2014 Season Review: The Obligatory Lefties

Thornton. (Presswire)
Thornton. (Presswire)

One thing has become very obvious over the last few years: the Yankees value having a left-hander in the bullpen. Two, preferably. Some teams don’t worry too much about carrying a southpaw, but not these Yankees. Joe Girardi likes to have a matchup lefty out there and the team has spent a lot of money trying to fill that spot. Remember Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano? Of course you do.

The 2014 season were no different, but, believe it or not, they only had 109 appearances by a left-handed reliever this year. That was the fifth fewest on baseball. At the same time, they had 56 lefty appearances of two or fewer batters faced, the fourth most in baseball. Girardi is definitely a fan of matching up for a batter or two if the opportunity presents itself. Let’s review the team’s surprisingly large collection of left-handed relievers from this past season.

Matt Thornton

The Yankees signed the 38-year-old Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M last season, figuring he could still be a quality specialist even though his performance against righties had declined big time in recent years. He was one of the top relievers in the game regardless of handedness not too long ago. Maybe there was still some magic in there.

Thornton threw only 24.2 innings across 38 appearances with New York, so Girardi definitely used him as a matchup guy. His overall 2.55 ERA (2.73 FIP) is good but that’s not the best way to evaluate a lefty specialist. Thornton held same-side hitters to a .237/.306/.250 (.258 wOBA) batting line with a 17.2% strikeout rate, a 3.1% walk rate, and a 54.3% ground ball rate. Despite still having mid-90s heat, his swing-and-miss rate against lefties was a paltry 8.3%. That’s well-below-average. Also, he allowed 14 of 43 inherited runners to score (33%), including five of the last 12.

In early-August, the Yankees simply gave Thornton away for nothing. The Nationals claimed him off revocable trade waivers and New York opted not to pull him back, so they let him to go Washington on the claim. It was … weird. Girardi and Brian Cashman both confirmed the move was made to create roster and payroll flexibility. Thornton had a 0.00 ERA (2.51 FIP) in 11.1 innings for the Nats after the claim and quickly emerged as an important part of their bullpen.

Huff returned in 2014 ... with glasses! (Presswire)
Huff returned in 2014 … with glasses! (Presswire)

David Huff

The Yankees spent the first ten or so weeks of the season cycling through some amazingly bad long relievers, so, when the Giants decided to cut ties with Huff in mid-June, the Bombers jumped at the chance to re-acquire him. The minor trade cost New York nothing but cash.

Huff, 30, had a 6.30 ERA (4.38 FIP) in 20 innings for San Francisco, but he actually pitched pretty well in pinstripes. He chucked 39 innings across 30 appearances — so he was multi-inning guy, not a specialist — and posted a 1.85 ERA (4.00 FIP), holding lefties to a .250/.301/.279 (.266 wOBA) batting line with a 19.2% strikeouts rate and a 6.2% walk rate. Huff also stranded 16 of 17 inherited runners. What more do you want from a low-leverage lefty?

Rich Hill

After letting Thornton walk, the Yankees grabbed Hill off the scrap heap and he actually had two stints with the team. He came up in early-August, made six appearances, was designated for assignment, then was called back up when rosters expanded in September to make eight more appearances. All told, Hill faced 19 lefties with New York, striking out seven, walking two, hitting one, and allowing four hits. That’s a .250/.368/.250 (.298 wOBA) batting line. At one point in September he struck out six in a span of eight batters faced.

Josh Outman

Outman. (Presswire)
Outman. (Presswire)

Hill was designated for assignment in late-August to make room for Outman, who the Yankees picked up from the Indians because he was a so very slight upgrade. He faced ten left-handed batters in pinstripes and held them to one hit. He also struck out one. That works out to a .100/.111/.111 (.099 wOBA). If you extrapolate that out over 60 innings, Outman was, like, the best lefty reliever ever, man.

