What Went Right: Boone Logan’s first half

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It was a year of two halves for Boone Logan, the Yankees’ polarizing southpaw reliever.  As a founder of the Boone Logan fan club on Twitter and a frequent defender of his, I believe I might be of service in this discussion.  I have always viewed Logan as useful bullpen piece: lefties with his power fastball-slider combo don’t grow on trees, and at times he is not entirely useless against opposite-handed hitters.  He doesn’t have the consistency or command at this stage in his career to be a Matt Thornton type who is deadly against both righties and lefties, but he is a solid contributor in the Yankee ‘pen.  In the first half of 2012, Logan at times looked like he was taking the next step and becoming the kind of shutdown lefty that the Yankees have been fruitlessly seeking for many years.

Logan got off to a strong start to 2012, giving up just one run in the first month of the season, and striking out about 13 batters per nine innings (though with a walk rate approaching 5/9 innings).  May was a rougher month ERA-wise as he gave up five runs in 9 2/3 innings, but his peripherals were vastly improved — he walked just one batter the entire month.  June saw him give up just two runs, though his strikeout rate dropped somewhat.  Overall in those first three months of the season, Logan’s line was: 28 innings, 37 strikeouts, eight runs (2.57 ERA), 11 walks, and two homers allowed while being used very heavily by manager Joe Girardi.

In a post I wrote earlier in the year for TYA, I wondered what was the cause for Logan’s early success.  One area that I highlighted was a change in Logan’s pitch mix, where he was throwing more sliders than in previous years, and fewer fastballs.  He was also getting vastly improved whiff rates on the slider, indicating that he was not losing effectiveness by throwing it more often. There was some tangible evidence suggesting that the big first half was legitimate improvement and not a small sample size fluke.

While it was only three months, Logan’s first half performance was very important for the Yankees.  Their bullpen depth was shortened due to injuries/ineffectiveness of several guys ahead of him on the depth chart.  He often worked in a setup role rather than just as a specialist, and he handled himself quite nicely.  While the Yankees obviously still missed Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, Boone’s early effectiveness did help to cushion the blow.  Logan’s heavy workload in the first half (where he was among the league leader in relief appearances) may have taken a toll on him later in the season, but there is no question that he answered the bell when the team needed him early on.

Falling into (first) place

This picture will never get old. (Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

After yesterday’s blowout victory over the hapless Red Sox and a loss to the Orioles, the Yankees suddenly find themselves with a few inches of breathing room.  With only two games remaining, the Yankees can assure at least a tie for the division lead by winning one of the upcoming contests, and will hold on to the division lead if they can finish up the sweep.  Things have been incredibly tense over the last few weeks, driving even the most level-headed Yankee fans to the brink of panic.  However, the team has held on, flirting with mediocrity at times but doing just enough to stay afloat.  While anything can happen over the next two games, we can be reassured by the fact that the Yankees are for sure going to be in the playoffs in some form, and that they control their own destiny.

Last night’s win over the Red Sox was big not only because of the implications of the division race, but also because of some promising developments.  Of course, these have to be taken with a grain of salt because the Yankees have not exactly faced stellar competition of late (the checked-out Red Sox fielding a AAAA lineup looked particularly pathetic), but there have been a number of encouraging signs.

After an up-and-down 2012 that saw CC Sabathia show signs of mortality, he has finished the season strong.  Over his last three outings, he has looked more like the reliable ace he has been throughout his big league career, a welcome development just in time for the start of postseason play.  He is potentially set up to pitch in the one-game playoff if the Yankees don’t end up winning the division, or else could start Game One of the Division Series.  Whenever he ends up pitching, Sabathia getting his mojo back is incredibly important for the Yankees’ playoff chances.  Another important aspect of CC’s outing today is that the Yankees didn’t have to use any of their key relievers.  This leaves Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and company available as the Yankees try to lock down the division over the next two games.

