The most hot-button issue for the Yankees in this young season has been the bullpen. Considered the weakest link by many heading into the season, April didn’t do much to bolster the supporters’ argument, as they currently have the second highest bullpen ERA in the league. So what gives? This is a group, after all, who performed well as a whole last year. Is general bullpen volatility hurting as much as it helped last year, or is something else at play?
The most important aspect of a bullpen, I think we can all agree, is its ability to hold down a lead, and to hold the opposition in a close game. They can’t perform those tasks, though, if the starting pitching doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. When a starter goes just five innings and gives up five or six runs, there’s not much the bullpen can do. Since bullpens are fallible, I think we’d rather see them give up their runs in those situations as opposed to ones where the team has put itself in a position to win. This got me thinking about the bullpen this year and where their blow-ups have come.
Instead of looking at the bullpen in the aggregate, let’s break it down into situations. Clearly, these will suffer even more from small sample sizes, but we’re not looking to project anything here. We’re doing this simply to examine their performance to date. My hypothesis is that the bullpen tends to hold down the fort when the starter turns in a quality performance, which is defined as six innings and three or fewer runs. For our purposes we’ll use the 6/3 standard, but extend that to 7/4. So instead of looking at the bullpen in all instances, we’ll look at how they performed when the starting pitcher allowed three or fewer runs when pitching six innings, or four or fewer runs when pitching seven or more innings. These are games in which the starter has left the team in a position to win.
In those games in which the Yanks received a quality start, the bullpen locked down the opposition with a 3.10 ERA. That includes a few blowouts — three by my count. But one of them was the game against the Tigers wherein the bullpen surrendered five meaningless runs, which skews the stat. Even with that performance, the bullpen ERA is still stellar when the starter does his job. They’ve allowed the opposition to score in only four of 12 such appearances, two of which were blowouts. One, of course, was the blown game in Kansas City, the only one the bullpen has blown for a starter so far.
The bullpen does serve other functions, such as bailing out a starter who just doesn’t have it on a given day. There’s no way they could have been expected to lock down the opposition in Chien-Ming Wang’s later two stinkers, but they sure could have done Pettitte a solid on Friday night. While that ended well, many times it will not. The bullpen needs to come in there and limit the damage. The problem then is that they’re not perfect. They’re by definition (with a few exceptions of college closers and late-inning relief) flawed pitchers. They’re going to allow runs.
When the Yankees starter does not go 6/3 or 7/4, the bullpen has an 8.87 ERA. We can, if we so desire, remove the later two Wang appearances, since there was little chance that the bullpen could have made much of a difference even if they pitched zeroes (in other words, we couldn’t have reasonably expected the offense to put up that many runs, though they certainly could have). That leaves the bullpen with a 7.91 ERA in non-Wang games in which the starter did not go 6/3 or 7/4.
What I’m asking here is whether this is a bad thing. We know bullpens will surrender runs. Would it not be better for that to happen when the starter doesn’t do his job, rather than have them waste a quality start? Clearly, you’d like them to pitch a bit better and pick up for a starter’s bad game — a 7.91 ERA is hardly justifiable by any means. But I think it’s more important than they’re holding down the good ones.
Part of the blame for the bullpen has to rest on the starters. Through 24 games they’ve met the 6/3 or 7/4 standard just half the time. That’s not going to fly in the long term. Over the past few seasons the Yanks have won with powerhouse offenses and mediocre pitching. This year was supposed to be different. The pitching was supposed to be lights out and correct the team’s recent weakness of allowing too many runs. We haven’t seen that so far, and it’s not all the bullpen’s fault. They’ll have to pitch a bit better and pick up for an occasional poor performance from a starter, but if the starters are doing it only half the time then should the bullpen really be facing the brunt of the blame?