The Overworked Relievers

Rare Colon meltdown costs Yanks series opener
About that intentional walk (no, not that one)
"Hold on kids, they want me to pitch again." (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

If there’s anything good to come out of last night’s loss, it’s that the Yankees were able to sit and rest their core relievers for a day. I mean completely rest them, they didn’t even have to get up and walk to the bullpen mound thinking about the possibility of warming up. Joe Girardi said before the game that Joba Chamberlain was not going to pitch given his recent workload, which included six appearances in the last eleven games. David Robertson has also worked quite a bit lately (five appearances in the last ten games), and even Mariano Rivera has been used heavily at times this year.

Rafael Soriano‘s injury has made those three, especially Joba and Robertson, that much more important this month. The problem is that these guys can’t go on like this forever, they’ll be burnt out by season’s end. Mike Jaggers-Radolf at The Yankee Analysts looked at these three yesterday and showed that they were on target for some serious innings totals, but I want to dig a little deeper. Innings are nice and convenient, but they are most certainly not all created equal. What’s really important is the number of pitches thrown by each, because as the old saying goes, there’s only so many bullets in those arms.

Let’s look at each pitcher individually, and compare their cumulative pitch totals this season to last season. Might as well follow The Formula™, so first up is the seventh inning…


First of all, remember to click each graph for a larger and more legible view. Secondly, wow is that scary. Robertson has thrown considerably more pitches this season than he did through 46 games last year, 19.3% more in fact (389 to 326). He’s also faced nine more batters, and is averaging 4.53 pitchers per batter in 2011 compared to 4.23 last year. That has a lot to do with big time increases in his strikeout and walks rates, but David’s on pace to throw 1,370 pitches this season, which would be nearly 200 more than he threw last season. Assuming an average of 18 pitches per inning, that’s like tacking an extra 11 innings onto his workload from last year.


Alright, this is much better. Joba has actually been much more efficient with his pitches this year, throwing 40 fewer pitches through 46 games this year (335) than he did last year (375) despite facing the exact same number of batters (89). Part of that has to do with Joba’s newfound affinity for the ground ball, something he’s gotten 63.5% of the time this year compared to 46.6% time for his career. Quicker at-bats lead to lower pitch counts and less wear and tear on the arm. Joba’s in good shape in terms of pitches thrown this year, at least when compared to 2010.


This is where it gets really scary. Mo has 52 more pitches through 46 games this year (297) than he did last year (245), though the silver lining is that he’s faced 17 more batters (74 to 57). That means he’s gone from 4.30 pitches per batter in 2010 to 4.01 in 2011. But we’re talking about 41-year-old guy on the cusp of 1,000 big league appearances (he’s at 999) that had shoulder surgery a few offseasons ago. Out of the three guys in this post, Rivera’s the one they really have to watch just because of where he is in his career and what not.

* * *

Remember, these are just pitches thrown in games. It doesn’t count warm-up pitches in the bullpen, and if you watched the Yankees regularly in April, then you’re fully aware that Robertson was up and throwing pretty much every damn day even if he didn’t always get into the game.

Soriano is expected to throw a bullpen session at some point before the homestand ends (tomorrow), but you have to figure he’s at least two weeks away at this point. He’ll lighten the load on all three guys somewhat, and Luis Ayala has been good enough (in his limited sample of work) to maybe warrant some more responsibility, like the seventh inning with a three run lead or something. Just to make life easier for everyone else, you know? If Soriano’s elbow continues to be a lingering issue throughout the summer (which is entirely possible given his injury history) and Ayala turns back into a pumpkin, the Yankees are going to have to seriously consider acquiring a late-inning reliever at some point just for depth. Robertson, Joba, and Mo have handled the workload well so far, but no one wants to see these guys be pushed hard all season long.

Rare Colon meltdown costs Yanks series opener
About that intentional walk (no, not that one)
  • Fairweather Freddy

    Ayala has been a savior. Would like to see him tested in tighter spots in the game to see if he can really be counted on

    • Brian in North Hampshire (formerly New Hampshire)

      I’d just like to see our starters keep going at least 7 or 8 innings.

  • Stephen R.

    Good stuff Mike, much prefer to see reliever workload broken down like this rather than w/ more crude measurements like IP and appearances.

    One late inning reliever who might make sense is Brian Fuentes. I say that strictly from an availability standpoint, given his feud w/ his manager. At the same time, you take a look at his walk rates and his FB tendencies, coupled with the high probability that Girardi would use him as a multi-batter reliever and not strictly v. LHB, and it’s hard to feel good about him.

  • Frank

    It’s amazing that just 2 months ago during ST the BP was thought to be the major strength of this team and now we’re discussing possibly obtaining another reliever. That’s the last thing I thought this team would need to do.

    • Monteroisdinero

      YCPB-although many think they can.

    • Ted Nelson

      It has been a strength… they have the 3rd lowest ERA of all BPs in the AL and the lowest FIP of all BPs in the AL.

      There is no rule that Soriano won’t come back, Mike bashes Soriano at every turn to sometimes unreasonable extents so I would take his opinion on Soriano’s odds of coming back this season with a large grain of salt. If he is hurt all season, there is still Ayala, not to mention Pendleton and like 10 guys in Scranton. Marte and Feliciano could both be back this season too, as far as I know.
      Plus, even when Soriano was healthy there were articles being written on BP overuse.

