The Ever-Changing Bullpen

Uh, David. Whatever you do, do not turn around. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

One of the best and worst things about baseball is that almost nothing goes according to plan. Not in a single game, not in a typical three-game series, and certainly not over the course of a full season. Players perform in a way other than expected (for better or for worse), guys get hurt, players get traded, all sorts of stuff happens. No roster entity is more volatile than the bullpen, which is basically just a collection of guys working from one small sample to the next.

When the season started, Mariano Rivera was being setup by Eighth Inning Guy™ Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain in the seventh. David Robertson was the world’s most overqualified sixth inning reliever, Boone Logan the shaky lefty specialist, Luis Ayala the extra guy, and Bartolo Colon the long man. Phil Hughes‘ suckiness and shoulder issues forced Colon into the rotation and brought a cache of spare part relievers to the Bronx: Lance Pendleton, Amaury Sanit, Buddy Carlyle … all made appearances at one time or another. Ayala’s injury brought Hector Noesi into the fold.

Because of Soriano’s early season ineffectiveness and eventual injury, Joba and Robertson moved up a rung on the bullpen totem pole. Both performed well, very well in fact, then all of a sudden Joba was down for a count with a torn elbow ligament that required season-ending Tommy John surgery. In the span of three weeks, the Yankees lost their two primary setup guys. Given the importance the team (or at least Joe Girardi) seems to place on these stupid bullpen inning assignments, you’d think the Yankees were headed for certain doom, but nope.

Robertson, even when Soriano and Joba were healthy, had developed into the best reliever in the American League (leads the league in fWAR), a legitimate All-Star with the second highest strikeout rate in baseball at 13.59 K/9 (min. 40 IP, second only to Craig Kimbrel’s 14.11 K/9) and one of the lowest batting averages against (.179). His walk rate continues to improve as well, and is gradually approaching normalcy…

Since June 5th, the date of Joba’s last appearance, Robertson has walked a total of seven batters unintentionally in 24.1 IP. That’s a 2.59 uIBB/9. He’s walked a batter in only five of those 25 appearances as well, so he’s certainly gotten that part of his game under control. Robertson’s been amazing, but he’s only part of the story because of the rest of the bullpen fell into place behind him.

The Carlyles and Sanits and Pendletons of the world were replaced with Cory Wade, who’s been so effective for the Yankees that both myself and Hannah wrote about him recently. Boone Logan has turned things around since a mid-June series in Cincinnati, improvement that has more to do with him dropping his arm slot just a bit (check out the release points) to get some more bite on his slider than it does some pep talk with Alex Rodriguez. Ayala is the “only in an emergency, last arm in the bullpen” kinda guy, and Noesi is the de facto long reliever. He should be starting in the minors, but that’s another post for another time. Oh, and Soriano’s back from his injury and pitching well, and has assumed seventh inning duties now. He’s the Seventh Inning Guy™ now.

Other than the closer in the ninth inning, I hate the whole concept of assigning relievers to specific innings because the manager manages the game to arbitrary endpoints (why are outs 22-24 any different than 19-21?). I hope that at some point Soriano pitches well enough to take back the eighth inning, freeing up Girardi to be a little more liberal with his use of Robertson. Having him start an inning fresh with no outs and no one on base is pretty much a waste given his propensity to pitch out of jams. I think this is another post for another time as well, so let’s leave it at that.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that once again, the bullpen is a dynamic entity over the course of a 162-game season, changing as needed to accommodate injury, poor performance, etc. Only three relievers (Robertson, Mo, and Logan) have spent the entire season on the active roster, everyone else (a total of 12 others relievers) has been either hurt, demoted, released, or all of the above. The Yankees started the year with a set formula, and now it’s entirely different and probably even more effective than originally expected.

2011 Draft: Closing Thoughts

We can finally put a bow on the 2011 draft now that the signing deadline has passed, and according to Baseball America’s draft database (no subs. req’d), the Yankees signed just 22 of their 50 selections. That assumes the Chaz Hebert and Joey Maher report is correct but BA is still in the process of updating their info. A typical signing class is usually 30 players or so, maybe 35 in a good year, so the Yankees are a bit below that. It’s possible that some signings just haven’t been reported yet, especially some of the lesser prospects, but I can’t imagine it’s more than two or three guys, maybe five at the most.

