Comparing the bullpens of AL contenders

Starting pitching goes a long way towards determining how a team does in the playoffs, but having a strong bullpen can mitigate weakness in the rotation. As the Yankees move towards the ALDS and a matchup with Detroit or Texas, I thought it might be useful to see how their bullpen compares to the bullpens of other contenders around the league. I’ve tried to pick out each team’s best relievers, since the playoffs are an “all hands on deck” time in which the big guns get used early and often. Judge for yourself which team has the strongest bullpen. I’ll provide the numbers and note an interesting fact about an individual reliever or the bullpen as a whole.

Yankees bullpen

Since July 30th when he came off the disabled list, Rafael Soriano has thrown 22.1 innings, allowed 6 earned runs, walked 5 and struck out 25. That’s a 2.69 FIP and a 5:1 K/BB ratio. He’s finally looking like the guy the Yankees expected to get when they signed him to his big contract, and if this level of performance holds it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that the Yankees have the best trio of relief arms in the American League.

Red Sox bullpen

Matt Albers has the kind of arm that scouts dream on. He throws very hard, and he gets ground balls at a good clip. Early in the year, it looked like Boston had picked up a nice cheap middle innings arm, and at the end of June he had pitched to a 3.03 ERA in 29.2 innings with 12 walks and 27 strikeouts. For whatever reason, the bloom came off the rose. Since the first of July he has a 6.21 ERA in 33.1 innings. While he has struck out 38 batters over this span, he’s walked more than a batter every other inning. He’s no longer a reliable option for Francona, which means the Sox will be leaning heavily on Papelbon and Bard in the postseason.

Rays bullpen

As mentioned yesterday, the Rays have one of the weaker bullpens in recent memory. Farnsworth has great numbers for the Rays this year, but he’s currently trying to overcome elbow soreness. He did appear last night for Tampa, so his troubles may be behind him for now. Peralta has been more than solid, but that’s really where the strength ends. Cruz, Ramos and Howell all have walk rates over 5 per 9 innings, and Gomes is over 4. It’s true that Maddon uses these guys as situational relievers, but the fact is that the Rays middle relief is simply soft. This is why it’s important for the Rays to get length out of their starters, and this is why Matt Moore could be such a huge factor for them in the next week.

Rangers bullpen

*Edit: Adams’ ERA and FIP are 1.51 and 2.48, respectively.

If anyone is going to give the Yankees a run for their money out of the bullpen, it’s the Rangers. Texas made two fantastic moves at the trade deadline this year, adding Mike Adams from San Diego and Koji Uehara from Baltimore. Both relievers strike out loads of batters, and both relievers are stingy with the free passes. They’re exactly what you’d want from your relief pitchers. The weakness here is like Neftali Feliz. While his ERA is close to his 2010 number, his peripherals have deteriorated significantly. He’s striking out fewer guys and struggling with the walks.  He’s been better since the start of August, but he’s still handed out 10 walks in 21 innings.

Tigers bullpen

Provided Valverde doesn’t blow a save over the next few days, a lot is going to be made by various analysts and TV announcers of the fact that Valverde’s save record is perfect this year. As someone who resents his mound antics, I can only say with the upmost sarcasm: “good for him”. Fortunately, Valverde’s peripherals don’t suggest that he’s the type of reliever who could maintain such a level of dominance. He hands out more walks than the reliever who precedes him in the eighth inning and he’s not exactly a groundball machine like Alburqurque. It’s true that he has a nice arsenal of pitches and a tremendous fastball, but if I had to wager on a closer blowing a game in the playoffs this year, I’d go with Feliz first and Valverde second. Fingers crossed!

Yanks blowout Sox, clinch homefield advantage

It’s always fun beating the Red Sox, especially in blowout fashion, but it’s even better when the game means a whole lot more to Boston because they’re fighting for a playoff spot while the Yankees have already taken care of business. Let’s recap…

