Archive for Death by Bullpen
It’s no secret that Joe Girardi and the Yankees have leaned on their bullpen heavily these last two months, as the division lead was squandered away and games became increasingly important. The late-game quartet of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamberlain have been at the forefront of the increased bullpen workload, as they form what amounts to the Circle of Trust™. Every manager has those guys, but Girardi has been pressed into using his more than he probably would like of late.
Joel Sherman noted today that Wednesday’s win over the Twins was the first time at least one of those four relievers did not appear in a game since August 14th, when Hiroki Kuroda two-hit the Rangers. That was 38 games ago. Since that date, Logan (22) and Robertson (21) have appeared in more than half of the team’s games. Soriano (17) and Joba (15) have had it a little easier. Looking at September only, Logan ranks second in baseball with 16 appearances. Robertson is third (14). Only former Yankee Randy Choate (17) has made more pitching appearances this month.
Robertson has made four sets of back-to-back-to-back appearances since Kuroda’s complete game, the first four back-to-back-to-back appearances of his career. That blew my mind. Had he not missed more than a month with an oblique strain, Robertson would be sitting on 70+ appearances and 70+ innings on the season. Both would be career highs. Logan, on the other hand, leads the AL with 77 appearances, three more than anyone who spent the entire season in the junior circuit. This is a guy who hadn’t appeared in more than 65 games since 2007. He seems to be worn down and his performance has suffered down the stretch.
These next seven games are imperative and Girardi shouldn’t hold back on his top relievers until the Yankees clinch something, preferably the AL East. The good news is that CC Sabathia is starting to look more like himself, which means more innings-eating appearances like what he gave the team yesterday. Andy Pettitte has stretched his pitch count up to 88 and should be good for 100 or so next time. David Phelps and his ability to go multiple innings is now in the bullpen to help lighten the load, and we’ve already seen Girardi be willing to use him in higher-leverage seventh inning appearances. I’d like to see him go two innings at a time, but even the one inning helps.
With the AL East magic number down to six, the Yankees could be wearing the division crown by the time they return home to face the Red Sox next week. That would give them three precious days to rest the four core relievers before the season ends, but of course clinching that soon will require some help. At this point of the schedule, the proverbial bullpen damage has already been done. Maybe the late-inning guys can get an extra day or two or rest before the end of the season, but the workload already is what it is. The goal right now remains winning the division and if that means these guys have to throw a bunch of innings in the next week, so be it.
When the Yankees play the second game of their three-game set against the Twins later tonight, they’ll do so with a new reliever available in the bullpen. Right-hander David Aardsma is set to join the club today after losing more than two calendar years due to injury. An oblique problem sidelined him in September 2010, then a torn labrum in his hip and Tommy John surgery (and a subsequent setback) cost him all of 2011 and all but nine games of 2012. It’s been a long road back, that’s for sure.
Since the Yankees are stuck in a tight division race with only those nine games left to play, there’s very little chance we’ll see the 30-year-old Aardsma in anything more than a low-leverage blowout situation. The eighth inning of last night’s game — the inning Cory Wade was unable to escape — seems like the kind of inning the former Mariners’ closer would be allowed to navigate. Not a particularly close game and with only a handful of outs remaining, not really enough for the other club to mount a legitimate comeback.
“When (Joe Girardi) calls down, or (Larry Rothschild) calls, or whoever does it, and my name is called, I’ll be ready,” said Aardsma yesterday. “And then I go out there and go pitch. I haven’t faced a big-league hitter in two years, but it’s a matter of, I know my stuff’s been good. It’s been playing really well down in Tampa. I know it’s not the same caliber, but I know my stuff is good. Now it’s just a matter of going out there, getting comfortable, and facing hitters. I’m not expecting to go out there in the toughest situation ever — I don’t think they would do that — but they do want me ready.”
