Archive for Death by Bullpen
Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.
RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).
The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.
Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.
That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.
LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.
Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:
|ERA||FIP||K%||HR/FB%||FB velocity||RHB wOBA||LHB wOBA|
Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.
* * *
Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.
Via ESPN NY: The Yankees may use left-hander Manny Banuelos as a reliever this coming season. He is returning from Tommy John surgery. “Banuelos has got that big arm,” said one member of the team’s front office. “If it’s still there and the lightning still strikes then you’re going see people say, ‘F— it, bring him with us [on Opening Day].’”
Banuelos, 22, missed all of last season following elbow reconstruction and was limited to only 24 innings in early 2012 due to a different elbow injury. Spring Training will be the first time he pitches in a competitive game in nearly two full years. Banuelos wasn’t exactly a finished product before the elbow injuries, so I think making the Opening Day roster is unlikely, even as a reliever. I’m not opposed to having him (or anyone, really) start their big league career out of the bullpen as long as there is a clear plan to get him back into the rotation at some point relatively soon.
I swear, it still feels like the 2006 draft was just yesterday, but the 2014 season will be Dellin Betances‘ eighth (!) full season in the organization. The Yankees gave the towering right-hander from Washington Heights a $1M bonus as their eighth round pick back in ’06 and hoped he would develop into a frontline starter. That has not happened but the team has not given up on his enormous potential.
Last May, following six ugly starts with Triple-A Scranton, the Yankees moved the soon-to-be 26-year-old Betances to the bullpen full-time and the improvement was immediate. He struck out 43 of the next 136 batters he faced (31.6%) while allowing only eight runs and 12 walks in 34 innings. The Yankees called him up briefly in mid-August and then again as an extra arm when rosters expanded in September. Betances finished the year with a 2.06 ERA and 93 strikeouts (35.3%) in 65.2 total relief innings.
“I just feel like, confidence wise, I feel good,” said Betances to Anthony McCarron last August when asked about moving into a relief role. “I get to pitch more often, instead of going every five days. I get to go two or three times in that span, so I think the more time I get on the mound has helped me be more consistent … I think it’s just being more aggressive, attack the strike zone right away, where if you’re a starter, you kind gradually get aggressive as the game goes on.”
Repeating his delivery and keeping his long limbs in check has always been a struggle for the 6-foot-8 Betances, but apparently working more often out of the bullpen helped him stay in control even though he threw fewer total pitches. There’s nothing particularly impressive about a 10.6% walk rate (his walk rate as a reliever in 2013), but it’s substantially better than the 14.3% walk rate he posted from the start of 2011 through the conversion last May, when he looked close to a lost cause.
Betances struck out eight and walked one in 4.1 innings last September and barring some last minute additions, he’ll head to Spring Training as part of a wide open bullpen competition. The only relievers guaranteed to be on the roster come Opening Day are David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton, so that is potentially four open spots. I count as many as ten guys competing for those four spots, including potential fifth starters like David Phelps and Adam Warren and minor league free agents like Robert Coello and Brian Gordon.
Brian Cashman confirmed that, for whatever reason, Betances qualifies for a fourth option and can be sent to the minors this season without having to pass through waivers. Had he not qualified for the fourth option and instead required waivers to go to back to Triple-A, he might have won a bullpen spot almost by default. Now Betances will have to not only earn a big league job in camp, but he’ll have to continue to pitch well in the regular season to keep it. Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day.
For the first time in his nearly nine full years as a pro, there is a clear path for Betances to make the Yankees out of camp and play a rather significant role this coming season. Nothing in the bullpen is set aside from Robertson being the closer and Thornton being the lefty specialist, so if Betances shows last summer’s success was a true indication of his ability and not just a fluke, he could assume an important late-inning role rather quickly. This is his chance to justify that seven-figure signing bonus and more than a half-decade’s worth of patience.
“I’m thrilled to just come out here and whatever situation I need to be used in,” added Betances while talking to McCarron. “I’m ready for that.”
