The Bullpen Shuttle: The Mainstays [2015 Season Review]

Cotham. (Presswire)
Cotham. (Presswire)

Over the last few years the Yankees have gotten pretty good at finding useful arms in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft. Some become bonafide studs (17th rounder David Robertson), some become solid contributors (14th rounder David Phelps), some become trade chips (15th rounder Shane Greene), and some provide short-term help (17th rounder Preston Claiborne).

Coming into the 2015 season, the Yankees had a bunch of these mid-to-late round arms either at the Triple-A level or ready for it. They had no shortage of interesting relievers in the upper levels of the minors. That’s for sure. So, to take advantage of those arms, the Yankees employed a bullpen shuttle this year, calling up and sending down fresh arms as necessary. The transactions were almost daily. Here are the five relievers who rode that shuttle more than anyone.

Caleb Cotham

A variety of injuries have hampered Cotham throughout his career, limiting him to 315.2 innings from 2010-14 even though he worked as a starter. The team’s fifth round pick in the 2009 draft started the season with Double-A Trenton because there was simply was no room for him at Triple-A. Cotham’s old for a prospect — he turned 28 earlier this month — so other guys were the priority.

After bouncing between Double-A and Triple-A for much of the summer, Cotham finally earned his first MLB call-up on July 29th, taking the place of Chris Capuano after Capuano allowed five runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Rangers. Cotham made his big league debut that night and struck out four of seven batters faced in 1.2 innings.

Cotham spent August going back and forth between Triple-A and MLB as part of the shuttle before getting called up for good once rosters expanded in September. He pitched well enough in the final month of the season, allowing three runs in six innings across ten appearances. At one point it appeared Joe Girardi was using Cotham as his No. 4 reliever behind Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson.

Cotham flashed some good stuff during his brief MLB stint — PitchFX says he featured a low-to-mid-90 heater and upper-80s slider — and finished with a 6.52 ERA (6.55 FIP) in 9.2 MLB innings. Blame a four-run, two-homer, two-inning dud against the Twins on August 17th for most of that. Cotham struck out eleven and walked one in his 9.2 innings in pinstripes.

Because he has a lengthy injury history and is the oldest of the shuttle relievers, I think Cotham is in danger of losing his 40-man roster at some point this offseason. But, if he manages to stick around into the 2016 season, he’ll again be an up-and-down arm, helping chew up innings whenever necessary.

Nick Goody

The 24-year-old Goody was New York’s sixth round pick in the 2012 draft. He was expected to be a quick-moving reliever, but his career was put on hold due to Tommy John surgery. He threw three innings in 2013, got hurt, then threw 31.1 innings after returning in 2014.

Goody. (Presswire)
Goody. (Presswire)

The Yankees had Goody start the season with Double-A Trenton this year because that was the appropriate level for him given his experience and rehab and whatnot. And he dominated. Goody had a 1.73 ERA (2.21 FIP) with 59 strikeouts and 14 walks in 41.2 innings for the Thunder before getting bumped up to Triple-A Scranton in early-July.

On July 30th, Goody was called up to the big leagues for the first time, replacing Cotham on the roster. (Like I said, these transactions were almost daily.) He made his MLB debut that night, getting one out, then he pitched again the next day, allowing a run in an inning against the White Sox. One day later, Goody was back in the minors. So it goes.

Goody was called up on two other occasions in August — he threw one inning each time then was sent back down — before coming up when rosters expanded in September. He didn’t pitch a whole lot in the season’s final month. Only 2.1 innings across three appearances. Goody allowed three runs in 5.2 big league innings total in 2015.

After throwing 62.1 innings in the minors (1.59 ERA and 2.06 FIP), it seemed like the Yankees wanted to take it easy on Goody in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, so he was a just-in-case arm in September. He’s a low-90s fastball/low-80s slider guy with a history of missing bats (career 35.0 K% in the minors) who figures to get a greater opportunity to help the Yankees in 2016.

Chris Martin

Unlike the other guys in the post, the Yankees did not draft Martin. They acquired him from the Rockies in a cash deal last offseason. He replaced Gonzalez Germen on the roster, who replaced Claiborne. Simply put, the Yankees felt Germen was better than Claiborne, and Martin was better than Germen, so the moves were made. Incremental upgrades are still upgrades.