  • The offensive explosion will get the headlines, but in my opinion the biggest story of the game was Freddy Garcia. He’d been struggling of late, no question about it, so six shutout innings against a great offense is very encouraging. It was a typical Garcia outing too, lots of weak pop-ups, about a baserunner an inning, a few ugly swings. At this point, he has to be considered the favorite to start the third game of the ALDS next week. That’s subject to change by the day, though.
  • Okay, now we can talk about the offense. Jesus Montero was the star of the day, going 3-for-4 with a double to the wall in left-center and solo homer to right. He also saw 19 total pitches in those four at-bats, the most on the team. It’s  obviously a small sample (58 plate appearances), but the kid is hitting .346/.414/.635, and that’s pretty cool.
  • Russell Martin chipped in a two-run single on a ball that Carl Crawford should have caught, and one batter later, Derek Jeter made the Red Sox pay with a three-run homer to right. Nick Swisher had a hit and two walks, Andruw Jones two hits. The trio of  Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez combined to go 0-for-12 with four strikeouts, but everyone else went a combined 9-for-21. The joys of having a  deep lineup.
  • The bullpen after Freddy was pretty good, though Raul Valdes and Cory Wade managed to allow a run in two-thirds of an inning.  Boone Logan, Luis Ayala, and George Kontos retired the final seven Red Sox batters of the game. Kontos has looked pretty good in his limited action, no? He struck out two and showed a nice little slider. Gotta figure we’ll see a little more of him next season.
  • This game set a regular season attendance record for New Yankee Stadium at 49,556 fans. The previous record was 49,555, so they beat it by one fan. Anyway, this win coupled with the Tigers loss to the Orioles means the Yankees have clinched the best record in the AL and homefield advantage in the playoffs. Since the Mets swept their doubleheader against Phillies, the Yanks are just one loss back of their 2009 World Series  opponent for the best record in baseball. Here’s the box score, here’s the FanGraphs stuff, and here’s the standings.

The Yankees and Red Sox will play a day-night doubleheader on Sunday,  wrapping up their season series. Ivan Nova and John Lackey A.J. Burnett and Tim Wakefield will start at 1pm ET and be followed by A.J. Burnett and Tim Wakefield Ivan Nova and John Lackey at 6:30pm ET. RAB Tickets can help get you into the Stadium if you want to catch one or both of the games, or you could come to Amity Hall and hang out with us at the FanGraphs event. Details here.

Open Thread: Beatdown in the Bronx

See what happens when the A+ lineup starts against a left-hander? The Red Sox had no chance this afternoon. The Yankees scored eight runs off Jon Lester in less than three innings, meaning Boston’s bullpen will be that much more taxed for tomorrow’s doubleheader. Good times, good times.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Mets are playing the second game of their doubleheader against Phillies (Gee vs. Blanton), and MLB Network will have the Rays and Blue Jays (Niemann vs. Romero). There’s also a ton of college football on, but talk about whatever you like. Have at it.

Game 157: Still no mercy

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Joe Girardi was ready to start the A+ lineup last night, before the sky opened up and rain postponed the game. He’s not backing off today though, it’s the same lineup that was supposed to play last night, and a preview of what we’re going to see pretty much every day in the  postseason. Here’s the starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Andruw Jones, LF
Jesus Montero, DH
Russell Martin, C

Freddy Garcia, SP

It’s a 4pm ET start, so you know what that means: it’s a FOX  broadcast. Try to not stick a pen in your ear. Enjoy.

Pick your poison: Boston or Tampa?

Here’s a question: if the Red Sox are performing poorly enough to miss the playoffs, should Yankee fans root for them to make it? Put another way, given that Boston has been 2007 Mets-level bad in September, are there enough flaws there that Yankees fans should root for Boston to beat out Tampa and Los Angeles and make for an easy target, should they squeak by through to the ALCS? Between the Rays and the Sox, who is the weakest link?

The Red Sox case

Boston has a myriad of problems. One problem is the lack of performance they’ve gotten from the corner outfielder slots. Carl Crawford’s first year of his big contract has been a disaster. J.D. Drew has missed time and his replacements haven’t exactly lit up the league. Drew may be back at some point, but it’s clear that the corner outfield spots for Boston currently represent a problem with no easy fix.