The Yankee lineup also has seen the return of some key players.  Mark Teixeira announced his return from the DL in loud fashion with a home run off of old friend Alfredo Aceves.  He also made it through the game playing 1st base, which bodes well for his chances to play at his natural position in the playoffs.  This bumps Nick Swisher back to right field, and hopefully prevents the Yankees from needing to play Raul Ibanez or Andruw Jones in the outfield.  Brett Gardner is also back.  Though he was hitless in his only at-bat, he played the outfield without incident, and could be a factor come playoff time.  I would guess that Gardner may be a bit rusty offensively to start every day in the outfield (especially considering how well Ichiro has hit of late), but he could still have a major impact as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.

Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano have had their struggles this season, but their bats look to be coming to life at the most crucial time.  Cano in particular has absolutely crushed the ball of late, racking up seven straight multi-hit games.  Granderson meanwhile did not let his demotion to the #7 spot in the lineup faze him, and he can provide some valuable punch at the bottom of the order if he continues to hit in that spot.  Russell Martin has also posted some valuable contributions of late.  With their hitters getting healthy and starting to click, the Yankee lineup is suddenly incredibly deep and dangerous again.

Of course, there are still plenty of reasons to be nervous, and the next few days will assuredly be agonizing.  However, the Yankees do at very least seem to be peaking at the right time, and perhaps this will provide just enough of a boost to outlast the Orioles.  I am hopeful that the Yankees can pull it out with as little drama as necessary, if the Red Sox and Rays would only be so accommodating.  Regardless, there is definitely some exciting baseball to come.

Veteran Yankees Dancing in September

(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees’ recent stretch of strong play has propelled them to a two-game lead over the pesky Orioles, giving them some much-needed breathing room against an opponent who has refused to go away.  While there is still plenty of baseball left, the likelihood of the Yankees winning the division title, or at least earning a playoff spot, grows ever larger.  The Yankees have won eight out of their last nine games, and 10 out of their last 12.  This run is all the more impressive because they have not gotten huge contributions from their stars.  Mark Teixeira is still out, and Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano have all underperformed in September.  Despite the offensive struggles of their impact players, the Yankees have solidified their place at the top of the division due in large part to the play of two veterans who appeared washed up at various points in the season.

Since September 6, Ichiro Suzuki seems to have discovered a fountain of youth that transformed him into the dangerous, dynamic Ichiro of old.  Over that stretch he is a ridiculous 24 for 48, good for a .500/.520/.708 line, with two home runs thrown in for good measure.  One could nitpick by saying that he has only walked three times (once intentionally) during that stretch, but honestly, when a guy’s hitting .500, there’s not much to complain about.  Ichiro has also stolen eight bases in his last 16 games, providing a speed element to the Yankee lineup that has been missing for much of the season because of the injury to Brett Gardner.

Like the dark wizard that he physically resembles, Raul Ibanez has demonstrated an incredible ability to bounce back from the most improbable circumstances.  Slow in the field and anemic at the plate for much of August and September, Ibanez has started to show signs of life.  While we are only operating with a tiny sample size here, Ibanez has made a huge impact for the Yankees over the last three games.  In those games, he is a combined 7 for 12, and his two big home runs were key to the Yankees’ comeback win against the A’s on the 22nd.

Fellow geriatric Andy Pettitte has particularly impressed since coming off the DL recently.  While several other Yankee starters have picked up their game of late, Pettitte has showed little rust in his return, tossing 11 scoreless innings in two outings (albeit against weak competition).  While one would worry about a pitcher retaining his command and feel following a long layoff, Andy seems to be back in midseason form.  With at least one more start remaining in the regular season, Pettitte seems to be making a strong case for the #3 spot in the playoff rotation, if the Yankees can make it that far.

