2014 Season Preview: The Setup Men

Open Thread: 3/5 Camp Notes
Spring Training Game Thread: Tanaka, Part Two

Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.

Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.

RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).

The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.


Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.

That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.

LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.

Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:

2010 2.67 2.14 33.9% 6.0% 96.1 .254 .224
2011 3.32 2.62 24.1% 6.5% 95.8 .291 .274
2012 3.46 3.19 19.9% 8.3% 95.0 .302 .291
2013 3.74 4.04 16.0% 9.8% 94.3 .370 .280

Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.

* * *

Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.

Open Thread: 3/5 Camp Notes
Spring Training Game Thread: Tanaka, Part Two
  • Hawkeye

    I would think Betances should at least be in this conversation.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      I love me some Dellin, but I don’t think he should immediately be in the high-leverage innings conversation. There’s still plenty to prove there.

      Mike went with the correct two names here.

      • The Great Gonzo

        Correct, Dellin is not in this conversation now… but I am hoping he forces their hand at some point this season.

        • Donny

          I wonder: If he succeeds, will there be any whispers to stretch him out again into a starter? I would hope not, but I suspect there will be a few who think he still has a chance to be a starter.

          • I’m One

            Betances to the rotation! Free Dellin!

            Oh, sorry.

            • Jorge Steinbrenner

              Hey, if he goes back and forth like that for years, at least he won’t be able to disrespect Mariano during a fan session.

              • I’m One


          • Jorge Steinbrenner


            …and I mean that “oof” to mean “good question to sit back and ponder.”

            I’d say no. I don’t think the team will be in a situation in which they’re going to be looking at him as a potential stabilizing force in the rotation. I think there’s enough high upside to go around in this rotation that, even if not everyone reaches it, enough will to kep that ship afloat. I hope. Hell, we all do.

            I also think that, at that 25-27 range, there’s already a pretty decent sample of what the pratfalls are of starting him. If he were a younger guy, I’d say the whispers would grow louder. I don’t think they will here, if he succeeds, and I don’t think they’ll need to.

            • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

              There’s also legit value in a really good bullpen guy.

          • The Great Gonzo

            Difference I think between a (potentially) successful Betances story and the Joba story, as I see where you’re going, is that Joba had some nice success out of the rotation as well as from the bullpen. Dellin, not so much…

      • jjyank

        Agreed. I really hope Betances sticks in the bigs, but he’s got to earn his way into that conversation against MLB hitters first.

  • Hearn

    Add Bettances to this list. He’s going to be a BEAST this year.

  • John C

    Seems like a long shot but don’t count out Betances as the EIG. He has been very impressive so far and if he continues, would be a better option than Kelley for the setup role. Odds are Kelley will initially be the EIG and Betances could handle the 7th, but I can see Dellin eventually moving into that role assuming he is consistent with his control. I also like what I’ve seen from Tateyama. He’s a guy who could come in and gt a couple of rightes out in the 6th or 7th innning.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    I remember going into a season with Brian Bruney supposed to be pitching high-leverage innings. Wasn’t even that long ago.

    People wanted their bigger names, and thought we’d somehow convince guys looking to be closers to set up for David Robertson, but I’ve honestly always been mostly averse to the “big bullpen name” outside of tippity-top guys. I also firmly believe in giving David Robertson the opportunity to close in 2014 for reasons I’m not repeating for the 800th time.

    There’s certainly risk here, but there’s also potential for pitchers to step up and become solid bullpen players. This is going to be one of the more interesting things to watch this season as to this team.

    I’ve got high hopes for Betances and Cabral here. Mike loves his Jose Ramirez. With risk comes high potential.

    • I’m One

      for reasons I’m not repeating for the 800th time.

      Don’t exaggerate. That would only be the 697th time. :-)

      We also need to remember that while Batances & Cabral have looked impressive, they are not facing the heart of an order during ST.

      I’m hopefull that Kelley continues to pitch well and keeps the homers down, but I am concered we got the best of him last year and he quickly turns into a pumpkin. Maybe Thorton or someone else already with the team can step in if that happens. More is certainly better in this case.

  • John C

    Ramirez’s injury has him too far behind to consider him for a spot right now. Maybe later on in the season if he stays healthy. Cabral has anexcellent shot for the 2nd lefty role if they choose to go that way.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Agreed. I also think that, if he continues to show what he’s showing, that Dellin does win a spot. I didn’t really see a scenario in which both Dellin and Ramirez made the team out of ST.

  • The Great Gonzo

    Hoping Betances can get himself in that conversation soon. The kid’s looked good, and it would be nice to get some return on that investment at the big league level.

  • MB923

    I know they are supposedly done at signing free agents, but I don’t think it would hurt to sign Ryan Madson

    • nyyankfan_7

      Guy hasn’t pitched in 2 years and is demanding a MLB contract and not incentive laden. I don’t think it would help to sign him at that cost.

  • Folley of the pre-determined outcome

    Prediction… by July 15th

    Main set-up guy: Pineda

    Main bullpen lefty: Banuelos

    5th Starter: Warren

    • I’m One

      Not buying it. Certainly hope you’re wrong.

    • TheEvilUmpire

      They’re not pulling the plug on Pineda as a starter so quick, Banuelos needs more development in AAA and again is seen as a starter full-time, and Warren’s stuff translates better in the bullpen. Next!

    • Nick

      My prediction: No.

    • The Great Gonzo

      Further Prediction…

      You play alot of video games.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      *bookmarks for shits and giggles on 7/16*

      You now have to maintain this screen name until, at least, the end of July.