Although the AL East crown has yet to be locked up, the Yankees don’t really need Aardsma to be much help this week. Earlier in the season after Mariano Rivera got hurt and Wade imploded? Yeah they needed bullpen help then but opted to wait for Joba Chamberlain. He struggled mightily at first before straightening things out and becoming the fourth wheel in the David Robertson-Rafael Soriano-Boone Logan end-game trio. The Yankees found out the hard way that not everyone coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery can be useful right away, but they got a little lucky with how quickly Joba turned things around.
That same problem — the general ineffectiveness following elbow surgery — could present itself with Aardsma, who really didn’t pitch all that well during his minor league rehab stint. The circumstances are much different though, as he’s just a spare arm for these next nine games and not someone the team is really counting on for an impact. Next year will be a different story, but we have all offseason to worry about that. I’ll be surprised if Aardsma appears in even three of the next nine games, but even if he does, I think we all learned from Joba earlier this season not to count on him for much right away.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s easy to make too much of one game in baseball, especially when you’re talking about a game like yesterday’s. The Yankees clobbered the Orioles to wrap up an important ten-game stretch in which they went just 4-6, but winning that final game in blowout fashion heading into the off-day sure has a way of making everyone feel like things are going to be okay. The club isn’t out of the woods yet though, far from it.
With 22 games left to play, the Yankees still have a number of issues to sort through. The middle relief remains shaky, Mark Teixeira‘s calf is going to keep him out for at least another few games, a number of other key lineup cogs are slumping, CC Sabathia still isn’t pitching as expected, and both the Orioles and Rays remain hot on the Bombers’ tail. Yesterday’s win was both stress-relieving and encouraging, with signs that maybe a few of those issues are starting to sort themselves out.
Granderson’s extended slump has been well-documented around this parts. He took a 4-for-34 skid into yesterday’s game and was hitting .207/.297/.410 with a 31.7% strikeout rate in his last 300 plate appearances. That’s basically half a season worth of below-average production from the club’s second-best hitter a year ago. Curtis simply wasn’t doing enough, which is why Joe Girardi did not start him either Saturday or Sunday against the Orioles.
“It’s just a matter of continuing to swing the bat,” he said to reporters yesterday. “I feel like I’m getting balls to hit and putting good swings on them, but I wasn’t able to do much with them for whatever reason. It’s just baseball being baseball.”
Granderson came off the bench yesterday and did something he was unable to do the day before: he produced. Three hits in three at-bats, including a solo homer to center and a two-run double to right. The two-run bloop to shallow left off a left-hander was his softest hit of the day but arguably his most impactful. It was just his third three-hit game of the season and they felt like his first three hits in about two months. If he’s able to build off this and strong contributing more to the offense, it’ll be a huge during the final weeks of the schedule. Curtis can do a lot of damage when right.
The Yankees have been looking for a reliable non-matchup middle reliever to couple with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano for about three months now, and there was a lot of hope that Joba would be that guy once he came off the DL. He was anything but reliable at first, allowing seven runs on 20 baserunners in 6.2 innings during his first seven appearances. The stuff was there, the mid-to-high-90s fastball and wipeout slider, but he was making way too many location mistakes. That’s not uncommon for guys coming off Tommy John surgery.
Very quietly though, Joba has been rounded back into form. Yesterday’s six-batter, five-out, four-strikeout appearance put an exclamation point on a road trip that featured 4.1 strong innings. He allowed one hit during the trip, a solo homer to Mark Reynolds on Thursday. Reynolds has been clobbering Yankees’ pitching all year, so it’s not like Chamberlain’s alone here. Other than that, he walked one, punched out eight, and generated 14 swings and misses out of 76 total pitches (18.4%). This doesn’t mean he’ll turn into another dominant late-inning arm or anything, but Joba has shown signs of shaking off the rust — he told reporters yesterday that he made a slight mechanical adjustment as well — and has started to assume more responsibility in a bullpen that needs as much help as it can get.
