Kelley & Claiborne step up, solidify middle relief


For the first few weeks of the season, the Yankees bullpen was a bit of a mess. Specifically, the non-David Robertson and Mariano Rivera part of the bullpen was a mess. The trio of Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and Shawn Kelley combined to allow 31 base-runners and 13 runs in 17.1 innings during the first 15 games of the season, so the bridge from starter to Robertson was rather adventurous for a while. It was also a problem given the team’s low-caliber offense.

The middle relief issues lasted until mid-to-late-April, when Joba hit the DL and some of his bullpeners improved their performance. Over the last 30 days, the Yankees have the best bullpen ERA (2.49) and second best bullpen FIP (3.35) in the league. Their season ERA is down to 3.32 (3.47 FIP), the fifth best mark the AL. Any conversation about New York’s bullpen starts with Robertson and Rivera, but the other guys have really picked up the slack of late.

One of those other guys is a new face who wasn’t around for the early season struggles, right-hander Preston Claiborne. The 25-year-old was called up when Joba was placed on the DL, and he’s since struck out five while walking zero in eight scoreless innings across six appearances. Joe Girardi apparently has enough faith in him that he used him in the seventh inning or later of a two or fewer run game three times in those six appearances, including three of the first four. Talk about being thrown into the fire.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

“We were impressed with him in Spring Training, and we left thinking he could help us at some point this year, and he’s doing that right now,” said Brian Cashman about Claiborne recently. “You never know how a guy is going to act when he gets here, but he’s the same guy he was in Spring Training, and he’s probably gaining confidence every day.”

In addition to adding Claiborne, the Yankees have benefited from Kelley settling down after a nightmarish first few weeks in pinstripes. Over his last ten appearances, the 29-year-old owns a 3.18 ERA (~0.90 FIP) (!)) and has struck out exactly half of the 44 batters he faced. He’s struck out 15 of the last 21 (!) men he’s faced across his last four appearances. Kelley leads all of baseball with a 43.4% strikeout rate (min. 10 IP) after coming into the year with a career 22.6% strikeout rate. He’s throwing his low-80s slider more than ever before, basically half the time these days, which is the likely explanation for all the whiffs.

Thanks to all of those strikeouts, Kelley is pitching like the best-case Mark Montgomery scenario right now. We all expected Montgomery to bring his vicious slider to the show and pile up the strikeouts at some point, yet Kelley is the one doing that job right now. He isn’t walking anyone either (just four unintentional walks). Kelley’s homer-prone ways — five homers in 18.1 innings (2.45 HR/9 and 27.8% HR/FB) — will hold him back from being a true high-leverage option, but a reliever who can miss bats like that is a very valuable weapon in the middle innings. The ability to snuff out a rally without having to rely on the defense is huge, we’ve seen that from Robertson in recent years.

“I’ve never been on a team that has the expectations of just winning and thinking World Series as their only goal,” said Kelley to Chad Jennings recently. “To have that feeling every night, even if I go in and just get some outs in a win, it feels really good to just help the club win. I’m having a lot of fun on this team … It’s a fun way to win.”

With Adam Warren emerging as a long-man extraordinaire, Claiborne and Kelley have stepped up to solidify the middle relief ahead of Robertson and Rivera. Logan needs to settle down and start getting lefties out — they’re hitting .296/.296/.444 (.320 wOBA) against him so far — but otherwise the bullpen has fallen into place. The Yankees play an awful lot of close games these days, so having a bullpen that can consistently shut the other team down and preserve leads/keep the deficit small is a big reason why they sit atop the AL East at the moment.

Categories : Death by Bullpen


  1. pat says:

    I like that these guys are 25-26. They were never top prospects so they’ve had to work their way through the minors and refine their game within the limits of their stuff. A guy like Dellin can just blow his FB by people anywhere close to the strikezone and get by. Claiborne, Phelps, Nuno etc. have to focus more on making good pitches in good spots otherwise they’ll get hit around.

  2. Eddard says:

    Which is why Joe needs to trust these kids more. Case in point last night where CC wasn’t sharp, there was a righty due up and Kelley was ready to come in and Joe left CC in. And it wasn’t a matter of overuse because they just had the day off. I think Adam Warren is in the running for ROY. Perhaps will see him tonight with Fly Ball Phil on the mound. At least Mark Reynolds is in Cleveland.

    • jsbrendog says:

      i immediately disagree with warren being in RoY running…but i can’t think of anothr rookie in the al other than aaron hicks who sucks.

      as to your trust point:

      “Joe Girardi apparently has enough faith in him that he used him in the seventh inning or later of a two or fewer run game three times in those six appearances, including three of the first four. Talk about being thrown into the fire.”

      it is in the article.

      also, kelley is extremely HR prone, as it stated, oh, i dunno, in the article. so i hope you weren’t talking about jj hardy and manny machado, hardy who has power and machado who has been tearing the cover off the ball.

      • Deathstroke Heathcott says:

        Pitiful crop of AL rookies so far this year but Warren still isn’t in the top 10 for AL rookie WAR. He’s mostly a low leverage reliever that doesn’t get a ton of appearances; he has less than 20 innings so far, he won’t be in the running unless he somehow grabs a rotation spot for a chunk of the season and with Pineda coming back soon, it’s highly unlikely that happens.

