Very quietly, a bullpen turnaround

After its stellar work during the 2009 season, most figured that the bullpen would once again be a strength for the Yankees in 2010. For the most part the personnel remained the same and we figured their roles would as well, so it was reasonable to expect similar results. Naturally, the opposite happened, and the Bullpen of Doom resurfaced in April.

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The strikeout heavy squad from last year (8.44 K/9 in ’09, second best in the biz)  struck out just over seven batters per nine innings through the season’s first two months, and unsurprisingly their overall performance suffered. On a macro-level, the bullpen had a 4.55 ERA (4.53 FIP, 4.40 xFIP) through the end of May and ranked towards the bottom third of the league. On a micro-level, there simply was no one reliable in the bullpen besides the great Mariano Rivera.

Dubbed the 8th inning setup man barely a week into the season, Joba Chamberlain was shaky right from the get-go despite strong peripheral stats. The underlying data suggest a rebound at some point, but the Yankees couldn’t afford to wait around for that happen in the ultra-competitive AL East. David Robertson, the natural alternative for high-leverage work, was battling consistency issues himself. Al Aceves, last year’s do-it-all relief stud, went down with a back injury in early May, and of course Phil Hughes had been successfully moved into the rotation.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Chan Ho Park, the late offseason roll of the dice, was a complete bust, serving up gopher balls like they were going out of style. Damaso Marte was utterly dominant against southpaws (.146/.200/.268 against) but shaky versus righties (eight walks, just one strikeout) so he wasn’t a viable option in anything other than matchup work. Sergio Mitre had a nice go of it early on, but he served as the de facto long man until Andy Pettitte‘s barking elbow forced him into the rotation for two turns and an oblique injury landed him on the shelf. Up and down went names like Mark Melancon, Romulo Sanchez, Ivan Nova, and Jon Albaladejo, none really given an opportunity to establish themselves with the big league team.

Unlike last season when it was easy to pinpoint exactly when things started to turn around for the relief corps (the mid-to-late May makeover, dumping Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez in favor of Aceves and Robertson, shifting Hughes to the bullpen), this year’s resurrection has been a bit more subtle. There haven’t been any wholesale personnel changes, just a few minor tweaks here and there and some injuries. Really, it’s not the bodies that are different, just their performance.

Joba has lost exclusive rights to the 8th inning job, since demoted to middle relief until he finds his way. In seven appearances since the demotion, he’s allowed just two hits, three walks, and zero runs against six strikeouts while rediscovering some velocity. The lessening of Joba’s role wouldn’t have been possible if not for Robertson’s turnaround. The diminutive righthander has held opponents to a .188/.310/.200 batting line against with 10.44 K/9 since the start the June, and he’s been ever better of late: .091/.216/.091 against and a 12.51 K/9 over the last 38 days. He hasn’t allowed an extra base hit since the series with the Diamondbacks.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

With Marte on the disabled list with a shoulder issue, Boone Logan has stepped in as the lefty specialist and stepped up his game. Most of us wanted him nowhere near the team in the early parts of the season, and why would we? Opponents tattooed him for a .286/.390/.400 batting line until his latest demotion to Triple-A, but in Marte’s stead he’s been straight money. Overall, he’s holding batters to a .100/.156/.200 line since returning, and get this, lefthanded batters are 0-for-16 with seven strikeouts and a hit by pitch during that time. He and Robertson have really been the central figures of this turn around, they’ve stepped up in a big way and solidified the late innings.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the addition of Kerry Wood. First and foremost, it was an obvious upgrade over CHoP, but it also gave the team a veteran guy with experience in high leverage work. He’s certainly not the Kerry Wood of old, but he still strikes out a ton of batters and is effective enough to be a viable middle reliever, if not more. His work in last night’s comeback win should not be understated.

Overall, the bullpen has gone from those unimpressive numbers in April and May (once again: 4.55 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 4.40 xFIP, 7.15 K/9) to being one of the better relief outfits in the game since (3.07 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 4.06 xFIP, 7.98 K/9 since the start of June). The improvement has largely been under-the-radar since there were no major moves, it’s just a matter of the guys that were already here turning things around and getting back to being the players we expected them to be.

Pondering roster moves for the returning pitchers

During the next two weeks it sounds like the Yankees plan to bring in the cavalry for its pitching staff. First up could be Al Aceves, who faced four batters in Scranton on Tuesday and is scheduled to start for Trenton on Friday. Then, as Josh Norris relays, Andy Pettitte is in line to make a rehab start on Tuesday. That will be a boon to the pitching staff, though for the most part they’ve pitched pretty well recently. So well, in fact, that I wonder what two pitchers will lose their roster spots when Pettitte and Aceves return.