Cesar Cabral

Two years ago, Cabral almost made the Opening Day roster as a Rule 5 Draft pick before suffering a fractured elbow late in camp. He made four appearances with the Yankees this season and faced five lefties. One made contract (a hit), one drew a walk, one was hit by a pitch, and two struck out. As you may recall, Cabral allowed three runs on three hits and three hit batsmen in one ugly April outing against the Rays. He was designated for assignment after the game, eventually landed back in Double-A, and that was that.

Jeff Francis

Confession: I totally forgot Jeff Francis was a Yankee. They acquired him in a very minor trade with the Athletics when they were desperate for pitching depth at midseason, and he somehow made not one, but two appearances in pinstripes. He threw a scoreless 14th inning in a late-July game against the Rangers — when Chase Headley hit the walk-off single in his first game with the team — and allowed a run in two-thirds of an inning against the Blue Jays a week later. They dropped Francis from the roster soon thereafter.

Wade LeBlanc

I did remember that LeBlanc was a Yankee this year! He made one appearance with the team. It went single, single, grounder to first, intentional walk, hit batsmen to force in a run, sac fly, ground out. The Yankees designated him for assignment to make room for Huff a few days later. I hope Wade LeBlanc goes into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.

2014 Season Review: The Sometimes Setup Men

Warren. (Presswire)
Warren. (Presswire)

Because they dealt with so many rotation injuries, the Yankees had to rely on their bullpen a ton this past season. Joe Girardi asked his bullpen to throw 501.1 innings this summer, the sixth most in the league. Dellin Betances soaked up a ton of innings, especially early in the year, but it wasn’t until late into the season that he settled into a traditional setup role. For most of the year, that responsibility belonged to Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley.

Adam Warren, Workhorse

Last season the Yankees used Warren as a true swingman and he was pretty damn good at it, especially by swingman standards. Getting 77 innings of 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) ball out of the last guy in the bullpen is really good. The Yankees moved Warren into a more traditional short relief role this season and he excelled. First and foremost, his fastball velocity ticked up noticeably:

Adam Warren velocity

Warren was Girardi’s regular seventh and eighth inning guy in the first half while Kelley and David Robertson missed time with injuries. The second half was a bit rough — nine runs in his first 14 innings after the All-Star break, perhaps due to fatigue — but Warren settled down and finished very strong thanks to some mechanical tweaks suggested by pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

“Larry pointed out one day, maybe move your hands a little this way and and all of a sudden it’s like, oh that feels a little bit better and you roll with it from there and you just kind of tinker with things until it feels right,” said Warren to Brendan Kuty in September. “Once things started to click it was like, oh, why didn’t I think of that two weeks earlier? It’s a process.”

Warren allowed just two runs (both in one outing) on six hits and three walks in his final 15 appearances and 20 innings of the season. He struck out 21, including ten of the final 18 batters he faced on the year. Warren closed out 2014 with a 2.97 ERA (2.89 FIP) in 78.2 innings with a very good strikeout rate (8.69 K/9 and 23.5 K%) and solid walk (2.75 BB/9 and 7.4 BB%) and ground ball (45.4%) numbers.

Last season, Warren’s main problems were the long ball and left-handed hitters. He allowed ten homers in those 77 innings (1.17 HR/9 and 13.2 HR/FB%) and lefty batters hit .301/.370/.526 (.387 wOBA) against him. This year it was only four homers in 78.2 innings (0.46 HR/9 and 6.0 HR/FB%) with a .170/.253/.271 (.239 wOBA) line by opposite hand hitters. That’s quite the improvement. Probably too much of an improvement. Not sure if he can sustain that going forward, but it happened in 2014 and that’s all that counts.