Via Joel Sherman: For the very first time, someone with the Yankees acknowledged David Robertson will be the team’s closer this coming season. “I have a lot of confidence in Robertson and so does [Joe Girardi],” said Hal Steinbrenner. “Robertson is going to be our closer, and I believe he will do a good job. We have done a lot to improve our team and we just have to understand that you cannot be perfect everywhere.”
Robertson, 28, has been one of the top setup men in baseball these last three years (1.91 ERA and 2.31 FIP) and has done pretty much everything you could ask a potential closer to do before actually giving him the job. I want the Yankees to add some more bullpen arms but making Robertson the closer is the right move. There’s nothing left for him to prove in a setup role and if the Yankees don’t let him close in 2014, some other team will give him that opportunity when he hits free agency after the season.
The Yankees didn’t get much help from their farm system as the injuries mounted last season, but one of the few (only?) young players who stepped up to grab a job was right-hander Adam Warren. He made the Opening Day roster as the long man and, aside from one short stint in the minors that had more to with adding a fresh bullpen arm than his performance, he stayed with the team all season, pitching to a 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 77 innings.
Warren, 26, earned himself a spot in Spring Training‘s fifth starter competition with that performance. He’s all but guaranteed to be on the Opening Day roster given the state of the pitching staff, but his role is unknown. Warren might be a starter, might be a long reliever, or he might be shoe-horned into a short relief role. Joe Girardi used him in what amounts to a seventh inning setup role three times during a four-game series against the Orioles last September, when David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Shawn Kelley were nursing injuries. He retired seven of the nine men he faced.
The Yankees need bullpen help, particularly a late-inning arm to pair with Robertson and Kelley. Warren hasn’t been considered for that role and understandably so, but it’s possible his skillset would make him a great fit for a one inning, air-it-out bullpen role. First and foremost, he excels the first time he faces a hit …
|1st PA in G, as RP||32||223||2.16||.276||.341||.438||.779||.312||126|
|2nd PA in G, as RP||14||67||2.50||.279||.343||.475||.819||.356||118|
|3rd+ PA in G, as RP||2||7||0.00||.200||.429||.200||.629||.200||48|
… crap. There goes that idea.
Well, maybe not. We are talking about 74 plate appearances the second and third time through the lineup, which is nothing. I’m not sure there’s enough information here to tell us how Warren fares each time through the order. He was worse the first time around last year, yes, but is that a true measure of his ability? Probably not given the limited amount of data. It would be nice if we had more than 32 games — he also made two starts, which are not included in the table — worth of stats to look at it.
What we do know about Warren is that he throws five different pitches and used all five in relief last year. Prior to last season Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he “pitches off his four-seamer and mixes in a two-seamer at times, then goes to his curveball, slider and changeup,” which the PitchFX data backs up. With a big assist from Brooks Baseball, here is how Warren approached right-handed batters in 2013:
|Total Thrown||% Thrown||Whiff %||GB%||Opp. AVG||Opp. ISO|
It’s important to add context to those hitting stats. The .283 opponent’s average against fastballs seems high, but the league hit .284 against fastballs overall in 2013. Warren’s fastball was exactly league average, for all intents and purposes. The .192 opponent’s average against the slider was a bit better than the .229 league average.