This one kinda goes hand-in-hand in with the last guy. Wade was dynamite in April and May before completely collapsing in June, to the point where you had to wonder if he was even salvageable. He was that bad. Wade spent a little more than two months in Triple-A and pitched reasonably well (2.27 ERA and 4.12 FIP in 31.2 innings) before returning as a September call-up. In two appearances this month, Wade has retired all eleven men he faced, include six in two innings yesterday. He looked an awful lot like the guy he was last year and earlier this year against the Orioles.
It’s easy to write someone like Wade off because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of an above-average reliever. He doesn’t come out of the bullpen throwing gas with a knockout breaking ball, he relies on changing speeds and locating with a variety of offspeed pitches. He’s the Freddy Garcia of relief pitchers. Expecting Wade to return to his previous level of effectiveness is probably unrealistic, but these two most recent looks are encouraging at the very least. If he can step back up and give the team another reliable right-handed reliever for those middle innings, it’ll be a huge addition down the stretch.
This isn’t exclusive to Sunday’s game but is worth mentioning. The Yankees put together late rallies in three of the four games against the Orioles, including the two losses. Five eighth inning runs on Thursday tied the game before the bullpen blew it, then Saturday’s two-run ninth inning rally was cut short at one when first base ump Jerry Meals blew the call on a not so bang-bang play. Two runs in the seventh and five runs in the eighth put yesterday’s game out of reach. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what inning the runs are scored in as long as the Yankees push enough across to win, but stringing together hits and scoring multiple runs in an inning had been an issue up until this weekend.
* * *
As I said, one big win has a way of making you forget about all of the team’s problems for at least a day. Granderson has shown flashes of busting out of his slump before so maybe this is just another tease. Relievers and their performances are fickle, so who knows what Joba and Wade can contribute going forward, if anything. If nothing else, at least we saw some positive signs in the finale against Baltimore, which is a lot more than what we had in previous weeks.
While the middle relief has been a bit of an ongoing problem, the Yankees and their fans have to feel pretty confident when they head into the eighth inning with a lead. Rafael Soriano has been absolute money as the full-in closer, and David Robertson continues to be one of the game’s best setup relievers. He hasn’t been as outright dominant as he was a year ago, but that was to be expected to a certain extent. It’s very tough to repeat a season like that.
Robertson, 27, has pitched to a 2.45 ERA (2.55 FIP) with his usual sky-high strikeout rate (12.50 K/9 and 33.7 K%) in 40.1 innings this season while dealing with an oblique injury. His walk rate (3.79 BB/9 and 10.2 BB%) is a career-low, his ground ball rate (50.5%) a career-high, and his homer rate (0.67 HR/9 and 9.4% HR/FB) the second best of his career. Robertson’s been quiet excellent in the late innings this year, a worthy complement to Soriano.
All of that is why I think it’s pretty interesting that Robertson has basically stopped throwing his curveball in recent weeks. He’s thrown nothing but fastballs in each of his last three appearances, though one of those was a one-pitch appearance (the double play against the Blue Jays). Robertson threw three straight curveballs to start out an at-bat against Edwin Encarnacion on August 10th and he hasn’t thrown a breaking ball since, a span of 12 batters faced and 39 pitches.
According to PitchFX, David has thrown 33.2% four-seamers, 48.6% cutters, and 17.0% curves this year. Those are two career-lows sandwiched around a career-high. Last season it was 49.6% four-seamers, 26.5% cutters, and 20.4% curves. With some help from Texas Leaguers, here’s a quick little month-by-month breakdown of his pitch usage this year…
We’re dealing with a reliever here, so the sample sizes are going to be inherently small. Add in the oblique injury a few months ago, and the samples get even smaller. There isn’t much of a trend here, other than a slight increase in cutter usage and a slight decrease in four-seamer usage as the season has progressed, assuming we kinda gloss over the oblique problem in May and June. The curveball usage is down in August but not insanely so, though that 16.8% stems from heavy usage earlier in the month and not so much recently.