Anyway, given the team’s rotation issues — there was plenty of talk of moving him back into the rotation after the injuries struck in the first half —  Warren was especially valuable because of his durability. He recorded at least four outs in 29 of his 69 appearances, the second most in baseball behind Betances (35!). Sure, Warren has been a starter his entire life, but throwing multiple innings two or three times a week is no easy task. Outside of that little hiccup after the All-Star break, Warren was very good and very valuable to the 2014 Yankees. He soaked up a ton of important innings.

Shawn Kelley, Intermittently Awesome

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

When the season started, Kelley was Robertson’s primary setup man. That was plan coming into the season after Mariano Rivera retired and the Yankees opted not to bring in some kind of veteran replacement. For a while, Kelley was excellent, pitching to a 1.88 ERA with 15 strikeouts and three walks in his first 14 appearances and 14.1 innings. He even went 4-for-4 in save chances while filling in for the briefly injured Robertson in April.

Then it all fell apart on May 5th in Anaheim. Kelley walked four of the six batters he faced and allowed three runs to blow a game. He landed on the disabled list with a back issue two days later and missed six weeks. Kelley looked shaky — his slider lacked its usual bite, specifically — but was generally effective in his first few outings back before settling down. He struggled in mid-July (seven runs in the span of three appearances at one point) and again in late-September (four runs in his last four outings) to close out the year.

Kelley finished the season with a 4.53 ERA (3.02 FIP) in 51.2 innings. He struck out a ton of batters (11.67 K/9 and 30.5 K%) but also walked a few too many (3.48 BB/9 and 9.1 BB%) and didn’t get any ground balls (33.6%). Kelley actually kept the ball in the park (0.87 HR/9 and 8.9 HR/FB%) and handled left-handed batters (.221/.311/.301, .269 wOBA) better than I remember. Like most middle relievers, there were times he was really great and times he made you pull your hair out.

After starting the season as the first option behind Robertson, Kelley closed the year behind Betances and Warren on the setup man totem pole. The injury really seemed to knock him off track in May, but, as we’ve seen these last two years, Kelley is prone to spectacular meltdowns. That’s baseball. The good generally outweighs the bad — few guys can miss bats like this, that’s a valuable skill — and at times Kelley was a very important member of the bullpen in 2014.

Betances and Robertson give Yankees modern day Rivera and Wetteland

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Just about all summer, Joe Girardi and the Yankees have enjoyed arguably the most dominant setup man/closer tandem in baseball in Dellin Betances and David Robertson. The team has scaled back on Betances’ workload in recent weeks but for the most of the season he was a multi-inning monster who would regularly bridge the gap from starter to closer all by himself. Robertson has been dynamite in his first season as closer, making the transition to the post-Mariano Rivera era relatively painless.

The Yankees had a similarly dominant late-game duo the last few years thanks to the Robertson and Rivera, though Robertson has always been a true one-inning reliever, not a four or five or six out guy. The multi-inning reliever is a dying breed, especially when it comes to late-inning guys. The last time the Yankees had a duo like Betances and Robertson, meaning an overwhelming multi-inning setup man and a shutdown closer, was way back to 1996, when Rivera was setting up John Wetteland.

There are more than a few similarities between the 1996 duo and the 2014 duo. Betances, like Rivera, was scuffling along for much of his early-20s, trying to make it work as a starting pitcher before moving into the bullpen full-time. They both opened the season in an undefined middle relief role before pitching their way into some more responsibility — Rivera threw 15 straight hitless innings at one point from mid-April through early-May in 1996, which is a great way to earn the manager’s trust — and eventually a no-doubt high-leverage role. Robertson has a knack for making things interesting but gets the job done more often than not, similar to Wetteland.