(AP Photo/Ray Abrams)

Aceves is a bit tougher to peg, since there’s no guarantee he’ll actually make a return. He has been out since he hurt his back mid-pitch on May 8. Since then he’s been through plenty, getting multiple epidurals and having his rehab shut down twice. This time through has been a bit more smooth in that he’s actually pitched in a live game. But when it comes to back injuries there are no guarantees. His return will largely depend, I’m sure, on how he feels following his outing on Friday.

Another rehab appearance might be in the cards, and the Yanks might even want to see if he can pitch on back-to-back days before activating him. Because he pitches in relief I suspect they’ll want to see him pitch more frequently than every third day before they let him face major league hitters. That could put his return anywhere from next weekend against Seattle all the way to September. That is, again, if he returns at all.

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

It’s unclear how many rehab starts Pettitte will make, though I’d guess he’ll make two. That would mean his second one comes on Sunday the 22nd, but with both Scranton and Trenton on the road that day I’m not sure what they’ll do. What I am sure of is the roster move that will correspond to Pettitte’s return: the designation of Chad Gaudin for assignment. He has served his purpose, but Dustin Moseley has been the superior pitcher. Pettitte’s return will move Moseley to the bullpen, where he can play the role of long man. DFAing Gaudin works in two ways, since the Yankees will also need to clear a 40-man roster spot in order to reinstate Aceves from the 60-day DL.

This leaves in question what the Yankees will do when Aceves returns. They have just four pitchers who still have minor league options: Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, David Robertson, and Boone Logan. After Joba’s kind-of demotion, Joel Sherman reported that the Yankees would not send him to the minors. They obviously won’t send Hughes or Robertson because of the prominent roles they play. Logan has been on the Scranton Express this season, but he doesn’t seem like the choice either. Not only has he been much better during his current stint, but Joe Girardi loves having a lefty in the bullpen. I doubt he goes down to Scranton again.

Chances are, then, that we don’t see Aceves until September, when rosters expand. That will give him enough time to build up stamina, allowing him to fill his previous role of hybrid long man and setup guy. It will also allow the Yanks to retain their depth, since Sergio Mitre would be the only logical casualty if Aceves returned before rosters expand. The same goes for Damaso Marte. Chances are we’ll see him pop up in a couple of rehab appearances towards the end of August, with a return in September.

The Yanks, then, will have a surplus of pitching to get them through the final month. They’ll have not only a glut of effective bullpen arms, but they’ll have spot start options if, like last year, they want to rest their starters before the playoffs. September could prove interesting, too, because of all the bullpen arms vying for postseason roster spots. It’s a good position to hold right now. The more options for the bullpen and the rotation, the better.

Javy Vazquez and the lost fastball velocity

Aaaand the pitch. Credit: AP Photo, Tony Gutierrez

Lost in the aftermath of a thrilling Yankee victory last night was another mediocre start by Javier Vazquez. Pitching in temperatures nearing 100 degrees, Vazquez, thanks in part to his defense, labored through 4.1 innings, and his final line — 8 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 1 K — doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. After a great run through late May, June and the first half of July, Javier Vazquez has seemingly run out of steam.

Last night’s affair caps off a rough stretch for Vazquez. Over his last 28 innings, he’s allowed 20 earned runs for a 6.43 ERA while giving up 36 hits and seven home runs with 10 walks and just 15 strike outs. His FIP clocks in at 6.35, and while earlier this season he couldn’t locate his pitches, this time, he doesn’t seem to have much on them.

“It’s been very frustrating for me, the velocity,” Vazquez said after his start. “I don’t have any life on my fastball. All the swings and misses I’m getting are on my change-ups and curveballs.”

The results bare out the pitcher’s own observations. Of the 82 pitches Vazquez threw last night, the Rangers swung and missed at just four of them. According to the Pitch F/X data, those swings came on pitches that were 77, 75, 68 and 65 miles an hour. In other words, none of them were on fastballs.

As with last week’s outing against the Red Sox, Vazquez’s heaters weren’t too hot. He started the game out with a few heaters that didn’t crack 85 and hit 88 only once in the first inning. The fastest pitches he threw were a pair of four-seamers in the third that just eked above the 89-mph mark and the final pitch of his outing. For the first time all season, his fastball velocity never cracked 90.

