Is it the bullpen, or is it the starters?

How do you spend a $51.1 million posting fee?
Fan Confidence Poll: May 4th, 2009

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?

How do you spend a $51.1 million posting fee?
Fan Confidence Poll: May 4th, 2009
  • Aunt Becca-Optimist Prime

    And, ladies and gentleman, THIS is why you don’t break camp without a long reliever

    • Pablo Zevallos

      Good point.

    • whozat

      Yeah, I kinda agree on that. It’s also a problem that they have been so very bad in blowouts. It means that you have to burn SO many relievers in a single game.

      But I admit…the starters have been more disappointing. And the offense not being able to get to that 30 year old shlub two days ago. I _am_ curious about Tex, though. How is that wrist? I wonder if the Yanks need to take a harder line with guys that are hurt…Two weeks of Juan Miranda + Tex at 100% from June to October is better than Tex batting less than his weight because his wrist hurts all year. Does Gene Monahan hold his tongue too much? Is there just this culture of “Tough It Out” that winds up being detrimental to the team? I don’t know. I’m just tired of finding out that the reason a guy sucked for a month and a half is that he was playing injured.

      • Bo

        Not having a long reliever has been sinful.

        • steve (different one)

          when is the last time they’ve REALLY needed a long reliever? 2 weeks ago?

          this keeps getting regurgitated, but i’m not seeing it.

          even when Burnett crapped the bed, he went 5 innings, and you only needed 3 more innings since the game was on the road.

          a longman is usually an inferior pitcher who has the ability to go 3-4 innings in a lost cause. the yankees haven’t really had any of those games since Wang got sent down.

          they needed a long reliever for Wang. since then, not really.

        • MattG

          No, it has not been sinful. Albaladejo or Coke each did the long reliever’s job, and had Tomko or Aceves done it, absolutely nothing would have been different.

          Look at the box scores. The only way a long reliever matters would be if he somehow threw 5 innings, and how often does a long man do THAT?

    • thurdonpaul

      wheres ramiro mendoza when you need him

  • Rich

    Defensive misplays and suboptimal bullpen management by Girardi have also contributed to the problem.

  • Brooklyn Ed

    techically, the Angels has the worse bullpen.

    speaking of the Angels, can’t believe they have another K-Rod in their system even though, his name is Fernando. lol

    • Pablo Zevallos

      Are you trying to highlight a grammatical point? Because “the Angels have” is correct because it refers to “Angels” as a team, not individuals in a group.

      • Pablo Zevallos

        Wait what am I saying…you’re right (I think)…nevermind ;)

        • Brooklyn Ed

          lol this is where Becca comes in, hahas.

        • Manimal

          One Angel has, The Angels have. But The Angels is the name of a team(singular) so it could be either way.

          • UWS

            I’m pretty sure that it’s “Angels team has” or “Angels have.” “Angels has” might be theoretically correct (I don’t think it is), but it just looks weird.

            Also, why the hell are we debating grammar on a baseball blog at 1am?

            • Brooklyn Ed

              lol no clue.

            • UWS

              I take it back. “Angels has” is incorrect under any circumstances. I need to go to bed.

              • whozat

                It’s actually “Teh Angles can haz wurst pen in MLBxorz!!!”

            • Pablo Zevallos

              I don’t know. My fault.

              *creeps off the stage*

            • Manimal

              Yeah grammatically its correct but it just looks strange. English is so dumb. Its not as black and white as other languages.

              • Pablo Zevallos

                Spanish, Latin, and French grammar >>>> English grammar.

                • Mike Pop

                  TRAITOR TO THE CROWN!

      • Brooklyn Ed

        lol give me a break, its 1230 right now.

  • Manimal

    I think Tomko should be with the yanks, especially over Claggett.

    • Brooklyn Ed

      isn’t Claggett cut out to be a long reliever or he’s just a middle reliever?

      • Jamal G.

        The latter.

    • Jamal G.

      40-man issue.