      • trr says:

        Warren for RoY is nonsense. Is this supposed to be sarcasm?

        • jsbrendog says:

          just cause i couldnt think of anyone else doesn’t meani agree. warren is nowhere near even in the convo. but it is also sad that all the great rookies are in the nl and aaron hicks is all i can come up with right now.

          • vicki says:

            we all have an eye turned to texas now; though jurickson will have to raise his game from his aaa production before the call-up.

            • jsbrendog says:

              with how hot moreland has been and how killer kinsler has been profar will have to tear th cover off the ball to stay once kinsler is healthy. or moreland has to literally fall into a ditch. literally.

    • Steve (different one) says:

      Joe leaving CC in had everything to do with it being CC and nothing to do with not trusting Kelley. If it was Hughes, Nova or Phelps, he goes to the pen. That simple.

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      Adam Warren isn’t finishing in the Top 10 for ROY voting unless things suddenly break really, really, really well. Really.

      I trust CC more than I trust Shawn Kelley in any situation. Sorry. A few MPHs missing thus far doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to pitch. I take him over 9/10ths of baseball in any situation.

      • mitch says:

        Don’t you mean really, really, really terribly? There’s almost no chance he’ll start enough games and pitch enough innings to get ROY consideration unless the Yankees experience multiple starting pitching injuries. And after that he’d need things to break really, really, really well.

        • Robinson Tilapia says:

          Yes. I only meant really, really well for Adam.

          Of course, Eddard was probably just putting us on with that, so Eddard wins.

          • Deathstroke Heathcott says:

            He’s sneaky good. He just got like 6 or 7 responses to Adam Warren’s ROY candidacy with a mere mention.

  3. jsbrendog says:

    let’s generate some discush:

    who goes when fat redneck Jobber comes back?

    who goes when Cabral is ready?

  4. Larch says:

    I think the research has shown that a strong BP is the easiest way for a team to outperform their Pythagorean Expectancy. If a team moved from 3 wins under expectations to 3 wins over it would be a 6 win swing. Considering the Yankees can buy their way to the mid-80s, a consistently top tier pen might be the difference between 85 and 91 wins.

    (I know relievers are volatile for a variety of reasons. However you can reduce the variance by measuring the group as a whole. For example, assuming a normal distribution, a group of 6 would have 40% of the volatility of the individual.)

    • viridiana says:

      Excellent post, Larch. Has been tendency of late to downplay role of pen– but it is key factor in winning close games and trumping Pythagorean determinism. And as you suggest, volatility of relievers has been overplayed, especially when group is viewed as a whole — with one or two back-ups at hand to replace laggards. One thing that Yanks have done right in recent years is drafting/developing bullpen arms, often with low draft picks.

    • vicki says:

      the true story of the 2012 orioles.

  5. Robinson Tilapia says:

    And this, folks, is why “big name middle reliever” is an oxymoron.

  6. emac2 says:

    I think it might be worth looking at trade options for a Joba, Nova, Hughes package.

    I read somewhere the relief market is pretty skimpy and we have several pieces I think would bring back some value.

    • mitch says:

      I don’t think Joba has much value at all. Nova could fetch something, but you’d be selling low on him. If Phelps continues to pitch well, i’d rather see Nova stay in AAA until he gets his sh!t together.

    • trr says:

      that’s….some package
      Of the 3, I think only Hughes has a chance of returning some real value and even that would be tempered by the fact that he is a FA next winter.

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      Two expiring contracts and a middling piece. This would work… the NBA.

    • DC says:

      Exactly what do you think you’re going to get of value in return?

    • steves says:

      Vogelsong and Casilla were both DL’d today and the rest of the Giants staff isn’t pitching that great. I bet they’d be interested in some combo of what the Yanks have to offer. What would the Yanks want in return?

      • Robinson Tilapia says:

        Buster Posey.

      • emac2 says:

        I don’t think you get much but I don’t value any of the three beyond this year beyond the lotto chance they become number one starters in the next few months. I think they would have more value to another team for the rest of the year than they will too the Yanks.

        Especially a team that would look at either in free agency and would be able to see if they improve in the NL for example.

        I don’t know much about the Giants but prospects and or something that can help this year as much as a 3rd or 4th starter seems about right.

        I would trade for them as an NL team or maybe the Royals.

  7. Robert says:

    Joba is on the way out,notice how he was ready to be activated but now they think he needs another Rehab.
    If Phil gets shelled early look for Betances to make his last chance to impress the brass…
    Also Cashman wants the last laugh on the Montero trade Look for Pineda by July to be the 5th starter

  8. Coolerking101 says:

    I hope Claiborne keeps it up as much an the next guy…but has anyone else noticed that many hitters who have made contact have absolutely smoked Claiborne’s pitches? I feel like’s he’s just been getting lucky b/c these shots have been hit right at his fielders. I have a feeling a BABIP correction is on its way.

    • Robinson Tilapia says:

      The BABIP correction is almost always right around the corner with the young reliever who’s been lights out his first times out there. You might as well take bets on when the five-run third-of-an-inning happens. Sorry.

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