Vazquez, as the Yanks said last weekend, has been going through a dead-arm period, and he doesn’t need his velocity to excel. As Mike Mussina showed, smart pitchers with pinpoint command and very good breaking pitches — two traits Vazquez possesses — can keep hitters guessing with a slow-slower-slowest approach to pitching. The Yankees need that from Javy right now.

In an ideal world, the 34-year-old with the fifth most innings pitched among active players would get some time off before the playoffs. But when it comes to starting pitching, the Yankees are a little short-handed right now. Andy Pettitte is still a week to ten days away from rejoining the team, and Phil Hughes is fast approaching the magic 175 IP mark, his soft cap for an innings limit. If the Yankees need to monitor Hughes’ workload to keep him fresh for the playoffs, they can’t ease up on Vazquez at the same time. When Pettitte comes back, the Yanks can use Dustin Moseley to give Vazquez an extra day off now and then, but until then, their starters must go on turn.

So the Yanks will continue to run Javy out there every five days. Without an extra pitcher — say a Cliff Lee — the team has few options, and despite the results, it’s an easy choice to make. They won’t overtax Hughes, a future starting pitcher, to coddle Javier Vazquez, a one-year rental. Instead, they’ll hope he can make the best of it and work through a dead arm period. With no days off until the 26th, the Yankees are going full steam ahead through the dog days of August.

As the fans sigh in frustration at another slow fastball, though, Vazquez does as well. “I’ve got a lot of innings on my arm,” he aid after yesterday’s game. “Maybe it’s catching up to me. I reach back and see 88. It’s kind of frustrating.”

Yanks battle back to beat the Rangers

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Sometimes a game feels like two games. Sometimes that’s because of the action. Other times it’s because of the length. Last night’s was both. The Rangers did all their damage in the first five innings, while the Yanks brought the drama in the final four. The game time was three hours, 45 minutes, which added to the dual-game feel. But two games or one, the Yanks came away with the victory and extended their lead in the AL East.

Biggest Hit: The Captain ties it

With so many important points in the game it’s tough to pick just one that stands out as the most important. But if we have to, it’s going to be the hit that ties the game in the ninth. That came off the bat of Derek Jeter. Though he had plenty of help setting up the situation.

After pitching two innings in Tuesday’s game, Neftali Feliz got the call to hold the Rangers’ one-run lead in the ninth. Lance Berkman got the first crack at him and put together his best at-bat to date as a Yankee. Feliz threw nothing but fastballs, but Berkman stayed on them. He fouled off the first, took the second, and then swung through the third. From there he took two out of the zone, fouled off two, and then finally took the last one for ball four. It was quite the effort by Berkman, and it resulted in the tying run heading to first base.

That tying run wouldn’t be Berkman, though, but rather Curtis Granderson. That changes the game in two ways. First, it gives the Yanks considerably more speed on the bases. Second, it can distract the pitcher. To the latter point, Feliz threw over to first five times, one before each of the first five pitches. Before the sixth, in a 2-2 count to Brett Gardner, Feliz declined to throw over. Instead he threw his 14th straight fastball. Gardner dunked it into left for a base hit.

This set up Jeter well, but not perfectly. The tying and go-ahead runs were on base, and they were the fastest guys on the team. It didn’t take long for the situation to become perfect. On the second pitch, Feliz’s 16th straight fastball, the ball sailed away, above Bengie Molina’s head and to the backstop. It bounced right back to Molina, but even a perfect throw couldn’t get Granderson. The double play possibility was off, leaving Jeter with even more wiggle room.

He used every bit of it on the next pitch, Feliz’s 17th straight fastball, as he chopped it towards the middle. With the infield drawn it it squeezed through and got into center, which allowed Granderson to score the tying run. Gardner held up for a moment to make sure the ball got through. Had he been going on contact I’m confident he would have scored the go-ahead run right there.

Feliz finally went to the slider against Nick Swisher. Unsurprisingly it worked out, as Swisher went down swinging again. For those who like the phrase, that was the Golden Sombrero for him. But, after having thrown two innings on Tuesday and 20 pitches in last night’s game, Feliz was done. The game was left to a lesser pitcher from the Rangers’ bullpen. I’m not sure what was less surprising, Swisher’s strikeout or the Rangers’ bullpen giving the Yanks the lead.

MVP: Marcus Thames

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Jeter might have been the hero with the tying run, but Marcus Thames did everything he could to help his team win the game. Normally he’d get a slot in the Miscellany section, but for his 3 for 5 night, which included a homer and the go-ahead single, he gets his own little section.