Martin, 29, is unlike the other guys in this post in another way as well: he was on the Opening Day roster. It became obvious pretty early on the Yankees liked Martin more than we realized. He struggled a bit in Spring Training but still made the team, then was literally the first reliever Girardi used this season. Martin struck out the side in order on Opening Day: Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson.

Girardi continued to use Martin regularly the rest of April, even asking him to pick up a save on a night the main relievers were unavailable. He pitched well for the first few weeks as that first reliever outside the Circle of Trust™. Martin wasn’t in the Circle yet, but you can tell he wasn’t far outside either. Opponents hit .167/.222/.214 with 13 strikeouts and two walks in eleven innings against Martin in April.

The first few days of May were rough and Martin eventually landed on the DL with an elbow issue. He returned three weeks later and was immediately optioned to Triple-A Scranton. After four appearances there, he returned to New York, allowed five runs in 3.1 innings across three appearances, then was sent back to Triple-A. He was officially on the bullpen shuttle.

Another elbow injury caused Martin to miss four weeks in July and August — he developed a staph infection from a big bite on his hand and it spread to his elbow — but he got healthy in time to return to the Yankees in September. He allowed three runs on eight hits and three walks in 4.2 innings and six appearances down the stretch. Martin never was the same after that first elbow injury.

All told, Martin had a 5.66 ERA (3.67 FIP) in 24 appearances and 20.2 innings with the Yankees this past season. (He had a 3.18 ERA and 3.02 FIP in 28.1 Triple-A innings as well.) He worked out an agreement with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan a few weeks ago and asked the Yankees for his release. The (Ham) Fighters sent the Yankees $750,000 for their trouble and Martin signed a two-year, $1.7M contract. Good for him.

Pinder. (Presswire)
Pinder. (Presswire)

Branden Pinder

No shuttle reliever threw more big league innings or was called up more times than Pinder this season. Pinder, 26, was added to the 40-man roster last offseason thanks to Rule 5 Draft eligibility, and he was called up six (!) different times in 2015. He was called up once in April, once in May, once in June, once in July, then twice in August, the second time for good through the end of the season. Gosh.

Pinder was the team’s 16th round pick in 2011 and he made his MLB debut on April 15th, throwing a scoreless inning against the Orioles. He pitched mostly low-leverage mop-up innings — this extra innings loss to the Blue Jays is the notable exception — so, weirdly, his signature moment of the season was a double. Pinder batted for himself in a blowout game against the Braves and doubled into the left-center field gap. Check it out:

Hey, the guy’s a 1.000/1.000/2.000 career hitter. That works out to a 747 wRC+. Not too shabby. Pitchers love to brag about their hitting and I’m sure Pinder wore out the other guys in the bullpen after that double. I know I would.

Anyway, Pinder made 25 appearances and threw 27.2 innings during those six call-ups this summer. He had a 2.93 ERA (4.72 FIP) with 25 strikeouts and 14 walks. PitchFX measured his fastball in the mid-90s and his slider in the mid-80s. The swing-and-miss rate on his slider was a healthy 17.4%.

It’s tough to evaluate Pinder’s performance because he went up and down so many times, but, based on how often he got the call, he appears to be at the front of the shuttle line. He’s still on the 40-man roster, and he is older than most others on the shuttle, though I think his spot is safe this offseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a lot more of Pinder next year.

Nick Rumbelow

Rumbelow’s climb up the minor league ladder was much quicker than the other guys in this post. The 24-year-old was the team’s seventh round pick in the 2013 draft, he dominated four levels of the minors in 2014, then started the 2015 season with Triple-A Scranton before getting called up to the show in late-June. Rumbelow allowed a run in two-thirds of an inning against the Phillies in his MLB debut on June 23rd.

Even with that relatively late first promotion, the Yankees managed to call Rumbelow up four different times this past season. Once in June, twice in August, then once again when rosters expanded in September. His most notable inning of the season came on September 15th, when he inherited runners on the corners with one out in a one-run game, then struck out Steven Souza and Evan Longoria to escape the jam.