Statistically, there isn’t much of a comparison. Betances and Robertson have been quite a bit more effective this year than Rivera and Wetteland in 1996, at least on a rate basis. Wetteland and (mostly) Rivera did throw a ton of innings back in the day, a workload Betances and Robertson won’t sniff this year:

Innings WHIP ERA FIP K% BB% K/BB
2014 Betances & Robertson 137.1 0.84 1.97 1.84 39.4% 7.6% 5.18
1996 Rivera & Wetteland 171.1 1.06 2.36 2.57 28.8% 8.0% 3.43

Rivera and Wetteland also excelled in the postseason in 1996, combining to allow only four runs in 26.2 innings (1.35 ERA) during the team’s march to the World Series title. Wetteland saved four games in five days en route to being named World Series MVP. Hopefully Betances and Robertson get a chance to strut their stuff in the postseason next month, but eh. Things aren’t looking too hot right now.

The similarities don’t stop there either. Betances (26) and Robertson (29) are the same age right now that Rivera and Wetteland were back in 1996, respectively. That’s sorta freaky. Robertson is also due to become a free agent this offseason just like Wetteland became a free agent following the 1996 season. The Yankees let him walk and installed Rivera as their closer. The team is going to face a similar decision this winter — do they let Robertson go and hand the ninth inning reigns over to Dellin?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with re-signing Robertson and keeping one of the game’s most dominant late-game bullpen pairs together for another few seasons. In fact I would prefer it. I don’t mean that as a slight on Betances either. I think he’d be able to close no problem just like I thought Robertson would have no trouble closing this year, but there is no such thing as having too many great relievers. The game has changed a lot in the last two decades. Deep bullpens are imperative these days because no one scores runs anymore and every game is close.

Eighteen years ago, the Yankees had an advantage over every team they played thanks to Rivera and Wetteland. Rivera’s ability to go multiple innings — he went two full innings in 35 of 61 appearances and three full innings eight times — combined with Wetteland’s ninth inning reliability effective made it a six-inning game for New York. Girardi has had the same luxury this year thanks to Betances and Robertson. Both guys are having phenomenal seasons and they’ve been essential in keeping the Yankees in the race this summer.

Bullpen prospect pipeline has changed drastically so far in 2014

Lindgren. (Martin Griff/The Times of Trenton)
Lindgren. (Martin Griff/The Times of Trenton)

Over the last six or seven years, basically the entire Joe Girardi era, the Yankees have done a nice job of building the bulk of their bullpen on the cheap. Oh sure, there still is the occasional Rafael Soriano or Matt Thornton signing, but the days of handing out big money multi-year contracts to (occasionally multiple) relievers every offseason are over. That has allowed the club to maintain some semblance of payroll and roster flexibility.

Low-profile pickups like Boone Logan, Luis Ayala, Cory Wade, Brian Bruney, and Shawn Kelley have contributed over the years, even if only for a short period of time — not everyone needs to be around forever to qualify as a success, getting 50-60 good innings out of a scrap heap pickup is a win — but for the most part the farm system has provided the bullpen core. David Robertson and Dellin Betances are the standouts, with others like Adam Warren, Preston Claiborne, Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain, Edwar Ramirez, and Alfredo Aceves playing important roles at various times.

There are no indications the Yankees will stray from this approach, nor should they. They’ve been successful at cobbling together bullpens this way for several years, and it saves money to use elsewhere on the roster. They could have easily signed a veteran closer over the winter to replace Mariano Rivera, that would have been a very Yankees move, but no, they went with Robertson. (They were connected to Fernando Rodney and Grant Balfour at different points, though I think that was just due diligence.) It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Robertson is a free agent after the season.

Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, bullpens have a way of getting overhauled during the course of the summer. Already this year we’ve seen Betances go from interesting wildcard to arguably the best reliever in the game. Warren went from long man to setup man and back to … something. His role is kinda undefined at this moment. Thornton was signed to be the primary lefty specialist but was literally given away for nothing. Robertson in the ninth inning has been the one constant, so in a sense this year has been no different than the last few, only with Robertson playing the role of Rivera.