      I don’t think they should ignore available relievers who offer value in a trade, but it’s really speculation at this point to say whether or not they’ll trade for a proven reliever.

  • Andrew

    Robertson previously had elbow issues late in the 2009 season, so to me he is the biggest concern in terms of burning out due to a huge workload. Especially given that the pitches thrown graph above doesn’t even account for all the dry humps he’s experienced over the first 2 months this year.

    The one good thing is that, as is oft-repeated when people are panicking about relievers, bullpens are fungible. Relievers are always available relatively cheaply via trades or waivers in the summer months.

    I give Girardi the benefit of the doubt, as well, since he does do a great job of increasing guys’ opportunities for higher leverage work if they perform well, such as Ayala right now. And he also builds trust with new arms when they’re brought in and isn’t afraid to test them out, and doesn’t completely bury them in the doghouse if they have a rough outing (see: Torre).

  • Accent Shallow

    Chances we see Whelan soon?

  • Guest

    The lefty flameouts are a major problem. Not having Feliciano and Marte around really hamstrung the team.

    Losing Soriano was the icing on the cake.

    One other thing: Annecdotally speaking, it feels like the Yanks have played a lot of games that were close-ish in the 6th, 7th inning — even if those games turned into blowouts either way.

    Maybe as this evens out and they start having a larger percentage of early blowouts, the innings totals for robertson/joba/mo will naturally decrease.
    Until then, Girardi has to turn to Noesi and Ayala more often.

  • Bryan L

    Pretty interesting graphs. I’m not gonna lie, I’m getting slightly worried about Rivera though with all those pitches.

  • Accent Shallow

    Great pic of Mo + caption.

  • M-Three

    I agree that someone needs to pick up more of a workload in the pen but I pray that its not Luis Ayala. To me,what Ayala has done so far is a complete fluke. I have seen journeymen get of to solid starts before and when they get put into a tough spot they go back to being what they really are. I have a feeling that will happen again here with Ayala. Besides I don’t like having a guy in the pen that through his career has always given up more hits then innings pitched. Ayala has always been a bum for the most part and if Girardi starts using him in tough spot Ayala will just be another Chan Ho Park.

    I would like to see one of the young guys get an oppertunity in the late innings. Whethers its Noesi(who has good stuff and has looked great so far) or calling up either Whelan or Pope. Lets give these young guys a shot. I would rather see one of these kid who have the potential to blow batters away then journeymen bums like Ayala or Carlyle. Plus, over the last couple of year when the Yanks have given young relievers a chance for the most part they do much better than the free agent relievers that are brought in here.

    • Ted Nelson

      It’s certainly very possible Ayala blows-up and unlikely he maintains a 1.50 ERA all season… but calling him a “journeyman” is an oversimplification. He was a stud for 3 seasons before getting injured. He was still basically a stud for a season after coming back from injury. His career didn’t fall apart until 2008 and 2009. Maybe he can’t get it together, but after taking 2010 in the minors perhaps he’s rediscovered health or stuff. He is not Buddy Carlyle in terms of career track-record.

      Not every “journeyman” is the same. There’s no value in just grouping them all together.

      Likewise not all prospects are the same. Prospects who have done well in the past didn’t just come out of no where. The Yankees had monitored them prior to calling them up. Certainly I think some of the young guys can be good MLB relievers, but just always favoring a young guy over a veteran without any context is a HUGE oversimplification.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    What are the odds we see someone like Flores or an even lesser known arm come up from the farm?

  • MattG

    The Yankees will not need to acquire a reliever. They have tons of farm options, and they have Nova, who could very well end up in the bullpen in the second half (where I expect him to be very, very good).

  • Naved

    Just throwing this out there. Let’s say Phil Hughes comes back and our rotation is still the same when he returns. Any complaints of putting him in the bullpen for the playoff run? It would keep his innings down for this season when is coming back from injury. And Hughes was absolutely philthy when he was in the pen in 09.

    • M-Three

      I have actually thought about this and its not the craziest thing for them to consider. But I would only do it under 3 conditions: 1. The starting rotation continues going well, 2. Soriano was hurt to the point that he isn’t coming back this year and 3. He goes back to the rotation in 2012.

      • king of fruitless hypotheticals

        Ugh. When he pitches well…the insanity of him staying in the pen and how the Yankees broke two starting pitchers…

  • M-Three

    They didn’t break 2 pitchers. What is happening with Hughes is just a freaky thing that happen with him losing 4mph of his fastball. He wasn’t broken when he won 18 games last year.

    As far Joba goes, all of you need to get it through your heads that he is not a starting pitcher. Not everyone can be a starter and Joba should never have been forced into a role that doesn’t fit his strengths. Plus, he had his chance to prove he could be a starter in 2009 and spring training of 2010 and never showed consistency or improvement. All of you just love “Joba the starter” cause 1 start up in fenway, a 14 strike-out game (that he lost btw) and 3 starts after the ASB in 2009. He was crap for the most part. You all need to wake-up and get over it.

  • El Anonimo

    No, Phil is a starter and starter only, maybe Bartolo Colon or Ivan Nova.