Unfortunately, Rumbelow served up a two-run home run to Nick Franklin to blow the lead and eventually take his first career loss in the next inning. The Yankees and Girardi were hoping one of the shuttle relievers would emerge as a reliable option in September but it never did happen. Rumbelow got chances — he threw six innings across seven appearances in the final month — but didn’t force the issue.

Rumbelow pitched to a 4.02 ERA (3.84 FIP) in 15.2 big league innings and 17 appearances with the Yankees this summer, striking out 15 and walking five. He also had a 4.27 ERA (2.72 FIP) in 52.2 Triple-A innings. Rumbelow uses a mid-90s fastball to set up his low-80s slurvy breaking ball and surprisingly effective mid-80s changeup. Opponents swung and missed at the change 19.5% of the time. That’s really good.

Like Goody, Rumbelow is quite young and he has a history of missing bats (career 28.9 K% in the minors), so his place on the 40-man roster is pretty safe. I think he has the best chance among the guys in this post to develop into a late-inning reliever who works high-leverage innings. That doesn’t mean he’ll be that guy in 2016, but I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of Rumbelow next year.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 30th, 2015

2015 Season Record: 87-75 (764 RS, 698 RA, 88-74 pythag. record), lost wildcard game

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Thanksgiving Weekend Open Thread

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. This is definitely one of my favorite holidays of the year. Love the food. Cooking it, eating it, the leftovers … I love pretty much everything other than cleaning it all up. I hope you and everyone you’re with has a great Thanksgiving. It’s a pretty cool day.

Barring any breaking news, I don’t plan to post much the rest of this week, so this is your open thread for the next few days. Enjoy the holiday and go forget about baseball for a little while. That’s my plan. Talk about whatever you like here. Happy Thanksgiving.

Room for Improvement: Alex Rodriguez

This post is the first of something I hope becomes a series over the next few weeks/months, detailing things certain players could work on heading into the new season.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

By almost any account, the 2015 season was great for Alex Rodriguez. Not only did he come back from suspension and injuries to lead the team in home runs, but the Summer of Al greatly defied even the wildest expectations the most optimistic of fans, analysts, and observers could’ve imagined for Rodriguez. And, it’s probably fair to say that he won over a good deal of hearts and minds that he may not have previously won over. Despite those rousing successes, there is at least one area Rodriguez needs to work on as he prepares for 2016.

Using the good old eye-test, it was clear A-Rod had a bit of a hole in his swing during the 2016 season. His 23.4% strikeout rate was the highest he’s ever had in a full season, “bested” only by partial seasons in 2013 (23.8%), 1995 (28.2%), and 1994 (33.9% in just 59 PA). Of course, Rodriguez was able to counter that with robust power and a great walk rate; his .235 ISO was his highest mark since 2010 (.236) and his walk rate of 13.5% was his best since 2009 (15%). You can deal with a high volume of strikeouts so long as you’re getting at least one of those things–walks or power–back in exchange. This is why Jayson Nix infuriated me so much, but I digress.

The noticeable hole in A-Rod’s swing appeared to come on certain pitch types in a certain location. Every time he had two strikes on him, it seemed that pitchers were going with soft and/or breaking stuff low and away, and Alex was chasing each time, leading to that relatively high strikeout rate. If he take a look here, we can see this supposition backed up by the numbers. Al had a high whiff/swing percentage on changeups, sliders, and curveballs, each clocking in at at least 42%. This gives us pitch type, but it doesn’t quite give us the location. Let’s take a look at A-Rod’s zone profile by whiff/swing and see what we can find.

(Courtesy: BrooksBaseball.Net)
(Courtesy: BrooksBaseball.Net)

We see some pops of red (high whiff/swing%) in the top left of the chart–so up and in, out of the zone–but my eye is drawn to the lower right of the chart, those two boxes lowest and right-most where we see sky-high whiff/swing percentages of 59.32 and 65.91. Recall the pitch types Rodriguez struggled to make contact against: changeups, sliders, and curveballs. Those are pitches that fit into these high-volume whiff zones when we consider that Rodriguez is a right-handed batter. Whether it’s a right-handed pitcher trying to get him to swing over sliders and curves low in the zone or a left-handed pitcher trying to go backdoor with all three of those pitch types, those locations are prime for attacking righties.