Warren was primarily a fastball-slider guy against same-side hitters, and he held them to .231/.304/.322 (.281 wOBA) batting line overall. He didn’t thrown enough sinkers, curves, or changeups for the numbers in the table to tell us anything useful about the effectiveness of those pitches. It would be cool if his curveball was impossible to hit in the air, but I doubt that’s the case. Now here is how he approached lefties last year:
|Total Thrown||% Thrown||Whiff %||GB%||Opp. AVG||Opp. ISO|
Left-handed hitters destroyed Warren last summer. I mean .301/.370/.526 (.387 wOBA) destroyed him. Hopefully someone on the Yankees hits that well this year. Warren was mostly fastball-changeup against lefties and man did his heater get crushed. His changeup was very effective though — the .160 opponent’s average was way better than the .257 league average. A changeup that generates a miss once out of every five swings while getting a grounder on more than half the balls in the play is pretty damn awesome. There are some good looking changeups in here, for your viewing pleasure:
As a long reliever who faced hitters more than once, using five pitches was a necessity for Warren. Being limited to one or even two innings at a time would allow him to scrap his fourth and fifth offerings and go fastball-slider against righties and fastball-changeup against lefties. Pretty basic stuff. The thinking (hope, really) is the more he sticks to his very best offspeed pitches, the more his fastball would play up. It’s similar to what Kelley has done these last two years, emphasizing his slider and using his fastball as a show-me pitch. Warren isn’t an Al Aceves type, a guy with a full bag of tricks who can throw anything at any time. He needs to stick to his strengths, and that’s sliders against righties and changeups against lefties.
Warren earned the opportunity to compete for a starting job after his performance last year and if he impresses in camp, he absolutely should be given the chance to start. If that doesn’t work out though, he might be most valuable to the team as a traditional short reliever rather than a long man. Someone with a late-game responsibility while Vidal Nuno or David Huff or Bruce Billings or whoever handles long relief duty. Maybe those struggles against lefties continue and Warren is nothing more than a righty specialist, but if that’s the case, they could simply move him back into a lower leverage long relief role. It would be an easy move to back out of.
To answer the question in the title of this post: I don’t know. I don’t know if Warren is capable of stepping forward to become a solid if not an impact setup reliever. I want to believe he can but until he actually does it, we’re just guessing. His slider and changeup are good enough pitches against righties and lefties, respectively, to think he can pull it off if he uses them a bit more often and strategically. I am curious to see what Warren can do if he airs it out for one inning at a time. Considering the state of the bullpen, he just might get the chance to do some setup work in 2014.
The Yankees have spent more than $300M so far this offseason, but only a small part (roughly 5%) of that money has gone towards the pitching staff. Specifically, it went to Hiroki Kuroda‘s new $16M deal. That’s it. The other $285M or so has gone towards improving the offense for pretty obvious reasons.
Finding another starting pitcher remains atop the winter agenda at this point, but the Yankees also have to start digging around for reliable bullpen help. The bullpen was pretty average this past season (3.66 ERA and 3.91 FIP), and that was before Mariano Rivera retired and the generally reliable Boone Logan left via free agency. There’s a lot of uncertainty beyond the right-center field wall right now.
“Oh, I [think so],” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings when asked if there are any givens in the bullpen aside from David Robertson. “I think (Shawn) Kelley’s going to be in the bullpen. I think, obviously, (Preston) Claiborne’s going to be in our bullpen. Then you have a mixture of (David) Phelps or (Adam) Warren, depending on if they’re in the rotation, those type of guys. So some of the guys that possibly are competing for rotation spots, the ones that don’t make it are probably going to slide to the bullpen. That’s why it’s hard to tell where everyone’s going to be.”
That’s the bullpen right now. Robertson and Kelley, maybe Claiborne, and whoever doesn’t win a rotation spot. Not exactly promising. Sure, someone like Dellin Betances or Cesar Cabral or Jose Ramirez could emerge as a bullpen force, but a team that just spend $300M+ shouldn’t go into the season counting on those guys to be a factor. Girardi has a skeleton crew behind Robertson at the moment.
“In terms of the bullpen, we need to improve all the options,” said Brian Cashman at the Winter Meetings. “So when people compete in Spring Training for slots in the bullpen, hopefully it’ll be pretty obvious who slots where. There’s nobody I’m anointing as our closer. Let’s put it that way … We’d like to improve if we can. I’m looking to improve our bullpen. I’m looking for guys to come in and compete for that spot.”
Last week we heard the Yankees were in on Joaquin Benoit, who has yet to sign but appears headed to the Indians or Padres. Jen Royle reports Grant Balfour is seeking a three-year deal worth $8M annually (plus a vesting option), which seems very reasonable considering how reliable he’s been the last four or five years. The Yankees were said to have interest in him at one point a few weeks ago. The list of unsigned free agent relievers includes Jose Veras, Scott Downs, Jesse Crain, and Francisco Rodriguez, among others.