Coming out of Spring Training, the Yankees had three young relievers who were slated to serve as depth in Triple-A in Mark Montgomery, Danny Burawa, and Fred Lewis. All three impressed in camp and put themselves in position to be called up if a need arose. Instead, all three pitched their way into demotions down the Double-A before the end of July. All three of them! Lewis almost made the team out of Spring Training and now he’s currently on the Double-A disabled list after pitching to a 6.89 ERA with the same number of walks as strikeouts (31) in 32.2 innings. We shouldn’t forget Jose Ramirez either. He was part of that next bullpen wave but has been alternately hurt and ineffective in 2014.

Rumbelow. (Robert Pimpsner)
Rumbelow. (Robert Pimpsner)

Such is the life of a reliever though, especially reliever prospects. They just start sucking without warning and sometimes for no apparent reason. That’s why you need a lot of them, which the Yankees have. As Lewis, Montgomery, Burawa, and Ramirez took steps back this year, other relievers have taken steps forward and put themselves on the big league map. Specifically, I’m talking about righty Nick Rumbelow and lefties Tyler Webb and Jacob Lindgren. Lindgren you all know by now. Rumbelow (seventh) and Webb (tenth) are both 2013 draftees who have climbed from Single-A to Triple-A this summer. Rumbelow started all the way down at Low-A Charleston, Webb with High-A Tampa.

The Yankees have emphasized one singular trait these last six or seven years while building their bullpen: the ability to miss bats. They don’t care how the guy does it — blow a fastball by hitters, nasty breaking ball, filthy changeup, whatever — but that is clearly their top priority out of the bullpen. In fact, the Yankees have the highest bullpen strikeout rate in baseball this year (26.7%) and the second highest since the start of the Girardi era in 2008 (23.0%). Only the Braves (23.3%) have been better. It makes sense, right? Late in the game you want to miss as many bats as possible. The other team can’t hurt you if they can’t put the ball in play, after all.

Lindgren, as you know, has a wipeout slider that has allowed him to pile up 41 strikeouts in only 20.2 pro innings (17.9 K/9 and 49.4 K%). Rumbelow has 72 strikeouts in 51.1 innings this year (12.6 K/9 and 35.0 K%) thanks to his big breaking curveball. Webb is another curveball guy. He’s struck out 89 in 64.1 innings (12.5 K/9 and 33.1 K%) during his meteoric rise this year. That’s the trademark right there. Strikeouts. The Yankees do as good a job as any team of digging up pitchers with present or future out pitches in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft, whether it be Rumbelow or Montgomery or Robertson. If you have one swing-and-miss pitch, you have a chance to help out of the bullpen. If you have two, you can dominate like Robertson and Betances.

“We’ve got some arms, no doubt about it,” said Brian Cashman to Nick Peruffo yesterday. “We had Webb here (at Double-A), and now he’s at Triple-A. Rumbelow is at Triple-A. These guys are pretty interesting characters in themselves, and we have some guys who could be moving up to Triple-A soon enough. I think a lot of the guys that you are seeing that have been here or are currently here, you have a chance to see as early as next year, and in some cases you can never rule anything out. We do have some left and right side arms that get asked a lot about, and that I’d certainly ask about a lot.”

Like the big league bullpen, the Yankees’ pool of minor league relief prospects has changed as the season as progressed. Montgomery and Ramirez in particular where expected to help at some point — Ramirez got a chance but it didn’t go well, it happens — while guys like Rumbelow and Webb were little more than interesting arms in Single-A back in April. I didn’t even know who Lindgren was in April and now he’s on the cusp of being a Yankee. Their rises combined with the fall of some upper level arms have given the Yankees a new-look crop of bullpen prospects these last four months.

Bullpen issues coming at a bad time for Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When Chris Davis hit that two-run homer off Chris Capuano last night, it gave the Orioles a 4-3 lead that felt a whole lot bigger than one run because of how ineffective the Yankees’ offense has been. Scoring has been a big problem, so when Adam Warren and Chase Whitley combined to let the O’s blow things open in the later innings, the game was over. The Yankees might not score as many runs in the series as Baltimore did on Monday.