Robertson has only struck out just seven of the last 38 batters he’s faced (18.4%), a span of 9.2 innings dating back to late last month. That’s roughly a league average rate, which means below average for Robertson. It seems more coincidental than anything at this point, even though the curveball is a premium strikeout pitch. He did whiff two Texas Rangers in one inning last week using nothing but the fastball, after all. Outside of the infield single and ground ball single fest in Detroit two weeks ago, Robertson has been fantastic of late and lack of curveball usage isn’t much of a concern. If his performance starts to suffer or we find out that he’s covering an injury, that’s when it’ll be a red flag.
Deep and reliable bullpens have been a staple of the Joe Girardi era, as the Yankees started to shy away from multi-year contracts for free agent relievers and instead focused on building flexibility from within and off the scrap heap. Oh sure, there still is the occasional Rafael Soriano and Pedro Feliciano, but signings like that are no longer the norm. Unfortunately, an effective middle relief unit ahead of Soriano and David Robertson is no longer the norm these days either.
Joe Girardi had to run through five different relievers after Freddy Garcia was unable to complete five innings last night, and those five combined to allow four runs and eight baserunners in 3.2 innings. It was the second time in the last five games that the bullpen turned a winnable game into a multi-run loss, and during the month of the August the relief corps has pitched to a 4.28 ERA (3.53 FIP) in 48.1 innings. It’s a 3.92 ERA (3.59 FIP) in 181.1 innings since the start of June, a not small sample. I honestly don’t want to figure out what those numbers would be without Soriano, hands down the club’s best reliever this year.
The bullpen problems all started with Mariano Rivera‘s injury in May and were compounded when Cory Wade completely imploded a few weeks later. It was obvious the Yankees needed a quality bullpen arm — not Chad Qualls, not Derek Lowe, someone they could actually use in high-leverage spots — when Robertson hit the DL along with Mo in May, but the club decided to hang tight for a while to see what developed internally. A lot of faith was placed in Joba Chamberlain coming off his two injuries and he hasn’t rewarded that faith one bit since returning a few weeks ago. I’ve been saying it for months, they couldn’t count on him until they actually saw what he looked like against big league hitters. Those were two very serious injuries.
Anyway, the the decision to avoid the reliever trade market has left the Yankees with two excellent late-game arms and a handful of misfit toy middle relievers. Boone Logan leads the league in games pitched and looks more and more gassed with each appearance, and lefty counterpart Clay Rapada is a specialist in the truest sense of the term. Cody Eppley is a right-handed specialist and in case you haven’t noticed, he’s been pretty bad for close to eight weeks now — nine runs and 29 baserunners in his last 21 appearances (16.1 innings). That’s not the kind of middle relief help the Yankees have employed in recent years, not even close.
Of course, the real problem here is that we’re beyond the point of no return. Swinging a trade this late in the season for a quality arm is damn near impossible, especially since the Yankees have the best record in the league and thus the lowest waiver priority. Anytime a decent reliever hits the waiver wire, count on the Orioles and/or Rays blocking him. I’ll be the first time to admit that trading for relief help can be sketchy, but sometimes it’s just flat out unavoidable. You have to take risks to contend and trading for relievers when you need bullpen help qualifies as a risk in my book.
The Triple-A bullpen is mostly barren, thanks in part due to injuries as well as a late-Spring Training trade that sent the club’s best MLB-ready relief arm out west in exchange for a no-hit, meh-defense backup catcher. Wade has been okay since being demoted, nothing that would make you think his command issues have been corrected. Chase Whitley has legit big league potential, but he might not be ready yet. Justin Thomas, Ryota Igarashi, Manny Delcarmen … guys like that are cannon fodder, not viable middle relief aid. We’re all excited about Mark Montgomery, but the fact that we’re even talking about a kid with 17 career innings above Single-A as potential bullpen help is a sign of how little depth the Yankees have at the moment.