      • Folley of the pre-determined outcome

        MLB.com July19th

        Yankees defeat Reds 2-1

        Warren: 6IP 1ER 0BB 7K’s
        Banuelos: 1IP 3K’s
        Pineda: HOLD 1IP
        Robertson: save

        Book it!

    • MikeHC

      I actually don’t think that prediction is so crazy, but your date may be a little optimistic by a year or so.

    • Mr. Roth

      Boy, do I hope you’re wrong.

  • Algernon Blackwood

    What about Tom Gordon? He was pretty good after Stanton and Nelson

    • TheEvilUmpire

      Yanks won’t do it because the guy who has to push his wheelchair to the mound counts against the cap. Translators and wheelchair attendants, who would have figured?

      • The Great Gonzo

        I thin he meant… well, yeah, nevermind…

        • Jorge Steinbrenner

          I know he meant to reply to Mike’s “they didn’t have a solid eighth inning guy until DRob” comment and, frankly, Algernon is right there.

          Still, though, yeah, wheelchair attendants. That’d put us over the celery cap for sure.

          RIP “Celery Cap.”

          • Chip Rodriguez

            If Romine gets sent down to AAA and Gazoo’s BUC, does it remain a Celery Cap or become a Cervelli Cap?

            • The Great Gonzo

              Once a celery cap, always a celery cap.

              • Chip Rodriguez

                Lettuce all try and remember that.

    • And in merrie olde England

      Came here to wonder if I misremembered him. 6.9 bWAR, 185ERA+ 0.980 WHIP seems like a nice couple of years to me.

  • zs190

    Girardi knows what he has with Thornton. He said in an interview that they view Thornton as mostly a matchup guy and they will use him much like Logan was used. They think he’s not completely useless against RHB though so he will sometimes stay in if it’s a L-R-L or L-R-L-L kind of situation

    • Jersey Joe

      Agreed. I really don’t think anyone sees Thornton as an able-bodied, true setup man. If the matchup presents itself though, he’ll definitely get his reps during the season.

  • MikeHC

    Hopefully Betances blossoms into a top bullpen piece because kelley and thornton do not elicit much hope.

  • Steve (different one)

    Agree with the peanut gallery that the best case scenario is the emergence of Betances as a shut down reliever.

    Hopefully this time next year, he is making Dr. Sholl’s commercials.

    “Are you gellin’?”
    “No, I’m Dellin”
    “Yeah, but are you gellin’, Dellin?”
    “Like Magellan”

    • The Great Gonzo

      Dellin is from Washington Heights. He’s not selling out for no damn Dr Sholls. Dellin is holding out for Nike or Sprite. Das IT!

  • Chip Rodriguez

    Definitely the right two names for this discussion.

    I think a lot could hinge on Pineda (and potentially Nuno) in spring training. If Pineda makes the fifth starter role his (and Nuno continues to do well, making a case to be a backup guy/person called up for spot starts), then one of Phelps or Warren could stay a long man in the pen and the other could be a one inning guy.

    Somehow I get the feeling though that the bullpen isn’t quite done yet. I’m expecting a CashNinja move in a couple of weeks to bolster it.

    • The Great Gonzo

      Don’t know about a CashmanNinja move, but I would honestly be surprised if Cashman doesn’t scour the wire for roster casualties all spring… and all year, actually.

  • sjb23

    I’d like to see Pineda win the 5th spot, which would enable David Phelps to be a consideration for the setup role. He seems confident & he doesn’t get rattled in high pressure situations. His HR/9 is around 1.1 & he gets ground balls. If he was just a one-inning guy I think he’d also dial up the velocity 1-2 MPH.

    Robertson – Closer
    Phelps – 8
    Thornton – LOOGY
    Kelley – 7
    Betances – 6-7
    Cebral – LOOGY
    Warren – long man

    • Dirk Diggler

      Considering that fringe starters like Hughes a few years back, Hochevar last season, Wade Davis prior to the KC trade have had terrific success in the back of the bullpen due to having multiple pitches, above average stamina, moderate to above average command — I have no idea why Phelps couldn’t and/or shouldn’t be considered as a late-inning option. If they let him rot as the mop up guy that will be a big mistake.

  • mahkk

    I’m surprised Montgomery hasn’t been mentioned. He’s not as far along as Betances, but could still make an impact this year and be a top bullpen piece.

    • Dirk Diggler

      So let’s say Betances gets the last spot in the pen out of Spring Training…

      I wonder what the order is in place for if/when relievers go down with all things being equal —


  • Dirk Diggler

    The Yankees have PLENTY of potential upside in late innings this season between Montgomery, Jose Ramirez, Betances, and maybe a guy like Phelps gets inserted into the late inning mix. The bullpen is not a concern of mine, nor should it be.

    My opinion is that the Yankees have the third best bullpen in the AL behind Oakland and Kansas City this season.

  • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals

    Having young kids that could make their way into the pen as somebody other than the setup or loogy or mop up guy is great and all, but I’m REALLY hoping that some of these kids stick as starters–next year we’ll be missing Kuroda. CC isn’t all that long from being gone either–his replacement will either cost $100,000,000 or be one of these names we already have. Not to mention nobody can make it on 5 starters–if we don’t have 8 or 9 we’re toast.

  • Jarak

    Clay Repada, Preston Claiborne, Shawn Kelley- Girardi has had a knack for coming up with guys who contribute. Whether its Betances, Cabral, Nuno or whoever to go w DRob, Kelley, Thornton and Claiborne – it will work out. Third and Second that’s another story.

  • Broll the American

    After Stanton and Nelson they had Gordon, Joba, and Hughes at different points before Robertson.