The Sox are also suffering through injuries, although not as many as last year. Youkilis has a back injury, a hip injury and a sports hernia. Despite the rain on Friday, Youkilis did some  batting off a tee, and Francona indicated that he “still felt it”, which makes sense since the injury will ultimately require surgery. As a result, Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham reported that it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll return at all this year, perhaps as a pinch-hitter at best. Obviously this is a significant blow to the Red Sox. Youkilis is one of their best hitters, and he’s also one of the most potent right-handed hitters in a lineup dominated by lefties. One of those lefties, Adrian Gonzalez, is also hurting. Gonzalez is dealing with a rotator cuff injury that causes him pain every time he swings the bat. It’s also sapped him of his opposite-field power. If you’re keeping track at home, two of the Sox four best hitters (the other two being Pedroia and Ellsbury) are dealing with serious injuries.

There’s also the wilderness that is their rotation. In addition to not paying his child support, Erik Bedard has – surprise! – injury and durability concerns. Meanwhile, John Lackey is just flat terrible. Weiland, Miller and Wakefield all represent last-resort options, the kind of guys you’d want to kick around for the 25th spot on the playoff roster but not pencil in for a Game 3 or Game 4 start. Aceves has been well above-average, but it appears to be too late to switch him to the rotation. Even the front of the rotation, Lester and Beckett, has lost a bit of its shine. For the second year in a row, Lester’s walks are a little higher than what you’d expect from someone with his talent, and his strikeouts have dipped. Beckett’s injury created a bit of uncertainty around him, and while he did rack up the strikeouts in his last outing against Baltimore, he lost his way late in the game and gave up the lead. New York has rotation questions too, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that Boston’s issues are severe and won’t be remedied until this offseason at the earliest.

The Sox are still a decent team. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Gonzalez are exceptional hitters. Papelbon is having a great year, and if Bard regains his form they could have one of the best late game combos in the playoffs. The nature of the playoffs is wild and unpredictable, and a suddenly hot offense backed by a strong Lester and Beckett and closed with Bard and Papelbon could carry the Sox to the World Series. At the same time, it’d be silly to deny that this team has major issues.

The Rays’ Case

The case for the Rays as the weakest link revolves around their average offense and their iffy bullpen. Calling their offense average is entirely just. Their team wRC+ is 100, which defines average. Their lineup is bolstered by the likes of Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist, but there are still weak spots in that lineup. Parenthetically, one has to wonder how much closer the Rays would be to Boston had Manny Ramirez given them 500 at-bats this season.

Their bullpen is also a point of weakness, described to me by R.J. Anderson as Tampa’s “dirty little secret”. It’s simply not as good as it has been in the past. While Farnsworth had been solid for the Rays thus far, he’s dealing with elbow soreness. Set-up man Joel Peralta has been respectable, but behind him are a slew of guys best utilized in platoon matchup scenarios. Plenty of them have serious control issues, meaning that Maddon’s ability to mix and match in the late innings is compromised a bit.

The Rays are strong in their pitching staff. As frontline tandems go, it’s hard to do better than David Price and James Shields. These two would be absolutely frightening in a short series. The Yankees wouldn’t face them until the ALCS, so they’d get a crack at Niemann and Hellickson too, but the fact remains that Price and Shields are two of the best pitchers in baseball. Finally, there’s the Matt Moore factor. He’s likely headed to the bullpen, and a reprise of David Price’s usage in the 2008 playoffs would make the Rays’ end of game crew very tough, especially if they get Kyle Farnsworth back at full strength. He’s certainly the X factor.

So which team is a more formidable opponent, and for which team should the Yankee fans be rooting to make the playoffs? It’s a matter of preference. Personally, even granting all of Boston’s issues and the fact that they’re an average at best team right now, I’d like them out as soon as possible. Doesn’t the prospect of three games in Boston in October in the ALCS, with the pennant on the line, make you want to reach for a bottle of Pepto? The Rays may be just as good as Boston right now, even better. But as Moshe Mandel said to me the other day, they may be just close enough that it’d be nice to see the Sox complete this collapse and miss the playoffs altogether. No Big Papi heroics and Sweet Caroline for me, thank you very much.

Next CBA likely to add two wild card teams and one-game playoff

Via Joel Sherman, the owners and MLBPA have essentially agreed to add a second wildcard team to each league, and having a one-game playoff  determine which wildcard club advances. It would increase the importance of winning the division, but also give the owners the ability to make more money. Sherman says the two sides are still finalizing how they will create two 15-team leagues to help create a more balanced schedule, and they are also working on some draft stuff. Regardless, the addition of another wildcard team is pretty huge. The system could be in place as soon as next year.