Thames’s homer in the eighth was what made me think the Yanks could come back. Frank Francisco is prone to the meltdown, and Thames’s leadoff homer made it seem like one was imminent. And it was. Austin Kearns bailed him out by missing a 3-1 meatball, which is a shame. But make no mistake: the Yanks had designs on this game in the eighth, and Marcus Thames led the charge. It’s fitting, then, that he drove home Gardner with a sharp groundball single.

Good things happen when Thames gets to hit but doesn’t have to play the field.

Ninth inning Leverage Index

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Mariano Rivera remains the same on the mound no matter the situation. Whether it’s the bottom of the order with a three-run lead or it’s the top of the order with his team ahead just one run, Mariano stands there like Seneca, poised and stoical. In the ninth inning last night he not only had to protect a lead of a single run, but had to face the top of the Rangers order to do so.

The first batter, Elvis Andrus, came to the plate with a Leverage Index of 3.60. He didn’t feel the pressure, though, as he smacked one into the right-center gap, not only splitting Kearns and Granderson, but also hitting it to a deeper part of the park. That allowed him to take third base, which gave the Rangers an excellent chance to tie the game. That actually brought Texas’s win expectancy above 50 percent.

Michael Young batted next, and he actually faced a lower LI. Mo jammed him on the first pitch, and young popped one up to shallow right. Austin Kearns, making up for his rally killing double play in the eighth, sprinted in and made a shoestring catch to record the out. Andrus probably wouldn’t have scored in any case, but the out was big. It also increased the leverage dramatically.

The Rangers’ best hitter and MVP candidate Josh Hamilton batted next. This time the LI was 5.76. Mo did not feel the pressure. He just does what he normally does, which is to pump cutters. The first two crossed a bit too far inside, but on the 2-0 pitch Mo hit his spot. Hamilton tapped it weakly right back to Rivera for the second out. That left just one more batter.

Again the pressure was high. The Rangers’ win expectancy had fallen all the way to 17.2 percent, but they still had that tying run 90 feet away. Mo delivered a cutter, and again missed. He didn’t with the next. Guerrero pulled the thigh-high cutter right to A-Rod at third, who threw across the diamond to end the game.

On Javy

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

I’m torn on how to evaluate Javier Vazquez‘s start. On the one hand, he allowed six runs in 4.1 innings, which is never good. On the other hand, he got some bad breaks along the way. There was no way anyone could rate this as a good, or even decent, start. But it was something less than the disaster that the scoreboard suggested.

The first run, a solo homer by Michael Young, just barely caught the foul pole in right. That’ll happen. No biggie. Even Cliff Lee will give up a run from time to time. But then in the fourth Javy gave up two more, and with Lee on the mound the game felt bleak. But I wasn’t killing Javy. The runs scored on a ball that Cano nearly fielded. And in any case, the Yanks shouldn’t have been in that situation. Why they thought it appropriate to walk David Murphy with two outs is beyond me. Javy got him to pop up in his first AB. Let him face the guy. It’s not like they were setting up the double play or anything.

(Still, can’t give Javy a complete pass here. He did walk Bengie Molina, which is hard enough on its own, but he did it after being ahead 0-2. Poor form, Javy. Poor form.)

He allowed another run in the fifth, this off the bat of Josh Hamilton. It’s a forgivable offense, but Javy was running out of rope there. Thankfully he rebounded, getting Vlad to bounce right back to him and then Nelson Cruz to hit one towards A-Rod. That prevented the run from scoring, as A-Rod threw home. But Jorge Posada botched the rundown and allowed Young to return to third safely. That became huge, because Murphy then singled and drove in two.

Yay bullpen

Sergio Mitre came on in relief of Vazquez and got Molina to fly out. For some reason Nelson Cruz thought it appropriate to tag up. With a break-even rate of roughly 100 percent, there’s no excuse for getting thrown out there. Cruz did, and he let the Yanks off the hook.

Mitre came out to pitch a scoreless sixth, and then Kerry Wood followed with two scoreless innings. Clearly, they’re stretching him out to be a starter down the stretch.

The Yanks offense did the coming back, but without solid work from Mitre and Wood they wouldn’t have gotten there in the first place. Hats off to them. I’ve noticed far fewer people complaining about the bullpen these days.

Miscellany

Any time you score four runs off Cliff Lee you can pat yourself on the back. Good job by the offense.

After the Rangers broke it open in the fifth, the Yanks immediately fought back. Or, should I say, Jeter fought back. He tripled to lead off the sixth and eventually scored on a wild pitch. He’s damn lucky on that one, since the next three batters struck out swinging. That was Lee’s first wild pitch of the season.

