What Went Right: The Bullpen Makeover


Over the next week or so, we’ll again break down what went wrong and what went right for the 2009 Yankees. The series this year will be much more enjoyable than the last.

Phil Hughes, Al Aceves, and David Robertson

The Yankees came into 2009 feeling good about their bullpen. After all, the same cast of characters posted the seventh lowest ERA (3.79), second lowest FIP (3.82), second best strikeout rate (8.66 K/9), and tenth best walk rate (3.53 BB/9) in the league last year. Unfortunately, that group of relievers was unable to repeat that performance in the first month of this season. Their FIP in April was awful (5.41) and their ERA even worse (6.46), and it was a major reason why the team was in third place with a negative run differential on May 1st.

Thankfully, the Yanks had enough bullpen depth to not just replace one or two pieces, but to make wholesale changes. The first step in the makeover came on April 25th, when Phil Hughes was summoned from Triple-A to take over for the injured Chien-Ming Wang. Al Aceves replaced the overmatched Anthony Claggett on May 5th, and David Robertson took the place of the injured Brian Bruney three weeks later. Edwar Ramirez and his 33 baserunners allowed (6 homer!) in 17.1 IP was banished to the minors mid-May, and Jose Veras was mercifully designated for assignment a little later on.

After allowing three earned runs or less in five of his seven starts, Hughes shifted to the bullpen in early June to make way for Wang. He became the primary setup man to Mariano Rivera in short order, allowing everyone else in the bullpen to settle into roles more suitable for their skills. Hughes held opponents to a .172-.228-.228 batting line as a reliever, posting a ridiculous 65-13 K/BB ratio and an unfathomable 1.83 FIP after moving to the bullpen.

Aceves, meanwhile, became Joe Girardi‘s jack of all trades. He was used in long relief, short relief, in matchup situations, you name it. He allowed less than a baserunner per inning, and his 80.2 IP as a reliever was the most by a Yankee since Scott Proctor’s 100.2 IP back in 2006. Aceves effectively bridged the middle innings gap from the starter to Phil Hughes all by himself.

Most teams would be happy with a pair of guys like Hughes and Aceves in their bullpen, but the Yankees didn’t stop there. Rookie David Robertson developed from promising prospect into a bullpen force, leading all American League pitchers by striking out 12.98 batters per 9 IP (the second place guy, Joakim Soria, was more than a full strikeout behind him).

Once all of the new pieces were in place, the Yankee bullpen went from weakness in April to strength the rest of the way. They finished the year with a solid 3.91 ERA, and placed second in the league in strikeout rate (8.44 K/9) and third in walk rate (3.46 BB/9). The names had to be changed, but Girardi’s bullpen once again finished the season as one of the strongest in the game.

Photo Credits: Getty Images, Reuters Pictures, AP

Categories : Analysis
  • pete

    how do you guys think everything will have shaken out by the end of ’10? Pleasant surprises? Disappointments? Just curious…

  • MattG

    And then Girardi shuffled the deck again in the postseason. He’s got a bullpen’s midas touch for sure.

    • Bo

      Thats because he had 1 reliable reliever. And one lockdown lefty who he wouldnt let face a righty.

  • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

    Imagine this year’s bullpen plus a healthy Marte in postseason form.

    • kunaldo

      not to mention melancon could step up too

      • vin

        I’m hoping for big things from MM next year. He’s the forgotten man for a lot of people.

  • vin

    I’m just excited at the prospect of breaking next year’s camp with not one, but two long men. Hughes/Kennedy in ’08 and CMW last year really killed the BP the last couple of Aprils.

  • danny

    so who shares the 8th inning role next season? D-rob/Marte?

    • kunaldo

      yup…unless they falter and/or someone else dominates

    • Tubby

      Mostly D-Mar-Mo unless there’s a tough lefty in the 7th.

      • vin

        DaMarMo… don’t let Michael Kay hear that.

        • Bo

          So the guy Girardi took out of a game with 2 outs and the #7 hitter up and a lefty who cant pitch to righty’s. Sounds good.

  • Ivan

    The bullepn was terrific after the slow start. It has a chance to be even better in 2010 with D-Rob, Marte and if melancon can improve his game as well.

    • ADam

      I see a possible move… to help spot the young guys… maybe a heath bell deal???

