With plenty of time between the end of play Sunday and the start of the ALCS on Friday evening, we’ve been taking our time previewing the series. We’ve already looked at the infielders, the starters, and the managers, so now we’ll hit the relief corps.
The Yankees bullpen was rock solid last year, so fans expected more of the same this year since the cast of characters was largely unchanged. Things didn’t go as planned in April, and soon guys like Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, and Jon Albaladejo were jettisoned in favor of younger players, who proved to be up to the task. The only two relievers to stay on the team’s active roster wire-to-wire were Mariano Rivera and Phil Coke. The rest of the group came aboard around May.
As a whole, the Yankees bullpen thoroughly outperformed their haloed counterparts. Let’s break it down…
The Yankees have the Angels beat, or at least tied, in every category but walks per nine innings, and even there the difference is just one free pass every 30 innings. That doesn’t even take into consideration the division each team plays in. It’s safe to say the Yanks come into the series with a superior bullpen, though let’s break it down on an even deeper level anyway.
The Angels carried just ten pitchers on their ALDS roster, four of them starters. That leaves just six relievers, whereas the Yankees rolled with eight in the Division Series (eleven pitchers total, three starters). That makes for a tricky comparison, but we’ll manage.
Closer: Mariano Rivera vs. Brian Fuentes
Well, there’s not much debate here, so I’ll keep it short. Mo again defied age this year, posting a phenomenal 72-12 K/BB ratio in 66.1 IP. Fuentes got the job done for the Angels, but he allowed 78 baserunners in just 55 IP and was rather shaky all season. Mike Scioscia can say he has confidence in his closer all he wants, but the fact of the matter is that no one in Yankee Universe will feel the good guys are out of it until that 27th out is recorded.
High-Leverage Guys: Joba Chamberlain & Phil Hughes vs. Jason Bulger & Kevin Jepsen
The Angels relief core suffered a huge blow in late May when their ultrareliable and long-time setup man Scot Shields went down for the season with a knee injury. Jose Arredondo got the first shot at replacing Shields, but faltered and wound up back in Triple-A before being left off the playoff roster. Not only did Plan A get hurt, but Plan B failed as well.
Luckily for Scioscia, Bulger stepped up his game and was fantastic pretty much all season, posting a 1.99 ERA and a .172 AVG against while striking out 52 in 54.1 IP from May 2nd to Sept. 23rd (we won’t count four subpar outings to end the season against him). The problem is that he walks more guys than you’d like a late inning reliever to, 30 in 64.1 IP this year. Baseball America ranked Jepsen the team’s 6th best prospect coming into the season, and even though he struggled in the first half, he finished the year strong: .245-.302-.274 against after August 8th, with a 2.24 FIP. Both Bulger and Jepsen can bring it, dialing it up to the mid-90’s, and they’ve been effective late game options for the Angels down the stretch.
The Yankees have their own pair of hard throwing setup men now that Joba Chamberlain has joined Phil Hughes in the bullpen for the playoffs. Hughes was simply masterful as a reliever this season, putting up a 1.93 FIP and a .456 OPS against in over 50 IP (51.1, to be exact). Joba has looked good in a tiny sample after going back into the bullpen for the playoffs, and while it’s unreasonable to expect him to repeat his 2007-2008 bullpen performance, all he needs to do is throw strikes with his stuff to be effective. Easier said than done, of course.
Edge goes to the Yankees because of Hughes’ utter dominance in baseball’s toughest division, however no one should sleep on Bulger and Jepsen, they could open some eyes this series.
Lefty: Phil Coke vs. Darren Oliver
Darren Oliver, the ageless wonder, enjoyed a fantastic season at age 38, allowing just 83 baserunners in 73 IP against 65 strikeouts. He pitched in all three ALDS games against Boston, allowing just one hit in 2.1 IP. Mike Scioscia uses him as more than just a lefty specialist, often asking Oliver to pitch full innings late in close games. Oddly enough, he has a reverse platoon split, so the Angels don’t have an obvious weapon against lefty batters in the bullpen. Maybe the Yanks can loan them Damaso Marte for the series.
Phil Coke, on the other hand, should be used strictly as a lefty specialist this series, and in fact his sole purpose in the ALCS will be to get Bobby Abreu out. Coke held lefties to a .195-.218-.366 batting line this year, and even though he worked full innings – facing both lefties and righties – at times this year, the Yanks have plenty of other options that will relegate Coke to LOOGY status this series. It tough to give anyone edge here because we’re talking about two different pitchers in two different roles, but I guess if I had to pick, I’d go with Oliver because he’s just flat out been better this year.
Long Man: Chad Gaudin vs. Matt Palmer
Palmer, a career minor league journeyman that finally stuck at age 30, made a few starts early in the season for the Halos (you may remember this game), but moved to the bullpen because a) he sucked (5.10 ERA, 1.41 WHIP), and b) because some of the Angels’ regular starters got healthy. Like Gaudin, who’s been better than anyone could have expected since being acquired from the Padres, Palmer figures to only appear in blowouts or as the last reliever out of the pen in extra inning games.
Both pitchers excel against righties but struggle against lefties, however I’m giving the Yankees get the edge simply because Gaudin strikes out way more guys (8.5 K/9 vs. 5.1). Strikeouts are better than ground outs, especially in the playoffs.
Misc. Relievers: Ervin Santana vs. David Robertson, Al Aceves, Brian Bruney/Damaso Marte
Herein lies a considerable difference between the two bullpens. Beyond the five guys we talked about above, the only other reliever in the Angels bullpen is starter turned reliever for the postseason Ervin Santana (ZOMG why won’t they just pick a role for him already?!?1?). Santana battled an elbow injury early in the season, and was just so-so when he was on the mound. He put 204 runners on base in just 139.2 IP, served up one homer every six innings, and his 47 walks tied his total from 2008, when he threw almost 80 more innings. Santana was better in the final two months of the season (3.95 FIP) against mostly crap competition, but he didn’t even warm up in the ALDS. He appears to be Mike Scioscia’s Plan D, at best.
The Yankees, on the other hand, went with quantity and quality to fill out the rest of their bullpen. Al Aceves was a godsend in May, pitching in every role imaginable. His 1.01 WHIP was second best in the league among pitchers with at least 80 IP, behind only Andrew Bailey of the A’s. David Robertson is a strikeout fiend, with 314 K’s in 226.2 career innings, majors and minors. We’re still not sure whether Marte will remain with the club in the ALCS, or if he’ll be replaced by Bruney because of matchups, but either guy figures to be one of the last options outs of Girardi’s pen. Aceves alone makes this a win for the Yanks, but having Robertson available too is just showing off.
As we saw in the stats above, the Yanks have a clear advantage over the Angels when it comes to the bullpen. The Fightin’ Scioscia’s will rely heavily on Jepsen, Bulger, and Oliver in the middle innings, while Palmer and Santana are break glass in case of emergency guys only. The Yankees have depth, with Joba and Hughes forming a powerful bridge in the late innings. At the very least, Coke has the tools necessary to neutralize Abreu, while Aceves and Robertson are looming should trouble arise at any point before the 7th inning.
The Angels starters completed six innings in nine of the ten games they played the Yankees this year, and they have to hope their starters continue to work deep into the games to minimize the bullpen face time. Otherwise, it’ll just be open season for the Bombers.