When did this whole 8th inning phenomenon start? When did the Yankees, their fans and anyone associated with the team decide that the 8th inning was of such paramount importance that the team needs one reliever dedicated to the 8th inning and only the 8th inning?
Maybe it started with Joba in 2007, Kyle Farnsworth in 2006, Tom Gordon after the 2004 ALCS or Steve Karsay’s injury in 2003 after a very effective 2002. Maybe it started when Jeff Nelson left the Yanks after 2001 and Mike Stanton followed suit after 2002. No matter the cause, it’s an unnecessary obsession that can limit the Yanks’ flexibility in ways it shouldn’t.
Two bits of news from yesterday’s game and the subsequent post-game interviews reveal the dichotomies of the 8th inning. If ever there was a game for an 8th Inning Guy, yesterday was it. The Yanks had a two-run lead, and the Mariners were about to send their 9-1-2 guys up to the plate. As it happened, these hitters were also R-L-L, and the Yankees, instead of going to Brian Bruney, the anointed 8th Inning Guy, played the match-ups perfectly.
Al Aceves, ace reliever, started the inning. Ronnie Cedeno flew out, and Girardi pulled Aceves for Phil Coke, a lefty who is death on lefties. Coke got Ichiro to ground out and Russell Branyan to strike out. (With that appearance, by the way, lefties are now hitting just .188/.214/.406 with 19 K’s in 70 plate appearances against Coke. Damaso who?)
After the game, though, Girardi was singing a different tune. Per M.A. Mehta:
“He’s our eighth inning guy right now,” Girardi said. “We expect him to pitch better. I know he has not pitched great since he’s come back off the DL. He’s had some good outings and he’s had some tough outings. … He’s had success in that role. He’s struggling a little bit right now.”
“I know he doesn’t have a track record of a Tex or and an Alex or some of the other players that we have,” Girardi added. “But we didn’t panic with them. And we’re not going to panic with Brian Bruney. Obviously, you do have to perform and we expect you to perform at a high level. If you don’t, you do make adjustments.”
Girardi also balked at the notion that defining roles to his relievers can be counterproductive. He said he preferred giving his bullpen crew specific roles rather than riding the hot hand. “When guys have defined roles, they know when they’re going to pitch,” Girardi said. “And they can start preparing mentally a little bit earlier. I think that helps them. The other thing that does is that I think it keeps you from wearing one guy out. A lot of times if you have a guy who’s pitching extremely well, all of a sudden, you’ve used him five out of six days … And then you start wearing the guy out. And then he starts going backwards.”
Got all that? Basically, Girardi is willing to hand the 8th inning role because he’s “had success in that role” and because it’s important for relievers to have overly defined roles so they can mentally prepare to pitch when their inning comes around. Why though? I don’t believe these relievers benefit psychologically from the regimented inning-by-inning breakdown Girardi is trying to give. Rather, the reliever used should depend upon the situation.
Right now, the Yankees have four relievers that have been lights out for weeks. Obviously, Mariano is the go-to guy for saves and tight situations late in the 8th. After him though, Phil Coke, Al Aceves, Phil Hughes and Brian Bruney have all shown the ability to get key outs late in the game. Coke matches up against lefties; Bruney and Aceves against righties; and Hughes against everyone these days. Let the game determine the reliever. Let the pitcher feeling good that day take the innings and let these relievers know that, late in a game, they will be called upon when the situation warrants it. There’s no need to lock down the 8th inning as though it’s more important than the other eight innings combined.
Addendum by Joe: …because I had a whole post written on this same topic, referencing the same post, and didn’t want to waste it.
The trouble with specialization is that it calls for more frequent pitching changes. Bullpens are volatile. Therefore, every time the manager calls on a new reliever he’s increasing the chances he runs into someone who isn’t having a good night. Meanwhile, the guy who was successful the previous inning (or batter) languishes on the bench. We saw this in action on Tuesday. Phil Hughes mowed down the Mariners with nine pitches, but Girardi went to Bruney anyway. Unfortunately, Bruney was not having a good night.
With both Al Aceves and Phil Hughes capable of throwing multiple innings out of the bullpen, the Yankees are in a unique position to redefine bullpen usage patterns. They need not fall into the traps of multiple reliever usage, because they have a crop of quality starters and a capable corps in the bullpen. Why not use this opportunity to change the game?
In games like last night, where the starter goes seven innings and leaves with a lead, perhaps the traditional setup man to closer paradigm makes sense. With only two innings left and Mo ready for the ninth, a one-inning guy can slot into the eighth. That’s where Bruney could shine. Starter goes seven, then onto Bruney and Mo to ice it. However, it’s a different story when the starter goes six or fewer.
On Saturday, Chien-Ming Wang will take the mound again. There’s little to no chance he can go more than six innings. This leaves an opening for a longer relief stint. Why not use Hughes for two there, laying the bridge for Mo? Aceves could do the job as well. That way you’re sticking with just one reliever. If he’s good you can just leave him in there and avoid the risk of going to another guy, who might not pitch as well as the original.
If the starter exits the game before the seventh and the team has a number of good pitchers who can throw multiple innings, why take the risk of going inning-by-inning? It seems to me a better idea to stick with the guy who’s pitching well.