Yankee fans who came of age during the past four years could be forgiven if they don’t understand the concept of leverage situations for bullpen pitchers. Since the Yankees rushed a young Joba Chamberlain up to the Bronx in 2007 to fill the set-up role and had to force Joe Torre to use him carefully, the team has had a seemingly unhealthy obsession with The Eighth Inning™. Rafael Soriano’s presence on the Yanks should change that.
The idea behind leverage differs a bit from the concept of a set-up man as the eighth inning pitcher. Major League managers will never get to the point of using their closers in high-leverage situations well before the ninth inning. Ideally, though, the best relievers will be used in the best situations. For instance, if the home team has a two-run lead in the 6th inning but their opponents have bases loaded and one man out with the top of their order up, the pitcher is facing a high-leverage situation. That’s not when a manager should call upon his third- or fourth-best pitcher even if the inning dictates it.
Often, though, we’ve seen Major League managers adhere too closely to the time of the game. Even if it’s not the eighth inning, the seventh inning middle relievers must pitch. If it’s not the ninth inning, the eighth inning guy but not the closer will make an appearance. Oftentimes, closers end up pitching in lower leverage situations than the lesser pitchers behind them on bullpen depth charts. Sometimes, those lesser pitchers blow the game, and the closers never even see action. Losing with the best pitcher sitting on the bench can be a frustrating experience indeed. Ask any Yankee fan who had to sit through Chad Gaudin pitching before Mariano Rivera last year.
For 2011, the Yankees can do something different with the bullpen. While I’m not enamored with the Rafael Soriano signing, he certainly makes the bullpen better and deeper. Now, we just have to hope Joe Girardi uses him correctly.
With Soriano around, the Yankees have two closers: one for the ninth inning and one for appropriate high leverage situations that pop up late in close games. Earlier today at The Yankee U, E.J. Fagan explored Soriano as a fireman. Instead of the traditional eighth-inning only set-up guy, the Yanks should use Soriano to put out fires. Fagan proposes the following three rules to guide Soriano’s appearances:
- In a close game, Soriano comes into innings 5-7 in any situation with the starter out (or gassed) with less than 2 outs, a runner on second or third base and a right-hander coming up to the plate.
- If no situation presents itself by the 8th inning, Soriano pitches the 8th inning.
- Against top lefty hitters with runners on base in a close game, Feliciano or Logan relieve Soriano. He stays with no runners on base and against most lefty hitters.
These rules may be too rigid. I’d amend the first one by urging the Yanks to use Soriano at any point during innings 5-7 when the pitcher — starter or reliever — is getting into trouble, and the Yanks need to get out of a typical jam. If the team is losing by a run and needs to keep the score close, Soriano should pitch as well. If the Yankees are in a position where a path to a victory requires one of their top relievers to get a few outs, Rafael Soriano is now the clear leader in the non-Mariano category of bullpen pitchers.
Rafael Soriano is, in a certain sense, an unnecessary luxury for the Yankees, and they might only have him for one year. But his presence on the team can help shorten games in a way we haven’t seen since 1996 when a young Rivera would hand the ball to John Wetteland over and over again. As Fagan wrote, “If they use Soriano the wrong way, they’re going to do a very good job taking a lead that they had at the beginning of the 8th inning and transferring it into a win. If they do it the way I am arguing for, they will do a much better job of taking a lead in the 6th inning and holding on for a win. That’s really what shortening a game is about.”