Lee had an odd line. He gave up eight hits, four for extra bases, but struck out 11. And, of course, he walked none. Anything more would be unsuitable.

Derek Jeter apparently does not appreciate it when people say he shouldn’t be the leadoff hitter.

Box and graph

The graph gets kinda crazy there towards the end.

More at FanGraphs. Traditional numbers here.

Up Next

The Yanks travel north to Kansas City to battle the Royals. Bruce Chen vs. CC Sabathia, Same CDT start of 8:10.

Brackman strong in Trenton win

Baseball America posted their Best Tools lists for both Double-A and High-A (sub. req’d). Brandon Laird was voted as the Best Power prospect in the Eastern League while Corban Joseph was named the Best Defensive Second Baseman in the Florida State League. That means he’s either improved with the glove, or the FSL infield talent stinks this year.

Triple-A Scranton (10-4 loss to Buffalo)
Kevin Russo, 2B & Colin Curtis, RF: both 0 for 5 – Russo K’ed twice, Curtis once … Russo committed a fielding error
Jesus Montero, C: 1 for 4, 1 2B, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 E (fielding) – the double came off a changeup down & away … flirting with a 1.300 OPS since the All Star break
Juan Miranda, 1B: 2 for 3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 1 BB
Brandon Laird, 3B: 1 for 4, 1 K - three for his last 23 (.130)
Jorge Vazquez, DH: 1 for 3, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
Chad Huffman, LF: 1 for 4, 2 K
Eric Bruntlett, SS & Greg Golson, CF: both 2 for 4 – Bruntlett doubled & drove in a run … Golson drove in two, K’ed & committed a fielding error
Zach McAllister: 6 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 1 WP, 2-6 GB/FB – 81 of his 109 pitches were strikes (74.3%) … picked a runner off first … he broke out the eephus … that’s 11 straight starts in which he’s allowed at least one homer (he served up two tonight)
Zack Segovia: 2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3-2 GB/FB – 26 of 34 pitches were strikes (76.5%)
Royce Ring: 1 IP, zeroes, 0-2 GB/FB – eight of his 13 pitches were strikes (61.5%)

[Read more…]

Game 113: Patience is not in the game plan

(AP Photo/Mike Fuentes)

The Yanks have long been known as a patient team. They take pitches and work counts. They’re currently second in the league in walks, to Tampa Bay. They led the league last year. They led the league in walks from 2002 through 2004 and finished in the top three from 2005 through 2007. The only year since 2002 that they fell below third was, unsurprisingly, in 2008. But tonight patience might not pay off.

This year Cliff Lee is dominant as ever. His walks per nine, 0.52, is less than half the rate of the pitcher with the next lowest rate, Roy Halladay. His WHIP is also a league-low 0.92. In other words, the Yanks will have to be a bit more aggressive than normal if they want to get something going off Lee. Working the count isn’t an option, as Lee finishes off batters with an average of 3.42 pitches, which is the second fewest in the AL.

On their end the Yanks will have Javier Vazquez to face the Rangers lineup. Javy wasn’t too hot the last time out, at least partly because his velocity was down in the low- to mid-80s. The Yanks called it a dead arm, so we can only hope that he’s feeling better. Maybe the Texas heat will help him get loose. The Rangers aren’t the most patient team, so maybe he can get them hacking at off-speed stuff. He’ll need it if his fastball isn’t at its best.

It’s another Granderson-less night. He’ll return tomorrow with a new swing, apparently. Mark Teixeira will return tomorrow, too, so this will be Marcus Thames‘s last day as a No. 3 hitter. Probably ever.

Lineup:

1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Nick Swisher, RF
3. Marcus Thames, DH
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Robinson Cano, 2B
6. Jorge Posada, C
7. Austin Kearns, LF
8. Lance Berkman, 1B
9. Brett Gardner, CF

And on the mound, number thirty-one, Javier Vazquez.

Long, Granderson working to revamp swing

Hitting coach Kevin Long told reporters this afternoon that he is working on a “total reformation of the swing” with Curtis Granderson. The centerfielder’s struggles this season are well-documented, so this is obviously good to hear. Something had to be done. Remember though, wholesale changes like this can take time, it’s not like flipping a light switch.

Granderson is out of tonight’s lineup despite surprisingly good career numbers against Cliff Lee as he and K-Long do their thing.

Update: Just to clarify, it sounds like Granderson went to Long and asked for help, not the other way around.