It is incredibly improbable, but fantastic, that these players have all managed to turn back the clock and provide some big performances in very important games.  Given the advanced age of this trio, it would be reasonable to expect them to fade at the end of a long season, wearing down physically and overall demonstrating a diminished level of performance.  The fact that Pettitte, Ichiro, and (recently) Ibanez have elevated their game is a testament to the excellent conditioning and great work ethic that these players have maintained over the course of their career.  We could also throw Derek Jeter into this category as well, though he has been pretty strong throughout the season.  It has been a pleasure to see these consummate professionals pick up their more-heralded teammates throughout the stretch run.  Hopefully, the Yankees’ stars can pick things up over the next week and a half as the Yankees look to hold on to their division lead.  It should be a wild ride.

Taking a look at Super Nova

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I know it has been a little while since he pitched, but I wanted to take a look at Ivan Nova‘s last outing.  It was one of his most impressive performances of the season despite it being his first start back from injury.  In total, Nova went six innings, giving up just two runs on four hits (only two of which went for extra bases) and two walks, with eight strikeouts.

Honestly, my expectations were pretty low for Nova in this start.  He has been hit hard all year, giving up a ridiculous quantity of extra-base hits en route to a 4.81 ERA (including his most recent outing).  While his strikeout rate is at a career high and his walk rate has been pretty low, one would expect him to be having a career year.  Instead, Nova has been one of the weak points in the Yankee rotation, and I figured that missing time with a shoulder injury would likely cost him his rotation spot.  However, Nova proved the doubters wrong with a strong outing.  I was curious to see what was working for him.

Looking at Nova’s outing on Brooks Baseball, the first thing that comes to mind is his fastball.  His average velocity on the pitch jumped a good 0.6 MPH, going from 93.46 to 94.07.  Just to put that number in context, an average fastball of 94.07 MPH would place Nova 7th among qualified starters in average fastball velocity (behind usual suspects Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander).  With the increased velocity also came better movement, as both the vertical (by about two inches) and horizontal movement by about 2/3 of an inch) on the heater were increased.  The extra life on the pitch corresponded to a four-fold increase in whiff rate, 16% in his last outing compared to just over 4% for the rest of the season.  This is a massive difference, even though the change in velocity and movement seems to be relatively small.  For what it’s worth, Texas Leaguers shows more dramatic differences in velocity and movement.

While the improved fastball is the main thing that jumps out at me, there are some noticeable differences in Nova’s curveball as well.  The velocity of the pitched jumped about 2-3 MPH over his season average, though the vertical and horizontal break actually decreased.  This could mean that he was throwing a tighter, sharper pitch, and consequently, opposing hitters whiffed at it about twice as often as they did earlier in the season.

The fastball and curve were Nova’s bread and butter in his most recent outing, as they have been throughout the season.  He threw them about 83-percent of the time earlier in the season, and threw them nearly 90-percent of the time his last time out.  I have no idea if Nova made a mechanical change during is time on the DL — it appears he did — or if the extra rest has simply given his raw stuff a little boost.  Regardless, the extra hop on Nova’s fastball and tighter curveball seemed to be very effective in the small sample size of one outing.  At this point in the season, Nova is auditioning just to earn a spot on the postseason roster.  Unless he is absolutely lights out and another Yankee starter suffers an injury or setback, it is hard to picture Nova earning a spot in the playoff rotation.  Regardless, if he continues to show his improved fastball velocity and more effective curveball, the Yankees could have a tough decision on their hands.

The Yankees could use some relief

Three David Phelps photos in one day? Madness. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

After yet another close game (though thankfully, last night’s was of the winning variety), the collective blood pressure of the Yankee fanbase is once again a little higher than optimal.  While the Yankees were able to jump ahead of the Red Sox in the early going, the inability to accomplish the mythical shutdown inning allowed the Red Sox to stay within striking distance for the majority of the game.  This has been a problem for much of the recent stretch of subpar play.