Relievers are the riskiest investment in baseball because they’re so very unpredictable, but the Yankees are stuck in a position now where they have to spend some money on bullpen help. The farm system hasn’t provided much help and outside of Kelley, the haven’t really traded for many bullpen arms in recent years. Thanks to the Rivera-Robertson tandem, the team was always able to roll the dice a bit in the middle innings because they knew the final two were locked down.
Unless the Yankees surprise everyone and add two quality starters in the next two months, they’re going to head into next season with a whole lotta question marks in the rotation. That makes the bullpen, especially the middle innings, even more important. The pitching staff as a whole is weakness right now and the bullpen stands out as something that could really derail the team next season if not addressed. The Yankees spent a ton of money to improve the club this winter, but they still have to spend a little more to upgrade the relief corps.
In replacing the 145 bullpen innings they’ve lost, the Yankees certainly need outside reinforcements. They might have a few internal players to fill some of those innings, but we can’t expect them to find all 145 within the organization. A couple of acquisitions seem probable.
One name linked to the Yankees is Joaquin Benoit, formerly of the Tigers. He seems pretty solidly in the former column, since Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski indicated that with the acquisition of Joba Chamberlain, he’s finished with his bullpen. Benoit, 36, has a number of suitors, the Yankees among them. The Padres and Indians reportedly have offers of two years and $14 million on the table, which seems reasonable. So where are the Yankees on this?
In 2013 Benoit, for the first time in his career, became a regular closer. He’d finished double-digit games in each of the previous three seasons, picking up a few saves in each, but he was never the full-time closer. Detroit, absent a “proven closer” in 2013, slid Benoit into the role with much success. The money is with closers, even older ones, as Joe Nathan proved with those very Tigers. It could be that Benoit seeks a full-time closer role, which would seemingly give the closer-absent Indians an advantage.
(The Padres have a “proven closer” of their own in Huston Street, which leaves their pursuit curious. In fact, reports have indicated that they are “in the lead,” whatever that means, so perhaps Benoit doesn’t value a closer role beyond all else.)
The Yankees could add a closer for the 2014 season, leaving David Robertson in the setup role he has so tremendously played for the past three or four seasons. That might be his ideal role, given his strikeout stuff and penchant for wiggling out of jams. But that doesn’t mean it’s the role he’ll play in the future. Ballplayers want to maximize their earnings during their relatively short window. Again, the money is there for closers.
If the Yankees don’t move Robertson into the closer’s role, they’ll probably lose him after next season to a team that will give him that opportunity. Sure, the Yankees could keep him in a setup role for 2014, and then re-sign him to be the closer in 2015 and beyond. That hardly makes any sense. Why give the guy closer money, and the closer role, when he hasn’t closed games for more than a couple weeks in his career? The prudent move, it seems, is to move Robertson into the closer role and sign a capable setup man. That way you can see what Robertson is made of, while giving him a safety net.
In that way, Benoit makes perfect sense. He’s a setup man who has had success as a closer, so if Robertson falters he could become the man. It will cost the Yankees — two years and $14 is a lot for a 36-year-old, and with three teams in the running the bidding could get higher — but he seems the perfect fit. Given the rest of the free agent market, and the unpredictable trade market, Benoit might be the Yankees best chance to help fill some of those 145 departed innings.
For the same reason, trading for a proven closer makes little sense for the Yankees. Yesterday, for instance, Buster Olney reported that the Phillies are “EXTREMELY motivated to move [Jonathan] Papelbon.” His time with the Red Sox sours him on Yankees fans, but looking beyond that he could be a good fit. You know he wants a trade to the Yankees, making him the heir to Mariano Rivera. He’d be more motivated than ever, going up against his former team six times a year.