      • jsbrendog

        no way SD trades him for mroe bp arms. they’re trying to rebuild and their allstar closer brings mroe than that

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Trading for Heath Bell? No.

        • Bo

          You dont trade your bullets for bullpen arms now.

          You trade for starters.

  • danny

    Yankees love Constantine haha

  • jsbrendog

    so 7 man bullpen really becomes 4 because drob mo and marte lock it down. then 3 with coke. 2 with bruney who def starts there but might not last/end there.

    so with the last 2 spots you’ve got competition. Aceves prob since even if he preps as a starter would still fill the ramiro mendoza quotient. then, melancon?

    and there’s your 7 guys? although coming out of ST albie and anyone else could give melancon a run for that last spot?

    am i missing anything/one?

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      7 man opening day bullpen:
      Mo, DRob, Aceves, Marte, Coke, Bruney, Gaudin.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        And, in Scranton at the ready:

        Albaladejo, Melancon, Dunn, and Romulo Sanchez are the first four options to come up and replace whomever struggles/gets hurt.

        Kennedy and Mitre are the first starter reinforcements.

    • andrew

      Gaudin possibly. I guess either Gaudin or Aceves could begin the season starting in AAA in case of injury. Or maybe it;ll just come down to Gaudin vs Melancon. Melancon may need some more work before coming up full time.

  • Benjamin Kabak

    Alfredo Aceves looks rather pained in that picture.

    • vin

      Ironically, that photo must’ve been taken during his one start. That’s definitely the Metrodome.

      • Tubby

        Yup, and the Hughes pic is from his start against Boston in May. Third inning against Youk.

      • Rick in Boston

        You’re right – it’s the only time Ace ever pitched IN Minny in his career.

  • reggie c.

    Lets get Rafael Soriano & go to battle in 2010 with a bp corps of D-rob, Ace, & Soriano. there’s no Hughes anymore. Bruney is the most experienced righty “reliever” as of now. we need to land a good vet.

    • jsbrendog

      meh, if atl offers arb then no thanks. and if they don’t he will prob want 3 yrs and big dough. I just don’t see the need.

      • MattG

        Damn, he’s a type A. No way you do that. Its another Juan Cruz situation.

        • vin

          Yeah, the compensatory draft pick/arbitration thing has to hurt relievers more than anyone else.

          More and more teams are realizing the best way to build a pen is by throwing a lot of quality arms at the wall and seeing what sticks.

          Of course the Royals didn’t get that message last year.

  • pete

    I think hughes and d-rob showed a lot about bullpen pitching last year. Obviously being wild doesn’t help anyone in the bullpen, but nibbling out of the pen isn’t as damaging as it is out of the rotation, since you only need to get through one inning. I think staying right around the corners, and not worrying too much about efficiency or giving up a walk is the best approach to a full inning, since it devastates opponent batting average

  • Mister Delaware

    Not to complain at the end of a great year, but our pen’s walk rate is helped a ton by Mariano.

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  • DontChaKnow

    Do you think that DRob could turn into Mariano’s replacement. He clearly wouldnt be Rivera, but with that strikeout rate and the way he can handle pressure, he seems like a closer if he limit the walks a bit.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      There’s promising green shoots there…

    • pete

      eh, if he was part of an all-around great bullpen, i wouldn’t mind him being the #1 guy, but if there’s more than a slight gap between him and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best guys, i’d be a little worried.
      I do think, though, that when mariano retires, we may be able to revolutionize the “closer” debate if we have a strong enough bullpen all around. Girardi could, I believe, coax exceptional effectiveness out of a bullpen run by giving the most important outs to the hottest hands, playing matchups, and keeping every pitcher on his game to some degree, and we wouldn’t have to pay a guy $15 mil to pitch out of the bullpen. Not trying to discredit mariano or any other closer or anything, just that having “set roles” in the bullpen is a ludicrous idea since bullpen pitchers are prone by their very nature to have fluctuating performance levels, and when mariano leaves, so will one of the few legitimate counter-arguments.
      If robertson is one of a few guys closing games for the yankees in the future, I would have no problem with that.

      • Bo

        Robertson really has to lower that walk rate if he is going to be a consistent late inning option.

  • Bo

    The bullpen was terrific only after Hughes moved into that role.

    Shows how important a good bullpen is to a team. That saved the season right there. Because this team wasnt winning 100+ games with Bruney, Alby, Edwar and the other assorted dreck.