    • UWS

      Adding Tomko requires a 40-man move. Also, him getting lit up instead of, say, Veras, would do nothing to correct the bullpen’s bloated numbers.

    • Pablo Zevallos

      Tomko prepped to be a closer, so he can’t go more than 2 innings without some danger to his health. Claggett has gone as many as 3 (once) but is mostly in the 1-2 range. Besides, I don’t think it’s fair to judge Claggett on one outing, especially considering the fact that we saw what Tomko did in KC last year, and Claggett’s stuff > Tomko’s stuff.

      • Brooklyn Ed

        hmm why not call up Kennedy to be the long man? just saying.

        • Jamal G.

          1. He’s on the DL.

          2. That’s a waste of his talent.

          • Brooklyn Ed

            right, he’s on the DL. totally forgot about that.

        • Pablo Zevallos

          Besides the fact that he’s injured, I don’t think I’d waste a solid prospect in the bullpen like that. I would’ve proposed Jason Johnson, but he’s injured as well.

          • Mike Pop

            Casey Fossum…………..

  • Brooklyn Ed

    hmm shouldnt Miranda be called up? one man short of the bench, and we need someone to pinch hit for Gardner most of the times.

    • Jamal G.

      Nick Swisher was available for pinch-hitting duties in the series finale versus the Halos.

    • Rich

      I’m fine with calling up Miranda, but I’m not sure whose roster spot he takes. As for Gardner, he has had 7 AB since April 25th, so I don’t think that’s a sufficient reason for doing it.

      • Pablo Zevallos


        • Rich

          Then who plays the infield if there is an in game injury or Girardi wants to PH for Pena?

      • Brooklyn Ed

        one of the pitchers, cough-Ramirez-cough.

        • Rich

          The problem with that is the theme of this thread. With the pen overworked, and the starters sometimes not going deep into games, it’s tough to remove a reliever from the roster, although given the sometimes inexplicable usage patterns by Girardi, maybe they could do that.

      • BigBlueAL

        Easy, one of the 8 relievers which is an absurd amount to carry in a bullpen, especially when a couple of them never pitch anyway. Ive been advocating for the Yankees to stop this insane roster management of carrying 13 pitchers the entire season and call-up someone like Miranda who at the least can pinch-hit vs RHP and heck I still believe Tex is nowhere near 100% with his wrist so I assume it wouldnt hurt to maybe give him a day off here or there and w/o Nady now carrying just 4 OFers means Swisher should always be playing the OF.

        • steve (different one)

          it’s not absurd if one of your relievers is hurt and you are trying to avoid DL’ing him by giving him some time to rest.

          until Swisher got hit by that pitch, they haven’t really been crying out for the pinch hitter that everyone seems to think they need.

          think about it: during the first 2 games with the Angels, Pena came up with men on base in the late innings.

          if you HAD a pinch hitter, the odds are pretty good that he doesn’t get both hits that Pena wound up getting.

          and Swisher was only supposed to miss a game or two.

          yes, i agree with you that once things settle down (there really has been a rash of injuries in the last week), they should bring up another position player.

          i don’t think they are going to carry 8 relievers all season. it’s early and things have been very chaotic.

          if Teixeira IS hurt (and none of us know that, we’re just guessing), he is going to have to tough it out at least until A-Rod gets back. they need him in the lineup, even if he is just drawing walks.

  • touchtoneterriost

    People keep blaming the bullpen but just like some of the crazy people here who thought Hughes,Kenndy and Joba would anchor the rotation they believed Bruney would be a set-up man or Ramirez and Veras and Coke would help.

    Bruney,Veras and Ramirez are all journey men.There’s a reason why they got released from there old teams.The idea this is a solid bullpen is stupid.Besides Mo and Marte no one has played a full year as a reliever and pitched good.They can’t do it,

    Don’t add extra pressure and make people like Bruney into set-up men.They never did it and never will.