The good news is that help is on the way, at least in theory. CC Sabathia is expected to come off the DL on Friday, pushing David Phelps and his multi-inning ability back into the bullpen where he can soak up some of those middle innings. He would have been perfect for a game like last night’s. Andy Pettitte‘s return is still weeks away, but if he makes it back it could mean another relief arm in the form of Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia, or Ivan Nova. Feliciano is pitching in rehab games and David Aardsma is throwing bullpen sessions, but again counting on guys coming off major injuries is even riskier than trading for relievers. This group represents their only options at the moment, however.
“We know (struggles are) part of the game,” said Logan after last night’s game. “That’s the way it works. We’re still a good bullpen. It’s funny how when someone struggles, we all struggle. It seems like we all struggle at the same time. Once we all start getting on a roll, we’ll all get on a roll, and get back to where we need to be.”
The Yankees have a very obvious weakness in their middle relief right now, moreso than at any point in the last three or four years. They have run into some bad injury luck, no doubt about it, but also made their own bed with the trade deadline inactivity and general over-reliance on Joba. Pretty much the only way to improve things right now is to hope the guys currently in the bullpen rediscover their previous forms, particularly Logan and Eppley. Getting Sabathia back and getting more length out of the starters in general will help limit the exposure of the middle relievers, but they can’t be avoided forever.
The Yankees put an end to the four-game losing streak with an offensive outburst yesterday, on the heels of going 13-13 in July despite a +18 run differential. Lots of close losses — seven one-run losses, three two-run losses in July — will throw a wrench into the ol’ pythag record. Bullpens play a major role in close games, and the Yankees lost a number of those one-run games because their usually reliable relief corps came up short. Just look at the Red Sox series, both Rafael Soriano and David Robertson took losses in that one.
The injury to Mariano Rivera was obviously significant, but Soriano has stepped in and done a marvelous job as his ninth inning replacement. The problem is that the middle relief weakens because he’s no longer throwing the seventh inning. Cory Wade‘s implosion left those key middle innings in the hands of a number of specialists, namely Cody Eppley, Clay Rapada, and Boone Logan. Those guys did a fine job for a while, but all of these close games have started to expose their weaknesses against batters of the opposite hand. Here’s a look at the bullpen’s month-by-month stats…
That’s a 3.68 ERA since the start of May — Mo’s last appearance was April 30th — so exactly league average as far as I’m concerned. That’s good, rock solid, but a notch below what the Yankees have gotten from their relievers in recent years. The bullpen pitched to a 3.29 ERA from 2010-2011 and a 3.59 ERA from 2008-2011, otherwise known as the four full seasons of the Joe Girardi era. This isn’t a fatal flaw kind of performance, but these guys haven’t been quite as automatic as we’ve grown accustomed too of late.
Joba Chamberlain officially returned to the bullpen two days ago, adding the kind of non-matchup reliever that I felt was an essential addition over the last few weeks. He showed his rust yesterday and therein lies the problem — we really have no idea what Joba will give the team going forward. It could be two months of utter dominance, it could be two months of replacement level production, it could be two months of something in the middle. Those were two very serious injuries — Tommy John guys tend to struggle with command during the first six or eight months after surgery anyway — and we shouldn’t downplay their potential impact. It’s going to take a few weeks before we get an accurate measure of his effectiveness.
The Yankees have been getting plenty of length out of their starters recently, with just eighth starts of fewer than six innings in the last 27 games. That dates back to the Adam Warren disaster. Only once during that stretch did a starter fail to complete at least five innings, and that was the David Phelps spot start in St. Pete (4.2 IP). The best way to improve the performance of the bullpen is to get even more length out of the starters so the specialists aren’t exposed. The offense blowing a few games open like yesterday wouldn’t hurt either. Girardi has done a really good job of mixing and matching with his middle guys, but the more relievers you use in a game, the more likely you are to run into someone having an off-night. That’s why all the specialists and matchup work can be dangerous.