Alex has always had a good eye and still managed a good walk rate and good power, even while chasing the low and breaking stuff. If he can iron that out and get a handle on it–and, let’s be honest, with his work ethic and dedication to the game, he’s capable of doing that–he’ll have a great shot at replicated 2015 during the 2016 season.

Sherman: Yankees have let teams know Nova is available

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees have let teams know Ivan Nova is available this offseason, according to Joel Sherman. They brought his name up during talks with the Reds about Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline, but that didn’t work out. Sherman says the Yankees are now looking to include Nova in a package for young pitching with several years of team control remaining.

Nova, who turns 29 in January, will be a free agent next offseason, and I suppose it’s not impossible for him to pitch his way into a qualifying offer. That seems unlikely though. One or two starters would have to get hurt for Nova to get a rotation spot. There’s a good chance the Yankees will lose Nova for nothing next winter if they don’t trade him at some point.

Sherman says the Yankees are trying to sell Nova as a healthy and motivated pitcher, which isn’t a bad idea. He’s getting further away from Tommy John surgery and pitching well next season means a handsome free agent contract, and I’m sure that will be on his mind. Those are also reasons to keep Nova, right? There’s no such thing as too much pitching.

Nova was terrible this year, pitching to a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings. He’s had a really rocky career, mixing awful first halves with excellent second halves in both 2011 and 2013. He was also abysmal in 2012. Legitimately one of the worst pitchers in baseball. The overall result is a 4.33 ERA (4.29 FIP) in 631.2 career innings, good for a 96 ERA+.

There’s value in league average, especially since Nova is what, New York’s sixth starter at best right now? I can’t imagine anyone is opposed to the idea of trading Nova. If the Yankees can use him as part of a package to get a younger starter, great. If not, I don’t think holding onto him heading into 2016 would be the worst thing in the world.

Whitley & Mitchell: Spot Starters [2015 Season Review]

Because of the health concerns in their rotation, the Yankees planned to give their starters an extra day of rest whenever possible this season. Off-days helped but that wasn’t enough. The team would have to insert a spot sixth starter on occasion to make it work, which they did quite often this summer.

Following his hit or miss debut last season, Chase Whitley was dubbed the de facto sixth starter in camp, little did we know at the time. Later in the season Bryan Mitchell held that role. Both spent time both with the Yankees and in Triple-A Scranton as depth arms in 2015, and both missed time with injuries. Whitley’s was more serious and Mitchell’s was much scarier.

Whitley. (Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

Ace Whitley

Had the Yankees held any kind of true roster competition in Spring Training, I’m pretty sure Whitley would have won a job on the pitching staff. The 26-year-old allowed two runs in 15.1 innings in camp, striking out 12 and walking only three. He made two starts and five relief appearances. Whitley was awesome during Grapefruit League play and it looked like he was going to be part of the Opening Day roster.

That wasn’t the case. The Yankees were planning to use him as their sixth starter, someone who would come up to make spot starts whenever the team needed an extra arm. That was his role. Sit and wait in Triple-A until everyone else needed a breather. Whitley made three effective starts with the RailRiders in April — he allowed four runs in 17 innings (2.12 ERA and 2.69 FIP) — before getting called up to make his first spot start.

On April 28th, Whitley held the Rays to one run in five innings. Unspectacular, but effective. What was supposed to be a one-start cameo turned into a regular rotation spot, however. Masahiro Tanaka was placed on the DL with a forearm issue the same day Whitley made his spot start, so the Yankees had to keep him in the rotation. Six days later, Whitley shut out the Blue Jays across seven masterful innings.

Whitley’s next start didn’t go so well — the Orioles scored five runs in 5.2 innings and took him deep three times — and the one after that was his final start of the season. In Tampa Bay on May 14th, after getting charged with three runs in 1.2 innings, Whitley walked off the mound with what proved to be a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Five days later, he had season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Whitley’s control disappeared in that final inning — he walked the final batter on four pitches and missed wide with several other pitches earlier in the inning, including one that went over everyone’s head to the backstop. Whitley later acknowledged his elbow had been bugging him for a few weeks, but he didn’t tell anyone and tried to pitch through it. At some point that night the ligament had had enough and snapped. So it goes.