    • Rich

      The flaw in your reasoning is that Bruney was handing the setup role quite well this season:

      FIP: 0.93
      WHIP: 0.63
      K/9: 13.50
      K/BB: 6.00

    • Moshe Mandel

      Bruney came to the Yankees at 24. He has a 3.03 ERA as a Yankee and is only 27. He is not a journeyman. Veras is a bit more of a minor league journeyman, but he too is just 28. Edwar is also just 28, and has only been in one other organization. Veras and Edwar both has ERA’s under 4 last year. None are journeymen, and Bruney has set-up type numbers. But if you say so…

    • steve (different one)

      this post makes no sense.

      why are you picking on Coke and Bruney?

      i agree that Edwar and Veras are marginal, and they might have to be changed out as the year goes on, but Coke has been solid and Bruney has been outstanding.

      if Melancon is what we think he can be, that will go a loooong way to settling things down.

  • BronxBomber44

    our healthy, best pen, hoping all perform would look like this:

    Coke/Alby + Longman.

    That is so many pitchers… that can’t be right?

    • Rich

      Robertson and Coke are probably better than any of the relievers except Mo, Bruney, and Melancon.

      • Bo

        What has Robertson showed you that he is a good reliever? All he does is get lit up like a pinball machine.

        • pat

          Ah yes, there we go.

          • Mike Pop


  • Slugger27

    with the way most managers are managing the games these days, wouldnt all team bullpens have better numbers after a quality start from the pitcher?

    what i mean is that if the pitcher has a quality start and puts his team in a position to win, that usually means the “A” relievers enter the game… in other words, the better ones

    if our pitcher goes out and throws 4 innings and gives up 6 runs, generally we arent in winning or even close to winning… thats when we get the edwars and dan gieses and claggetts of the world…. where as if our pitcher throws 7 innings with 2 ER, we are generally winning or in a very close game… and thats when we see the bruneys and marianos of the world

    my point is, the games we are winning, we’ll always see better relievers, and thus, better numbers… so im not sure your analysis is relevant…. we already know bruney and mo are good, theyre the ones pitching in those games

    • Jona H

      I agree. Isn’t this really just a proxy for saying we need starters to go deeper so we can skip the lousy part of the pen? There’s nothing inherently difficult about the middle innings that makes the pen suck when they have to pitch the 5th/6th/7th. It’s just a reflection of quality of pitcher we can afford to throw out there when we’re only tied or behind.

      • Mike Pop

        Jonah Hill?

  • NHYankee62

    Pretty good original post showing that the bullpen has been decent holding down leads. That may become alittle more shakey over the next week or so as Bruney is still out and Marte is now on the DL. Here’s hoping that Melancon and Robertson can get the job done!

    Finally, I agree that the starters needs to do alot better. I know I expected us to have the best staff in baseball. Things will turn around soon enough though. I still think the Yanks do have the best staff in baseball. Wang will come back healthy, Hughes will be a big help, Joba is coming along nicely, CC will be CC, and hopefully Burnett doesn’t blow anymore 6 run leads. :)

  • AlexNYC

    It’s A-Rod’s fault.

  • Artist formerly known as ‘The’ Steve

    Great post, Joe. When a starter does his job, it allows a manager to set up his bullpen the way he wants to, and use guys in the situations for which they are best suited. When you’re trying to get 2 innings out of a lefty specialist, or bringing Veras or Edwar in with men on base, you get predictable results. That’s not to say those pitchers aren’t useful, they are. You just have to pick your spots with them.

  • Yankeegirl49

    Of course the starters need to go deeper. I would think every team would like to use it’s middle relief as little as possible.
    Most guys dont get drafted/signed as middle relievers. They are middle relievers because they have the “stuff” (for the record, I hate that word) to get ML hitters out, but are not consistent enough to start.
    There isnt a team out there that wouldnt love every starter to go 7, so they can skip that weak part of the pen.