While David Robertson and Rafael Soriano have individually had very strong seasons, the Yankee bullpen, and these two stalwarts in particular, have shown mortality at particularly inconvenient times.  Robertson’s fastball velocity is down slightly from last season, and his reduction in the use of his curveball in favor of the cutter is a little puzzling.  Several recent Yankee losses can directly be tied to blowups by one or both of the Yankees’ top relievers.  While Joba Chamberlain has impressed in his recent outings, he is probably still not at the point of being relied upon to be a consistent shutdown presence in the 7th inning.  The Clay Rapada/Cody Eppley/Boone Logan trio have performed adequately, though none of them (possibly excepting Logan) really are useful against opposite-handed batters.

As the Yankees battle through the last few weeks of the season and hopefully into October, it is evident that they could use another bullpen arm with the ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate.  Presumably, a trade is incredibly unlikely at this juncture, so whatever help the Yankees are going to find will have to come from within.  With several players on track to return from injury, the Yankees will have a few options as they shuffle their rotation to accommodate the returnees.  Here are some of the ways they can proceed, and variables to consider.

Ivan Nova

Nova should be back from injury relatively soon, but his uneven 2012 season raises questions about how he can be most effectively deployed.  He’s currently in line to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation, but given his propensity to surrender extra-base hits, there’s no guarantee that he will be a significant upgrade.  While Freddy’s repertoire doesn’t really translate well to a short relief role (though he could be an effective long man), Nova could be an effective option for shorter stints, allowing him to focus on his fastball and slider and not worry about his other pitches.

David Phelps

Andy Pettitte is also on his way back, though his timeline for returning to the rotation is unclear at the moment.  The Yankees are currently planning to let Pettitte build his innings back up on the Major League roster, which will likely entail him making piggyback starts with one of Nova, Garcia, or Phelps. If Nova and Pettitte both make it back into the rotation, Phelps likely gets bumped back into a relief role.  Phelps has been very impressive when used as a reliever this season (albeit in a small sample), so he could be an intriguing option to add more depth to the Yankee bullpen.

Cory Wade

Yes, Wade has been incredibly disappointing in the majors this year, but he has handled himself fairly well since being demoted to AAA (2.27 ERA).  That said, his strikeout rate is down compared to 2011 and his walk rate is elevated, and both trends continued when he was sent down to the Scranton traveling road show.  Even though Wade is not pitching as well as he did last season (or early this year), it could be worth giving him some innings to see if he can get his confidence and stuff back.

Mark Montgomery (obligatory)

I know the Yankees have said that they will not call up Montgomery this season, but I think it is an option worth considering.  He has continued to dominate his minor league opposition, and I’m not sure if there is a serious developmental case to be made for keeping him in the minors much longer.  AA hitters simply have no answer for his slider, and he is striking them out in droves.  While there is some obvious risk inherent in calling up a minor leaguer to contribute to a playoff chase (some may fear that getting hit around could ruin him forever, a la Mark Melancon), Montgomery has the talent and upside to be a shutdown guy right away.  I trust that the Yankees know better than me regarding his big league readiness, but the possibility that Montgomery could be a shot in the arm to the Yankee bullpen (a la rookie Joba Chamberlain or Francisco Rodriguez back in the day) is hard to ignore.  Considering the Yankees’ recent bullpen struggles, it seems worthwhile to reconsider the calculus of whether keeping Montgomery down is really the best option.

While a Montgomery callup doesn’t seem forthcoming (though I will continue to dream), returning Phelps to the bullpen could give the Yankees the reliable middle-inning arm that they have been missing since Cory Wade began to struggle.  While Montgomery has the highest upside, Phelps is the safest bet.  Phelps has excelled in the role when called upon this season, and since the Yankees may not want to overwork Chamberlain and Robertson, it makes sense to have another reliable middle relief arm who can pitch to both righties and lefties.  It would be hard to expect much out of Nova or Wade if they were given a relief role, and they would definitely have to impress in their few opportunities to earn their spot.

Of all the problems facing the Yankees this season, the bullpen is probably the least of them.  That said, it has contributed directly to several losses, and the Yankees do have several decent options available that could improve the situation.  I assume when Pettitte and Nova are back, we will start to see some pieces in motion, as the Yankees look to fortify the middle innings.