In those four starts with the Yankees, Whitley had a 4.19 ERA (4.58 FIP) and soaked up 19.1 innings. By all accounts his rehab has gone well. The Yankees tried to sneak Whitley through waivers to remove him from the 40-man roster last week, but the Rays claimed him, so he’s no longer in the organization. The team has a bunch of these spare right-handers on the 40-man, so when time came to make space, the injured guy lost out.

The Yankees selected Whitley in the 15th round of the 2010 draft — he was a third baseman and pitcher in college, then the Yankees converted him to the mound full-time in pro ball — and got 95 innings of 5.02 ERA (4.23 FIP) ball out of him, which is essentially replacement level. Considering the expected return on a 15th round pick is basically nothing, Whitley was a nice little get for New York. So long, Ace. It’s been real.

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Good Arm & Bad Results

When the season started, Mitchell was something like the seventh or eighth pitcher on the rotation depth chart. Chris Capuano got hurt in Spring Training, pushing Adam Warren into the rotation. Whitley was the sixth guy, and he got hurt almost exactly when Capuano returned. The question for Mitchell was whether the Yankees would go to him or Esmil Rogers whenever they needed a starter.

The Yankees never did need Mitchell to come up to make a start. At least not early in the season. He had a rough spring (nine runs in 12.1 innings) and started the season with Triple-A Scranton. Mitchell made 13 starts with the RailRiders and, predictably, was anywhere between very good and very bad. That’s his thing. He had a 2.79 ERA (3.07 FIP) in 67.2 innings in those 13 starts.

The Yankees called Mitchell up for the first time this season as part of the bullpen shuttle in late-June, when they needed a fresh long man. He made his first appearance with New York on June 20th and recorded one of those fancy three-inning saves in a blowout win. Mitchell stuck around for a bit after that, allowing two earned runs in 6.1 innings in his next four appearances, all in short-ish relief.

Following a brief return to Triple-A Scranton around the All-Star break — the Yankees wanted Mitchell to stay stretched out, so he was send down to make two starts — Mitchell was called back up to join the Yankees in early-August. He made a spot start against the White Sox on August 1st and allowed four runs in four innings on a limited pitch count. The Yankees then moved him back into long relief.

Mitchell’s best outing of the season came against the Indians on August 11th, when he threw three scoreless innings in extra innings, striking out five. In his next appearance, another spot start, Mitchell took a line drive to the face in what was a really scary scene.

Mitchell escaped with only a small nasal fracture, which was actually good news, all things considered. He didn’t have a concussion or any other neurological damage, and the ball managed to avoid his eyes and jaw. It hit the bill of his cap before deflecting into his nose.

Amazingly, Mitchell returned to the mound only eleven days later. He spent some time on the 7-day concussion DL while going through tests, but otherwise he was back on the mound in short order. Mitchell wasn’t any good after that, but at least he was healthy and back on the mound.

In ten appearances after the line drive, Mitchell allowed 12 runs on 13 hits and ten walks in 8.2 innings. He struck out only seven and opponents hit .333/.480/.513 against him. Yikes. Mitchell was not included on the wildcard game roster, because duh, and he finished the regular season with a 6.37 ERA (4.75 FIP) in 29.2 big league innings spread across two starts and 18 relief appearances.

It’s definitely possible the whole line drive to the face thing affected Mitchell’s performance down the stretch. If not physically then mentally. He could have been pitching tentatively because he feared getting hit again, something like that. Although he escaped with a relatively minor injury, that’s a really scary incident and it could have shaken him up. The fact he was able to physically pitch eleven days later was impressive, but that doesn’t mean he was ready to go mentally.

Anyway, the Yankees sent Mitchell to Puerto Rico to play winter ball this offseason, to make up some innings after spending so much time in the bullpen this summer. He’s thrown 21.2 innings in five starts (4.15 ERA) in winter ball so far but is struggling with control (14/12 K/BB), though that isn’t uncommon. Mitchell’s got a great arm but location continues to be an issue.

Next season will be Mitchell’s final minor league option year, so he has to stick in MLB for good in 2017 to be exposed to waivers. I expect the Yankees to bring him a camp as a starter and then send him to Triple-A Scranton to continue working as a starter next season, but a full-time move to the bullpen may be in the cards at some point. We’ll see.