Much has been written about the Rafael Soriano signing and for most part it’s been for all the wrong reasons. The contract itself has been criticized, the way ownership drove the deal has been criticized, Brian Cashman‘s comments at yesterday’s press conference have been criticized, you name it and it’s been criticized. Let’s move away from the criticism for a second and look at something that hasn’t gotten much attention since Soriano agreed to come on board: the Yankees have a fantastic bullpen right now.
Barring trade or injury, the Yanks will open the season with Mariano Rivera filling his customary closer’s role and Soriano serving as his primary setup man. That pushes both David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain into middle relief roles, essentially filling the gaps between the starter and Soriano. Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano will take care of the tough left-handed batters. The seventh man in the pen figures to be a low-leverage long reliever, ideally Sergio Mitre. We know what Mo brings the table and there’s not much to say about him that hasn’t been said over the last 15 years. He gives the Yankees a clear advantage over every other team in the league, so let’s focus on those middle innings instead. That’s where a ton of games are won and lost anyway.
The table to the right has the strikeout rate of the team’s three right-handed middle innings guys over the last three years, as well as their rank out of the 171 qualified relievers (min. 100 IP). Robertson trails only Carlos Marmol (12.99 K/9), Billy Wagner (12.41), and Jonathan Broxton (11.94) in strikeout rate, and those three are all closers. If we remove the now retired Wagner, just five teams will go into the 2011 season with more than one of the top 25 strikeout relievers (Yanks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Padres), but the Yankees are the only club with three. You’d have to stretch the list to the top 33 if you want to find another club with three top right-handed strikeouts guys, and that’s the Padres.
If we look at just overall reliever FIP with the same 100 IP minimum, the Yankees own two of the top ten over the last three years. Joba (2.71) is ninth and Soriano (2.78) is tenth, but remember, we’re not counting Rivera here, and his 2.56 FIP is sixth best over the last three seasons. The Padres are the only other team with two of the top ten FIP’s when you remove the closer position. Robertson isn’t exactly an FIP fiend because he does walk quite a few, but his 3.40 mark since 2008 is 39th best in the game. Among the top 40, the only clubs with at least four relievers on the list are the Yanks, Padres, and Rangers, and two of Texas’ guys are lefty specialists. The Yanks and San Diego are the only clubs with four right-handed relievers in the top 40 FIP over the last three seasons. Clearly, those two clubs are heading into the season with some dynamite righty relief.
Shifting over to the lefties, well, we can’t do much with Logan. His record of big league success is basically the second half of 2010, about 12% of his career innings. He’s just as likely to tank in 2011 as he is repeat that second half performance, and that uncertainty is why the Yankees went out and got Pedro Feliciano. Over the last three seasons, only three lefty relievers can top Feliciano’s 2.80 FIP against left-handed batters (Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Thornton, Randy Choate (grrr)) and only eight can top his 9.61 K/9. One of those eight is Logan at 10.34.
There are obviously quite a few benefits to having so many relievers of this caliber, and an important one is rest. Not that Joe Girardi has had a trouble spreading the workload around in the past, but now he can back off guys and not sacrifice much, if any quality. This will come in handy particularly with the 41-year-old Rivera, who can forget about working back-to-back-to-back days or multiple innings until the playoffs. That was a big part of Joe Torre’s problem, he’d wear his top relievers down during the summer and they were toast come playoff time.
In the past, before Cashman altered his bullpen building strategy, we watched as the Yankees chased that elusive bridge to Rivera, often focusing on one quality setup man while the middle relief suffered. That should not be any problem this year, as Girardi will be able to employ what amounts to two above-average, high strikeout setup men in the middle innings while mixing in one of the game’s top lefty specialists as needed. Once those innings are taken care of, it’s hammer time with Soriano and Mo. Of course this is all on paper, we know who quickly a bullpen situation can change, but right now the Yankees are remarkably deep in quality relief arms.