  • Bo

    Even great starters don’t go 7 everytime out. The pen needs to pick the starters up when they don’t go long. That’s the whole point of a pen. This pen has been flat out awful and it mostly has to do with hows its constructed. These guys just aren’t any good. Cashman better do something quick to get some help in here or we are going to look like the 2008 Mets.

    • Mike Pop

      Shut your mouth, just, just, shut your mouth. You’re sounding stupid right now.

  • Steve S

    I think the pen is a concern, but this is the benefit of what Cashman did with the current construction of the bullpen. Middle relievers are fickle and if you want to have some flexibility with respect to the roster it should be with the bullpen. Its not as if there were a plethora of guys out there that he could have signed that would have brought some stability. I know a lot of people wanted Juan Cruz, but its not as if Juan Cruz is MO reincarnate. And to be honest they locked up one guy- Marte, and I thought that was their only mistake, they overpaid and there were comparable guys out there. Now Marte is 34 years old with shoulder problems and another 2+ years left on his contract.

    And I will say the bullpen does have to start pitching better in all situations. Ive been pleasantly surprised with this lineup and its ability to score runs. When Arod comes back and Tex comes out of his funk, if Robbie Cano can keep this up, they would have a devastating middle of the order and an offense that wouldn’t be out of any game. Ill reiterate what some people have already said, they need to give Girardi a long relief option. And as much as Coke sounds like a baby, he has a point, these guys are creature of habits and it would make sense to start providing them with some defined roles.

    I also think the starters have been issue, CC has had what we all expected to be a mediocre April, Wang has been a disaster and to be honest I worry the most about AJ. He was sort of described as a #2-borderline #1 starter. He has looked more like a solid #3 guy who is going to be dominant at times but inconsistent with that dominance. I hope that he can put together a nice run like he did last year in the second half because they need him now especially with Wang hurt. And for those b-jobbers, Joba has arguably been their best starter so far this year.

  • Mike Pop

    Don’t worry fellas. We’ll get em. The pen will come around, I have seen the future. Now CC and A.J.? Hmm, I don’t know. Both overpaid busts who hate it here in NY.

    • UWS

      I, too, have seen the future. In that future, Mike Pop gets popped for possession of illegal substances.

      Until that happens, however, I hope you brought enough to share with the class. Give!

      • Mike Pop

        You just saw the past, sweetie.

        • Sal

          I’ll have whatever he’s obviously on

  • LiveFromNewYork

    I think Bruney has been great. We miss him A LOT. More Bruneys please.

    Melancon is a rookie but has signs of being very solid. I disagree with Girardi in bringing him in a pressure situation. He simply hasn’t been there that long. Let’s not scare the hell out of the kid before he gets going.

    Edwar can be brilliant but I worry about his off days when he simply sucks. I think Mo sees something in this kid and has been trying to mentor him but when he misses, he misses big. But when he’s on, he’re really on.

    Veras I can do without ever seeing again.

    Marte we all know what he can do when he’s on it. Hopefully he gets on it more often.

    Coke probably could be very good. Stop whining and start pitching.

    Albie. Can be good if he doesn’t turn into Girardi’s Proctor which I fear.

    • steve (different one)

      sooo…you just outlined why every other pitcher besides Melancon can’t really be trusted, but criticized Girardi for using him with the game on the line.

      does that make sense to you?

  • leyritzdrivingschool

    reliever ERA is nice but you need to break out inherited runner stats to get a complete picture of their effectiveness.

    • Drarto

      I couldn’t agree more. IMO opinion our bullpen fails misearbly in 2 areas, 1) allowing inherited runners to score and 2) failing to pound the strike zone

  • steve (different one)

    one thing i have noticed is that offense is up all around the league.

    it’s not just the yankee bullpen, or yankee stadium, or the yankees.

    run scoring is way up. not sure why.

    league average ERA for a yankee pitcher this year might be closer to 5 than it is to 4, so maybe we need to start changing our expectations??

    obviously ERA’s in the 7’s and 8’s for our relievers are unacceptable, but is it possible we’re seeing a return to the early ’00s offensive environment?