The actual draft, all 50 rounds, is just step one of the process. Getting the kids under contract is another matter entirely, and now that we know who did and who didn’t sign on the dotted line, we can get a much clearer picture of the kind of talent the Yankees imported this year. Let’s digest it all…

  • Based on the info in Baseball America’s advanced database (subs. req’d), the Yankees spent at least $5.6225M on this year’s draft. That’s all the over-slot signings, but does not include Hebert, Maher, and seven others. Let’s round up and call it an even $6M. Compared to the last few years, when they spent around $7-8M, that’s light. I’d happily take one less brand name LOOGY per year if it meant pumping another $2-4M into the draft budget.
  • Not signing second rounder Sam Stafford stinks even though they’ll get that pick back next year. You’d always like to have the player now rather than pick later. However, if the medicals didn’t check out, then I can’t fault them for passing. There’s only so much homework you’re allowed to do before the draft. Remember, they ran into a similar problem with Scott Bittle in 2008, and they turned the compensation pick into J.R. Murphy while Bittle blew out his arm. The Stafford comp pick will be #89 overall next year no matter what, and they can’t lose that pick for signing a free agent. Here’s a list of all the comp picks in next year’s draft.
  • Among the guys they did sign, fifth rounder Greg Bird got the most money ($1.1M) and is probably the best prospect. I assume they’re going to try him at catcher (they announced him as a catcher at the draft), but I’m not sure how that will work out. If it doesn’t, his bat is going to have to carry him, and you’d like to see a little more well-roundness from your top draft prospect.
  • Dante Bichette Jr. ($750k), Matt Duran ($335k), and Bubba Jones ($350k) are all cut from the same cloth: bat-first prospects that are already relegated to a corner spot. Bichette is the best prospect of the trio and has the best chance to make it work in a corner outfield spot. That’s not saying much though. Jake Cave ($825k) is a bit more dynamic offensively and has a chance to provide some value on defense. Justin James probably has the best all-around tools package, but he’s super raw and a bit of a project.
  • The Yankees did a much better job on the mound, which has been a running theme the last few years. Jordan Cote ($725k), Dan Camarena ($335k), Hayden Sharp ($200k), and Rookie Davis ($550k) are all high school upside plays, with Cote and Sharp having the most potential but also the least amount of refinement. I like Camarena more than most, Davis less than most. Hebert and Maher are two more interesting arms, assuming they did actually sign.
  • And, of course, the Yankees used a few picks to refill the bullpen pipeline, grabbing power college arms like Mark Montgomery, Branden Pinder, Ben Paullus, Phil Wetherell, and Zach Arneson. They’ve done a good job of incorporating these kinds of guys into the big league roster in recent years, but they’ve still got some work to do with the starting pitchers.
  • I really liked the Yankees’ draft haul last year (if people bothered to look beyond the Cito Culver pick, they’d like it too), lots more than this year. Last year they got up the middle position players with upside, this year it was all corner bats, the easiest thing to find on the free agent market. This is nowhere near a weak class, but I’m left wanting more. Knowing what we do at this very moment right now, I just can’t give this year’s draft haul anything more than a C. It feels they drafted for need more than anything.

And finally, because I know everyone is waiting with bated breath, yes the Pirates did sign first overall pick and 2008 Yankees’ first rounder Gerrit Cole. He got $8M but not a big league contract, which blows my mind. How Scott Boras let that happen, I’ll never know. Anyway, the $8M is by far the largest up front bonus in draft history, surpassing the $6.5M the Buccos have Jameson Taillon last year. So what do you think, ~$4M from the Yankees in 2008 or three years at UCLA plus $8M from the Pirates in 2011? I think the kid made the right choice, I think it’s pretty clear in hindsight.

Yankees overcome Burnett, win opener vs. KC

After a rain out on Sunday and a Monday morning filled with more rain, the Yankees and Royals were able to get the tarp off the field and play the first game of their three-game series. The Yankees scored a little early then a lot later on, surviving the inevitable A.J. Burnett meltdown in the meantime to secure the road-trip opening win.

