants. I agree that paying Ron Mahay 8 mill for two years is high, but the Yanks could have made the move. The difficulty this year is that once Scott Linebrink was given a 4 year deal after a poor season, the price for relief pitching (lefty or righty) went way up. Perhaps the answer is in the Yanks farm system. On Ron Villone, Torre wore the guy out two years ago. Is he worth resigning ? I don’t know

  • Chris

    With all this talk of mak prior – who I think will just be using the team he signs with as a place to rehab (thats why he wants a one yea deal) I wonde why there is no talk of Batolo Colon who is not fa removed from a Cy Young. Yes, he was hurt last year and he is big fat guy, but there have been some othe fat guys who have succeeded in NY. I cant believe he is on noones rada – especially the muts. He shouldnt cost much and pobably would take an incentive laden deal. Low isk High reward in my opionion and not a bad option as a fifth starter, maybe even find a spot as a stud set-up man

  • Chris

    great qoute from baseball america:

    As George Steinbrenner has aged (and sons Hank and Hal become more visible leaders), Brian Cashman has consolidated control of the organization. He deserves credit for the club’s consistency but curiously has not been blamed for chronic shortages on the bench and in the bullpen.

    Tephlon Cashman – why does everyone always praise this guy? He hasnt put a bullpen together since the glory days and his failures in trades and FA signings far outweigh his successess. If he didnt have all that money to bury mistakes he would have been fired years ago.

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