    • Mike Pop

      But with no more steroids!!!1111!!!! Why is this happening, worse talent?

      • UWS

        ARod is tipping pitches via intercoms inside players helmets.

        • thurdonpaul


  • MattG

    “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?”

    That is not a bad thing in retrospect. It explains why the Yankees are 13-11 despite being outscored.

    But it is a bad thing in general. I know you do not wish this analysis to be used for predictive purposes, but if you WERE to predict, you would have to predict that the bullpen will either begin pitching better in non-stress situations, or pitching worse in stress situations, or most likely, a little of both. This pins the bullpen era at exactly what it is, but in every situation, which means a lot more losing baseball.

    I am very disturbed by Coke’s statements. I can’t for the life of me understand why the bullpen pitcher’s role needs to be so granular for them to succeed. How about this? Give up a run today, and you’ll be in Trenton tomorrow. Is that a good enough role for you?

    • Steve S

      I don’t have as much of a problem with what Coke said, it was honest and he did take ownership to the extent that he said they need to always be ready. Everyone knows that middle relievers are for the most part failed starters who have one or two pitches that they can get guys out with. Its not surprising that these guys would like to have some kind of fixed roles. Pitchers are normally creatures of habit- ask Mike Mussina.

      But I will agree they do need to earn those roles.

      • MattG

        You know what, you’re right. It is not Coke’s fault he said that, or that he feels that way. Everyone would rather be given a really simple job they can excel at, then an amorphous job they have a good chance of failing at.

        But it is someone’s fault Coke feels that way, so I am going to blame the Yankee organization. It seems that if you are going to develop a bunch of interchangeable league-average pitchers, and rotate through them as such, you need to explain to them what is going on. Did Coke assume he was the “7th inning guy,” or did someone tell him this?

        Rather than assume anything, they should sit him down, with Albie, Robertson, Edwar and Veras, and tell them all that for the present, they are totally interchangeable, and everyone of them needs to be ready to pitch in any situation. More significant roles will be the reward for sustained success.

  • Axl

    It’s amazing how the bullpen did significantly better with guys like Sidney Ponson, Dan Geise, Darrell Rasner, etc starting a good amount of games last year…while this year they’re struggling mightily (albeit, the starters have been absolutely awful in a bunch of starts) but we scored significantly less runs last year…so they did have quite a few “close and late” games they needed to get used to. While, yes…we are on pace to allow significantly more runs than last year…but why? That’s the real question. It’s not exactly who is doing it. They both are. It’s basically WHY are they both giving up more runs than they had last year. Some of our starters line stats look as though they could be even worse than what Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner did for us last year…with LESS run support! I’m going to stick with my real quesion of finding out WHY this is happening…because we just really don’t know.

    Sabathia will have good starts and we’ll score 1 or 2 runs if any at all and lose…and he’ll have bad starts and we’ll score more runs…and lose as well. It might just “bad luck” on his part…when he pitches good…the opposing pitcher’s are also pitching well. Or perhaps it’s just the continuence of our incredibly inconsistent offense that has been around for quite some time over the years. AJ will have some brilliant starts and even start off a game looking great and then give up 8+ runs in one inning to ruin everything. Wang was pretty much a kamakazi pilot crashing onto the field…destroying any hope of ever winning anything. Pettitte has been consistent but nothing earth shattering. And Joba has done his job here and there but he walks nearly everybody he sees for some reason.

    The bullpen in inexperienced to begin with…and you accompany that with terrible starts lasting less than 5 innings…having to come in and pitch mediocre stuff to several batters…it’s going to create more problems and eventually get to the point where they’re exhausted during relieving good starts.

    The answer is…it’s both. But the real question should be “why is it happening like this with MUCH better pitchers than last year?”

  • dkidd

    it’s the starters. 7 innings + melancon + healthy marte + healthy bruney + mo = win

  • Sal

    The pen sucks. I don’t know where this whole thing spread that these guys were actually talented but it was wrong