It’s not even the money remaining on Papelbon’s deal, three years and $39 million if his 2016 option vests, that makes this a poor move. It’s the idea that with a proven closer in their ranks, Robertson could bolt for more money and a more prominent role on another team. Hell, he could bolt for the Red Sox, which is the worst possible idea. Imagine the Red Sox having an in-his-prime Robertson closing games while the Yankees have an over-the-hill (but still potentially effective) Papelbon closing theirs.
By itself, acquiring Papelbon wouldn’t be a bad idea. The Yankees obviously have the money, and Papelbon has made some adjustments to compensate for his diminishing stuff as he ages. The X factor is how this affects Robertson. If the Yankees bring in a proven closer, Robertson stands a better chance of leaving to find a closer role, and closer money, elsewhere. Why not just give Robertson the closer job in 2014 to see what he’s made of? Then they can spend that Papelbon money on Robertson if they’re satisfied.
Given the lack of relievers on the market, it might be easier to add a closer and keep Robertson in the setup role. But the easy move is rarely the correct move. The Yankees have to think beyond 2014, when they’ll need quality late-inning relievers like Robertson. To deny him the closer role in 2014 could be to lose him for 2015 and beyond. Given the mass exodus of relievers this off-season, that’s a scenario the Yankees can ill afford.
The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review pretty much all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the team’s strong record in one-run games.
One year ago, the Orioles snuck into the postseason thanks in part to a historic record in one-run games. Their 29-9 (.763) record in one-run contests was the best in baseball history, yet we spent all summer expecting them to crash back to Earth. It never happened. One-run games are highly volatile just because they’re so tight — one weird bounce or bad call by an umpire can change everything. Most teams walk the .500 line in one-run games.
The 2013 Yankees were the 2012 Orioles when it came to games decided by one run, though not as extreme. They didn’t make history or anything like that, but they did have baseball’s best record in those such games at 30-16 (.652). Winning those close games definitely helped them stay in the playoff race far longer than you would have otherwise expected. I think we can both admit this club had little business being within shouting distance of a playoff spot heading into the final week of the regular season.
The 46 one-run games were the fourth fewest in baseball and right in line with New York’s last few seasons. This wasn’t some kind of anomaly; they played 47 one-run games last year (.468 winning percentage), 45 the year before (.467), and 39 the year before that (.513). The Yankees didn’t play substantially more (or fewer) one-run contests in 2013, yet their winning percentage in those games went up while their overall winning percentage (across the full 162 games) came down. Outside of those one-run games, the Yankees went 55-61 (.474) and that sucks.
There’s an awful lot that goes into being successful in one-run games, with the most obvious being bullpens. When you have David Robertson in the eighth and Mariano Rivera in the ninth, those one-run cushions in the late innings tend to turn into wins. Bullpens are absolutely a factor, but there has been quite a bit of research showing their impact on one-run contests is generally overstated. The rest of the team usually has to make it a one-run game before the bullpen comes into play. The game situation controls reliever usage, not the other way around.
Offensively, the Yankees actually fared quite a bit worse in “close and late” situations this year than they did in previous years. “Close and late” situations are defined as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later where they are tied, ahead by one run, or have the tying run on deck. Here’s a quick breakdown of the team’s “close and late” performance in recent years:
So the winning percentage in one-run games got better while the offense was terrible in the late innings of close games. Okay then. I mean, they had a lot of bad hitters on the roster this summer, so it’s no surprise they didn’t hit much late in the game. They didn’t hit much overall. Anecdotally, the Yankees did seem to score a bunch of runs early in games this year before the offense went to sleep in the middle innings, but the stats don’t really bear that out — they scored 221 runs in innings 1-3, 224 runs in innings 4-6, and 205 runs in innings 7+. This isn’t some kinda weird run distribution thing.