This did not end well.

A Rally … Then A Mistake

Royals’ starter Felipe Paulino has been on a very nice run since being acquired from the Rockies earlier this year, but the Yankees made him work in the second. Nick Swisher led off the frame with a line drive to center that Melky Cabrera misplayed into a single, though it didn’t look like an easy play on television. That ball had some serious slice to it. Jorge Posada drew a four-pitch walk two batters later, and Brett Gardner delivered the big two-out hit two batters later to drive in Swish. Derek Jeter (more on him in a bit) drove in a run one batter later with a single, then Curtis Granderson walked to load the bases.

Paulino had thrown 30 pitches in the inning, which is the danger zone for any starter. Fatigue becomes a real factor no matter how well-conditioned these guys are, and the Yankees had one of the best power hitters in the game coming up with a chance to put this one to bed early. Paulino started Mark Teixeira off with fastball for a called strike, then got strike two on a changeup. A second straight changeup missed for ball two, and the third straight changeup bounced in the dirt and hopped away from rookie backstop Salvador Perez. Gardner broke for home, but the ball didn’t bounce that far away, and Perez recovered in time to apply the tag at the plate and end the inning.

Early last week we saw the Yankees end the game on a similarly stupid baserunning play, when Granderson got picked off first with the tying runs on base and Tex at the dish against the Angels. Obviously this wasn’t quite as bad, but it’s same principle: you’ve got to be 1,000% sure you’re going to make it, otherwise it’s not worth the risk given the guy at the plate. The ball didn’t get far enough away from the plate for Gardner to risk the play. I usually approve of aggressiveness, but there’s a time and place for stuff like that. The cleanup hitter up with the bases loaded is not one of those times.

Facepalm.

Predictable Meltdown Is Predictable

Burnett starts are like a bad movie at this point, the same thing over and over. He’ll go four or five strong innings, look downright dominant at times, then cough up whatever lead he’s been given in one fell swoop. After pitching around three baserunners in the second and two baserunners in the fourth, the Royals put together a bases loaded rally with one in the fifth. All three singles were ground balls through the right side, and it’s actually kinda surprising they were unable to score a run on the third consecutive hit.

We were all kind of waiting for it at this point. We all knew the knockout hit was going to come, the lead would be gone, and Burnett would still be starting in five days. With former Yankee Melky Cabrera at the dish, there was no one better to make things happen. Melky swung at the first two pitches he saw and three of the first four, but A.J.’s last three offerings were out of the zone for a bases loaded walk. The Melkman had walked exactly once (once!) after falling behind 0-2 this year, and his walk rate was a miniscule 4.9% coming into the game. Of course Burnett would walk him with the bases loaded, of course he would.

Billy Butler, the next batter, delivered the big blow, taking a 1-1 changeup to right for a two-run single that completely erased the Yankees 2-1 lead and turned it into a 3-2 deficit. Robinson Cano turned a sweet double play one batter later to end the inning and save another run, but the damage had already been done. The lead was gone, Burnett did his little “four or five strong innings, then a meltdown” routine. Typical. Someone put it best on Twitter, watching his starts are like watching five or six innings of Kyle Farnsworth (not the 2011 version, the 2006-2008 version).

Jeterian triple.

Zombie Captain

Jeter ain’t dead yet folks. He can be a little knuckle-headed, like in the first inning when he bunted Gardner to second after the leadoff guy took Paulino’s first pitch of the game to the foot (don’t you have to wait for the starter to throw his first strike before volunteering an out?), but the Cap’n’s bat has come back from the dead since coming off the disabled list. He clubbed a 1-1 changeup from Paulino the other way for a two-run triple in the sixth, turning a 3-3 tie into a 5-3 lead. At .218 WPA, it was biggest play of the game.

Since coming off the disabled list on Independence Day, Jeter has hit .319/.373/.449 in 154 plate appearances. Vintage Derek hit for a tad more power, but after his previous 1,000 PA or so, I’m not complaining. Jeter’s revival has been refreshing to say the least.

