Despite a few hiccups here and there, the Yankees bullpen actually hasn’t been that bad this season. Check out the numbers for AL bullpens. The Yanks’ relief corps has allowed 4.07 runs per game, third best mark in the AL. Not only that, but the fourth place team has allowed .24 more runs per game, while the first place team has allowed just .19 fewer. In other words, in terms of runs allowed the Yankees have one of three clearly superior bullpens in the AL.
Part of the reason for this is that the starters have been so good that only the best relievers have been needed in high leverage situations. Yankee relievers, including Chamberlain and Rivera, have entered the game with an average Leverage Index of .899, lowest mark in the AL. The bullpen has faced just 49 high-leverage situations, fewest in the AL by a decent margin. That means that the lesser relievers, even if pitching poorly, aren’t doing so at critical times.
The bullpen’s biggest problem right now is Chamberlain. He has faced 32 batters in high-leverage situations and has allowed nine hits, including two doubles and a homer, which has led to 12 runs. His groundball percentage, at 50 percent in low- and medium-leverage situations, drops to 42 percent when the pressure is highest. Even still, his peripherals are excellent in these high leverage situations. He has struck out 11 of those 32 batters to just two walks. What takes away from that is that he throws more pitches to batters in high leverage situations. This leads to deeper counts, and it’s then that Chamberlain becomes predictable. On 2-2 and 3-2 counts he’s going to the slider 66 and 63 percent of the time, respectively.
I doubt the Yankees will stop giving the ball to Chamberlain. He still has plenty of talent, and at times he’s looked brilliant. Also, the team doesn’t really have anyone to take those high leverage innings. Damaso Marte has faced only eight batters with the pressure on high, and he’s allowed three hits, including two doubles. David Robertson has also struggled in high leverage situations, walking three of the 16 batters he’s faced while allowing four hits and striking out just one. Beyond those guys, there aren’t many other options to take these critical situations. Joba shows the most promise in them, and I suspect he’ll continue to get the ball.
I have seen, in various places, concern about the back end of the bullpen. Chan Ho Park has been a disaster so far with his .354 BABIP and six home runs allowed. Chad Gaudin is nothing but a mop-up man. Boone Logan can’t even do his one job, which is to get out lefties. Damaso Marte walks way too many batters. These concerns, of course, are real. None of the above statements is false, at least in the context of the season to date. Still, there are two mitigating circumstances. First, we’ve seen two of these guys, Park and Marte, pitch much better than they have been. Second, as mentioned above, they haven’t been placed in the highest leverage situations, which is to say that the damage they have caused has been, for the most part, minimal.
The back end guys are also replaceable if they get to a certain point of ineffectiveness. Logan can always go back to AAA. Gaudin can always return to the scrap heap. Chan Ho Park will get more chances than the others, but even he isn’t making a salary that would make the Yankees balk at releasing him if his current pitching continues. They probably won’t find much on the trade market to replace them — after all, every team is looking for bullpen help — but there are a few interesting names on the farm. Ivan Nova, who made his major league debut earlier this season, is pitching well. Jason Hirsh has moved to the bullpen, perhaps because the Yanks think they can get some production from him. Jonathan Albaladejo has straight dominated AAA, with 45 strikeouts to 12 walks in 34.1 innings. And there’s always Mark Melancon.
Again, these are options for the very back of the bullpen. If the starters continue pitching well, the only bullpen issue the Yankees might face this year is of finding one more high-leverage reliever. Can Joba step up? Will they give Robertson and Marte a longer audition? These, I think, are the pressing questions for the bullpen. Sure, Park, Guadin, and Logan might be frustrating to watch. But in terms of where they ranks on the Yanks’ list of problems, it’s the same as the leverage situation when they enter games: low.