Without re-watching each game and figuring out exactly what happened, it’s close to impossible to explain why a team was successful in one-run games. Heck, Mariano Rivera blew seven (!) saves this year and five of them were one-run leads. They actually came back to win two of those five (by one run, of course), but the Yankees could have very easily been 31-15 (.674) or 32-14 (.696) in one-run contests had Rivera not had what amounts to a down season for him. The Bombers had baseball’s best record in one-run games this year for many reasons, and whether those reasons continue next year is a mystery. After that historic record last summer, the Orioles had the fifth worst record in one-run games this year (20-31, .392). The magic isn’t guaranteed to last, but it’s not guaranteed to disappear all together either.
Following yesterday’s crucial extra innings win over the Rays, the Yankees confirmed right-hander Preston Claiborne will be send down to clear a roster spot for Derek Jeter. The Cap’n is coming back from his third leg injury of the year and will join the team for their series opener against the Blue Jays in Toronto. New York has been using a three-man bench since Jayson Nix broke his hand last week, so it makes sense to send a reliever down.
On the surface, keeping Joba Chamberlain over Claiborne is a head-scratcher. Claiborne (2.78 ERA/3.17 FIP) has pitched far better and appears to have entered the Circle of Trust™ — he’s entered two of his last three games with a leverage index of 1.45+. Chamberlain (4.46/5.10) has been an untrustworthy mess all season, so much so that he rarely sees even medium-leverage work. Yesterday’s tenth inning appearance (2.15 LI) was the first time he entered a game with an leverage index over 0.35 (!) since late-July and the first time over 1.00 since late-June. Joba has been relegated to mop-up duty, and even then his leash has been short.
In terms of having the best possible bullpen and 25-man roster, sending Claiborne down in favor of Joba is an obviously bad move. The bullpen will be worse off today than it was yesterday once things are made official, I think we can all agree about that. This move isn’t about having the best possible bullpen right now though. It’s about having the best possible bullpen for the remainder of the season. With Claiborne likely to join High-A Tampa, the team will circumvent the ten-day rule since Tampa’s season ends on September 1st. They can bring him back on the 2nd, one week from today. They’re trading short-term bullpen quality for long-term (long-ish term really, the season ends pretty soon) depth.
Unless Michael Pineda, David Phelps, or Vidal Nuno suddenly get healthy, the only pitchers who figure to be called up next month are Dellin Betances and Brett Marshall. I suppose the team could add someone like David Herndon to the 40-man roster, but that would be a surprise. Point is, they don’t have a ton of pitching depth at the moment. At this point, keeping Joba around is preferable to not having him at all. The Yankees aren’t in a position to give away arms, especially ones with a legit mid-90s fastball and occasionally wipeout slider. Joba has stunk of late, but there’s a chance he will contribute in a positive way in the coming weeks. It’s possible. Baseball is weird sometimes.
“I think it’s been kind of up and down for him. Rib cage muscles can be tough to recover from. I think he has thrown better of late but we need big innings out of this guy … So he is going to have to get it done,” said Girardi to George King when asked about Joba’s role earlier this month. “I think he got into a little bit of a funk and he has been up and down … With rib cage muscles a player comes back and maybe he isn’t where he was before he got hurt but there is no pain.’’
The Yankees will play three super important games against the Orioles next weekend, and not having Claiborne for that series will suck. The good news is that they have Thursday off, a guaranteed day of rest for the bullpen. They’ll head into that series with fresh arms, at least as fresh as can be this time of year. Bullpen depth will hopefully be less of a factor these next three days as the offense does what it’s supposed to do against the second worst pitching staff in baseball. Any team can beat any other team on a given day, but if the Yankees drop two of three to the Blue Jays, someone else will have gone wrong besides keeping Joba over Claiborne.
It would be easy to sit here and rip the team for making the bullpen weaker, especially considering how important every single game is at this point. They’re not all literal must wins, but they’re damn close. I’d be looking at the trees and glossing over the forest if I ripped them though. If the Yankees want to make the postseason — 7.8% chance according to Baseball Prospectus — they need to win a lot of games, not just this week’s. Joba is better than anyone they have stashed in the minors outside of Claiborne and he can help them win games in September. That sounds silly, but so does the notion of this team being a playoff contender. They’re going to need unexpected contributions to pull this thing off and Joba pitching well in September would qualify. He can’t help them if he’s not on the roster.