Leftovers

Boone Logan replaced Burnett with a man on first and two outs in the sixth inning, and he recorded an out without even throwing a pitch. He picked Johnny Giavotella off first to end the inning. That’s always fun. Boone came back out in the seventh to face the guy he was brought in to face, the rookie Mike Moustakas, and he struck him out on three pitches. Seventh Inning Guy™ Rafael Soriano got the final two outs of the inning, but not before allowing a two-out walk and double to allow a run. It’s the first run he’s allowed since coming off the disabled list.

One odd thing that I noticed … well, that everyone noticed because they pointed it out on YES, but Jeter stopped Burnett on his way off the mound after being lifted and said something to him. It looked to be words of encouragement, because Burnett didn’t look upset or anything like that. Anyway, that’s only noteworthy because Jeter almost never does anything like that. Now my curiosity is piqued.

Eighth Inning Guy™ David Robertson allowed a ground ball single in an otherwise uneventful inning, and Mariano Rivera emerged from the ashes of WWWMW™ Week to throw a perfect ninth. He got a weak grounder to first, a grounder to second (Jeter fielded it behind the bag), and a strikeout looking. He also broke a bat, sawed the lefty swinging Moustakas’ stick right in half. Basically, it was vintage Rivera. Yawn.

Gardner, Jeter, Cano, and Swisher all had multiple hits, while Jorge Posada, pinch-hitter Andruw Jones, and Russell Martin had one each. Jones drove in an insurance run in the seventh will a well-placed looper, but when you’re hot, you’re hot. He’s hitting .371/.476/.686 since the All-Star break. Granderson didn’t pick up any knocks but he did walk twice. Eric Chavez had the eye sore batting line, 0-for-5 with three whiffs.

The win moved the Yankees into a tie with the Red Sox for first place in the AL East. The two clubs have identical 73-46 records, but the Yankees have a 35 run advantage in run differential. Their lead in the wildcard is a full nine games, which is a freaking ton.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs some other wacky stuff, and ESPN the updated standings.

Up Next

Same two teams again Tuesday evening, when Ivan Nova will look for redemption against the Royals and fellow rookie Danny Duffy. Remember, Kansas City was the team behind Nova’s worst start of the season back in May.

2011 Draft: Yankees do not sign second rounder Sam Stafford

Barring a late report (which is absolutely still possible), the Yankees did not sign second round pick Sam Stafford before Monday’s midnight deadline. Kirk Bohls reports that the deal hit a snag when the team found something they didn’t like in the left-hander’s arm and only offered him $200k, about half of MLB’s slot recommendation of $398.7k. Of course, Bohls did report that the two sides agreed to a deal worth $400k last month, so who knows. I’m guessing they agreed to the money, then the red flag popped up in the pre-signing physical.

Stafford, a southpaw from Texas, was the 88th overall pick. The Yankees will get the 89th pick in next year’s draft as compensation for the non-deal, and they’ll keep that pick no matter what. They can’t lose it for signing free agents, nothing. They won’t get another pick in 2012 if they fail to sign the player they take with that pick, however.

2011 Draft: Yankees sign fifth rounder Greg Bird for $1.1M

Update (Aug. 15th): Via zoodig, the Yankees have inked Bird for $1.1M, which is some serious dough. It’s easily the most they’ve spent on a player this year, topping Jake Cave’s $825k bonus by more than 30%. They must really like his bat. Jim Callis confirmed the report, in case you wanted to see one of the regulars report it.

Original Post (Aug. 13th): Via Keith Law, the Yankees will sign fifth round pick Greg Bird to a signing bonus north of $1M. The exact amount is unknown, but KLaw says it’s in the seven figures. Baseball America (subs. req’d) says that Bird, a high school catcher/first baseman from the Denver area, “has good bat speed and gets plenty of loft and backspin on the ball” with his left-handed swing. He’s a big dude (6-foot-4, 210 lbs.), and is expected to wind up at first base. Bird was committed to Arkansas and his bonus will be the largest the Yankees have given out this year, surpassing the $750k they gave Dante Bichette Jr.