The Yankees enjoy a much needed — for the bullpen, anyway — day off today before heading to Boston for a four-game set this weekend. They’ll play one tomorrow, two on Saturday, one on Sunday, then will have four days off for the All-Star break. Everyone will get to recharge the (physical and mental) batteries before getting into the dog days of summer and the stretch drive. The break gives everyone a rest and just as importantly, it gives the Yankees a chance to manipulate and optimize their roster in the short-term.
It seemed like a curious move at the time but the picture became clear once we had a second to sit back and think about it. The Yankees claimed outfielder Darnell McDonald off waivers from the Red Sox yesterday, adding a right-handed bat known for hitting lefties (career .345 wOBA vs. LHP) and capable of playing all three outfield spots. He’ll be in uniform at Fenway Park tomorrow.
The move wasn’t made to replace Dewayne Wise or Andruw Jones, the move was made to add McDonald to them. Although the team has not confirmed their plans, they’re almost certainly going to option David Phelps to the minors and roll with a five-man bench over the weekend. Phelps started yesterday and wasn’t scheduled to pitch this weekend, so the Yankees won’t miss him. With Boston scheduled to thrown three southpaws — Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront, and Jon Lester — in the four games this weekend, expect to see McDonald in left and Jones at DH with both Wise and Raul Ibanez available off the bench.
Once Phelps goes down he is ineligible to return for ten days, but that won’t be an issue since Sabathia is expected to come off the DL right after the break. The big left-hander played catch yesterday and will throw his first bullpen session since hitting the DL tomorrow, and so far all indications are that he’s a go once his 15 days up. Phelps will be able to continue to work as a starter in Triple-A, accumulating innings and threatening to take Freddy Garcia‘s roster spot.
The Yankees can push Sabathia back to the fifth game after the All-Star break, which is Tuesday the 17th. They play three games against the Angels and will likely see C.J. Wilson at some point, so McDonald should be useful for at least one game that series. They’ll then play the Blue Jays, who have three lefties — Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, and Aaron Laffey — in their rotation. Odds are in favor of them seeing one of those guys in the series opener, which McDonald could start before being released to clear a roster spot for Sabathia in the second game, getting the Yankees back to a 12-man pitching staff and four-man bench.
The 26th Man
Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees (and Red Sox) will be allowed to carry a 26th man for both games on Saturday. It has to be the same player for both games and he must be sent back to the minors the next day. George King says the Yankees will bring back Cory Wade for the day, giving them seven available relievers on Saturday. Wade threw a perfect inning on nine pitches in his first Triple-A outing yesterday as he tries to get his location back to where it needs to be.
The Yankees will still have the option of swapping out a regular 25-man reliever between games if they want. Say Cody Eppley ends up throwing 30 pitches in the first game, they could then send him down before the second game for someone like Justin Thomas — who was going to be recalled prior to the Chad Qualls trade — for the nightcap. The third lefty reliever could come in hand against the Sox, but it also may be overkill. It is an option though, and I figure they’ll at least have an extra Triple-A arm waiting at the hotel in case they need to make a between-games move.
* * *
These four games in three days against the Red Sox are happening in isolation, at least as much as any early-July series could happen in isolation. Both teams are off today and the All-Star break follows next week, so both clubs will be rested with the opportunity to manipulate their roster. It’s almost like a little playoff series, but between a first place team and a last place team. The Yankees added a right-handed bat to combat Boston’s three lefties and won’t have to worry about the pitching staff being short-handed this weekend, which is pretty sweet. There would also be something deliciously ironic about McDonald getting a big hit or two this weekend after Boston him cast him aside.
The Yankees went into last night’s game against the Rays with a team 112 wRC+, tied with the Cardinals for the second best in baseball behind the Rangers (113). Their 373 runs scored were only the sixth-most in baseball though, thanks in large part to their struggles with men in scoring position. That has started to correct itself a bit — they hit .304/.370/.609 with RISP during the recent homestand and went 3-for-9 last night — but there’s still quite a bit of work to be done in that department.