The offense was again a huge issue last night, especially considering two of the team’s three runs were gift-wrapped by some defensively hilarity. The bullpen was also an issue, which has been the case more and more often in recent weeks. Last night was an extreme example, obviously, but the bullpen has now allowed at least one run in each of the last four games and in 15 of 24 games since the All-Star break. The bullpen overall has a 3.91 ERA (3.99 FIP) since the break, which doesn’t sound awful, but the AL average is 3.63 ERA (3.68 FIP).

The Yankees have had a revolving door in the last spot or two of the bullpen all season, and guys like Chris Leroux and Alfredo Aceves and Matt Daley have put a dent in the team’s overall bullpen numbers. Joe Girardi has a top heavy bullpen this year led by the two elites in David Robertson and Dellin Betances. Adam Warren was an excellent supporting piece at various points, but that has not been the case lately. In fact, he’s been part of the problem these last few weeks.

Obviously last night was a total nightmare. Three runs on a single, a double, and a homer in one inning of work, giving Warren a 6.97 ERA (5.65 FIP) in 10.1 innings in the All-Star break. Take it back to May 15th (arbitrary!), which immediately follows a stretch in which he threw multiple innings five times in eleven days, and he has a 4.75 ERA (3.60 FIP) in 36 innings. Warren has walked six batters and struck out only five in his last 6.1 innings and he just looks worn down. He’s not locating well or finishing his pitches; his breaking balls are cement mixers more often than not.

Shawn Kelley had a disaster outing against the Indians on Friday night (four runs in one-third of an inning) but otherwise has allowed just one run since the break. He looked a little rough when he first came off the disabled list back in June, but Kelley has sorted it out of late and should clearly be ahead of Warren on the bullpen pecking at this point. I really like Warren as a one-inning, air-it-out reliever, but I just don’t see how Girardi can use him as a high-leverage guy right now. He’s not equipped to help the team in that capacity at this point in time.

(Abelimages/Getty)
(Abelimages/Getty)

The Yankees are carrying eight relievers — it’s a necessity more than overkill right now given the state of the rotation — but the last few spots are for spare arms in case of blowouts. Daley, Bryan Mitchell, and Leroux have cycled in and out of the last bullpen spot just within the last week. Soon Esmil Rogers will take over. Rich Hill (and David Huff) is keeping the left-handed specialist position warm until the Yankees deem someone like Tyler Webb or Jacob Lindgren big league ready, and Chase Whitley is flat out unusable. Four runs in two-thirds of an inning last night, ten runs in 6.1 innings since moving into the bullpen, and 30 runs in his last 28.1 innings overall. I don’t see why he belongs on the MLB roster at this point.

That eight-man bullpen is effectively a three-man bullpen with a lot of filler mixed in. Robertson, Betances, and Kelley should be Girardi’s top choices for important innings — it seems like Huff has worked his way into the Circle of Trust™ as well, but yuck — simply because no one else is pitching well. Warren shouldn’t see big innings because he hasn’t shown us anything recently to make us think he’s reliable. I don’t know if it’s fatigue or something else, but it’s happening. The Leroux, Whitley, and Hill group is there to steal outs whenever they can, basically. Sometimes you get lucky, most of the time you don’t.

At the moment, you could make a pretty strong case Rogers is the fourth best reliever in the Yankees’ bullpen. I’m talking about this very moment in time. There is definitely an argument to be made that Rogers is better able to help you win a game on August 12th than Warren or Whitley or whoever. The Yankees aren’t getting a lot of length from their starters and the offense has been stagnant, so the bullpen has had to work a lot and these emergency type arms have been forced into important situations. That’s a problem. Girardi’s bullpens have been very good over the years, but the combination of a bad offense and a short rotation has this relief crew teetering on the edge of disaster whenever someone other than Betances or Robertson enters the game.