Outside of last season, when the Yankees lost Mariano Rivera to the knee injury in early-May, the team has always enjoyed a deep and productive bullpen during the Joe Girardi era. This year is no different, as New York’s relief corps has been solidly above-average with a 3.39 ERA and 3.61 FIP. Their 25.1% strikeout rate and 7.7% walk rate are the second and fifth best marks in baseball, respectively. Girardi’s bullpen has a whole has been very good this year yet again.
The weird thing about bullpen is that its usage depends largely on the game situation. The starting rotation is on a set schedule and while the lineup is tailored to the handedness of the opposing starter, it doesn’t really change throughout the course of a game. Which relievers are used on a given night depends entirely on the score, the inning, the opposing batter, basically everything you have no way of knowing going into the game. Bullpen usage is unpredictable on a day to day basis.
Because the Yankees don’t score many runs and are forced to play in close games night after night, Girardi has had to use David Robertson and Rivera probably more than he would like so far. Robertson is on pace for a career-high 71 appearances while Rivera is on pace for 67 appearances, which would be his most since 2007, the year before Girardi was hired. Both guys have appeared in five of the last eight games and ten of the last 20 games. That’s a lot of work.
Unless the Yankees magically start scoring a bunch more runs, they’re only going to continue playing close games as the division and playoff races get tighter in the second half. That means even more stressful innings for Robertson and Rivera. Shawn Kelley has emerged as a fine seventh inning option (2.05 ERA and 1.89 FIP in 22 innings since May 1st) and Adam Warren has pitched about as well as a long reliever can be expected to pitch, but Joba Chamberlain has been a disaster since coming off the DL and Preston Claiborne has hit a (really) rough path of late. The middle innings are a bit of a mess right now.
So while improving the offense needs to be priorities one, two, and the three leading up to the deadline, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Yankees to seek out a late-inning reliever type to partner with Robertson and Rivera, just to lighten the load down the stretch. The team’s internal options right now aren’t all that great:
- RHP Mark Montgomery: Currently on the Triple-A DL with a shoulder problem. He was dealing with Kevin Whelan Syndrome when healthy anyway. Disappointing year.
- RHP Chase Whitley: Has a 4.22 ERA and 3.20 FIP while repeating Triple-A. Middle reliever type more than a high-leverage guy.
- RHP Matt Daley: Has a 1.57 ERA and 2.02 FIP across three minor league levels after missing most of 2011 and all of 2012 following shoulder surgery. Another middle reliever type.
- RHP David Herndon: Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and expected to be ready sometime later this month or early-August. Ken Rosenthal says Herndon has been up to 94 mph recently. He was a middle reliever with the Phillies.
- RHP Dellin Betances: He’s been killing it as a reliever — 2.27 ERA and 1.93 FIP in 31.2 innings — since making the switch in early-May. Easily the best bullpen option at this very moment.
When Betances is your best internal option for a late-inning bullpen arm, it’s probably best to see what’s available on the trade market. I supposed the Yankees could stick either Phil Hughes or Michael Pineda in the bullpen (with the other staying in the rotation), but that seems very unlikely at this point.
Trading for bullpen help is a very risky proposition because of the volatility of the position, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. The Yankees aren’t at that point yet. Finding a running mate for Robertson and Rivera is just something that is on the radar and not imperative at the moment. They should keep an ear to the bullpen market ground to see if a 2010 Kerry Wood-type (Matt Thornton?) becomes available in the coming weeks, but that’s something they do all the time anyway.
The Yankees aren’t desperate for bullpen help like some of their competitors — the Red Sox and Tigers, specifically — but I don’t think they should be completely comfortable with their reliever situation either. Joba seems likely to be traded before the end of the month and Kelley is a bit too homer prone to be fully trusted in the late innings of close games. No one knows what to expect from Claiborne. There’s some uncertainty there beyond Robertson and Rivera, which is a little scary given their recent workload and the sheer number of close games this team plays.