As a result, the Yankees have played an awful lot of close games in recent weeks. During their 20-7 rampage through the month of June, they won just eight games by more than three runs and only five by more than four runs. Five of their last seven wins have been decided by two runs or less. The Yankees average 4.76 runs per game and they don’t seem to deviate from that too much, especially of late. Only thrice this season have they scored double-digit runs and only ten times have they scored eight or more. That’s about once every ten days.
All of these close games have forced Joe Girardi to use his bullpen a bit more heavily than I’m sure he would like. Boone Logan has already appeared in 40 games this season and is on pace for 82 appearances, which would easily be the largest workload by a reliever during the Joe Girardi era*. Both Rafael Soriano and Cory Wade (before he was sent down) were on pace for 69 appearances prior to last night, and Clay Rapada is on pace for 76 appearances as well. That last one isn’t a huge concern though, Rapada has thrown more than ten pitches in an outing just 17 (!) times this year. Even the recently acquired Chad Qualls is on pace for about 68 appearances this year thanks to his time with the Phillies.
The Yankees have been playing very well for several weeks now and that’s wonderful, but they’ve also been playing an abnormally high number of close games — I’m talking games decided by two or three runs, stuff like that — as well. The team’s core relievers are starting to see their workloads climb — check out the Bullpen Workload page, it’s not just appearances, it’s also all the times these guys warm up and don’t get into the game — and that can be a problem. Hopefully the offense can start breaking some games open in the middle innings and Girardi’s primary relievers can get some extra rest down the stretch in the second half, because the pace these guys are on right now will put them in the danger zone as far as late-season burnout goes.
* The “record” currently belongs to 2010 Joba Chamberlain, who appeared in 73 games. 2009 Phil Coke (72) and 2011 David Robertson (70) are the only other relievers to appear in at least 70 games during Girardi’s four full seasons at the helm.
The injuries to CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have hurt the Yankees in more ways than one. Obviously the biggest loss is in the rotation, where both guys where providing the team with lots of high quality innings every five days. As we saw with Adam Warren, plucking a kid out of Triple-A and inserting him into the rotation is much more effective in theory than in practice. It’ll be impossible for David Phelps and Freddy Garcia to replace what Sabathia and Pettitte the team on the field, so the Yankees are just going to have to hope they can tread water for the time being.
The losses of CC and Andy go beyond the rotation, however. Garcia’s move to the rotation also weakens the bullpen despite what will surely be D.J. Mitchell‘s best efforts. Cory Wade‘s crash back the Earth and the still weird acquisition of Chad Qualls further weaken the middle relief corps. Both Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley have been effective matchup guys, but asking them to face batters of the opposite hand on a regular basis is a recipe for trouble. There’s no way around it, the team’s biggest weakness right now are those innings between the starter and the Boone Logan/David Robertson setup duo.
To make matters worse, Garcia is not stretched out — he’s probably scheduled for something like 60-70 pitches tonight — and Phelps is expected to throw only 80 pitches when he makes his return to the rotation on Wednesday. Not only is the middle relief a sore spot, but the Yankees will send two starters to the mound against the Rays this week who will be unable to pitch deep into the game. The Mitchells and Wades and Quallses will be ripe for exposure. That also puts some pressure on Ivan Nova to give the team some distance on Tuesday. After years of beating up on the middle relievers of other teams, the Yankees might get a taste of their own medicine against Tampa.
The good news is that this is just temporary. Sabathia figures to be back shortly after the All-Star break and both Garcia and Phelps will get stretched out before long. Middle relief is relatively easy to fix, at least in the sense those guys are easy to replace if they stink. The Yankees aren’t committed to any of them long-term, so if Qualls stinks they can cut him and try someone else. If Wade doesn’t right the ship they can send him on his way. Joe Girardi & Co. have been building and rebuilding bullpens on the fly for five years now, no reason they can’t do it again. For the next three days though, we’re all going to have to hold our breath whenever that bullpen door swings open prior to the seventh inning.