The Bullpen Problem

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

While last night’s win was perhaps the best of the season (who am I kidding? It was easily the best), the reason the game went from comfortably ahead to excruciating nail biter was because the bullpen failed to do it’s job. Before we go any further, let me say I had no issue with Joe Girardi‘s bullpen usage. The only had so many bullets to use last night, and he used them when he saw fit. That’s not the problem. The problem is that the relievers just didn’t get the job done.

Boone Logan, brought in to pitch the 6th because three of the next four batters were either lefthanded or switch hitters, immediately threw three balls to the first batter he faced. Two pitches later, Victor Martinez was trotting around the bases because he wasn’t fooled by a fifth consecutive fastball in the 92-93 range. Logan then allowed an 0-2 single to David Ortiz, but escaped the inning on a double play and a ground out. The Yankees had just given themselves a little breathing room with a run in the bottom of the 5th, but the big lefty gave that run back.

Chan Ho Park, fresh off the disabled list, pitched a relatively uneventful 7th inning before getting smacked around in the 8th. He had to be bailed out by Damaso Marte, who then needed to be bailed out by Javier Vazquez in the 9th. Overall, Yankee relievers put eight men on base and allowed four runs in four innings of work yesterday, and the only strikeout came courtesy of Vazquez, the last out of the game recorded by Yankee pitchers. Phil Hughes finally had an off night, but the bullpen just wasn’t able to pick him up.

Part of the problem has been the availability of some pitchers recently. Both David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain were unavailable against the Red Sox on Monday after working hard over the weekend, and you have to figure that Marte and CHoP will be unavailable tonight after throwing a combined 56 pitches yesterday. “Our bullpen is a mess,” said Girardi after yesterday’s game, referring to being shorthanded, not necessarily the overall performance. Instead of being able to use the relievers he wants to use, Girardi’s stuck using guys he has to use. When you’re forced into doing that, well bad things tend to happen.

Yes, Al Aceves is injured and that’s created a huge hole in the bullpen. However, some of the other guys out there just aren’t getting it done. Logan is allowing batters to get on base 38.5% of the time. Robertson still isn’t right even though his last four appearances have been scoreless. Park, who I believe will be better as he gets a little further away from his injury, is still getting back in the groove of things. The long reliever situation has been an absolute mess since Sergio Mitre has been pressed into spot start duty.

Joba and Mariano Rivera have been more than fine in the 8th and 9th innings, so there’s no concern there. Even Sunday’s meltdown was the product of a ground ball single, a walk to the reigning AL MVP, a strikeout of the AL leader in wOBA, and a ball off Mark Teixeira‘s glove. How often is that going to happen? Answer: Not very. You just tip your cap to the Twins and forget about it.

But the Yankees don’t have to deal with the unreliability of Robertson and Logan if they don’t want to. Both players have minor league options remaining, and there are viable options in Triple-A Scranton to fill-in as they get themselves right. Mark Melancon is there just waiting for a legitimate shot, not just a call up to be used in mop-up duty before being sent down a week later. Romulo Sanchez impressed in his lone big league appearance of the season. Even Jon Albaladejo has been killing it this year. It would be tough for any two of those three to be any worse than Robertson and Logan have, so why not give them a shot? The team was quick to pull the trigger on a bullpen makeover in 2009, what’s the holdup in 2010?

Maybe part of it is loyalty. Robertson was an important part of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs last year, so maybe the team feels he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I’m confident that he’ll get himself back on track in the time, but there comes a point where it’s not worth the detriment to the team. Logan doesn’t deserve that benefit of the doubt; frankly he’s been pitching exactly like he had been prior to joining the Yankees. He has a lot to do to earn his spot. Being young, cheap, lefthanded, and able to throw hard will keep getting you chances, I guess.

Pulling a trigger on a bullpen makeover isn’t an easy decision, especially when you’re talking about young and talented players who have the tools to succeed. Sending down Robertson or Logan isn’t the end of their Yankee careers, they could be back within a month if they buckle down and work on sorting themselves out in the minors. The Yankees have options, but right now they don’t appear interested in using them unless they have no other choice.

Miraculous comebacks like the one we witnessed last night aren’t always going to happen. The bullpen should be able to preserve leads, and right now the guys who enter the game prior to the 8th inning just aren’t getting the job done.

Hughes’s troubles finishing off Sox hitters

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

As Mike discussed yesterday morning, last night was the first time this season that Phil Hughes faced a team for the second time. He basically blew away previous opponents, even surviving on pure stuff when he didn’t have great command against Baltimore. Last night his stuff was undeniable, but he had his share of troubles. Once J.D. Drew took him deep in the fifth, it became, by far, his worst start of the season.

Hughes’s problems started in the first. Though he retired the Red Sox 1-2-3, he required 19 pitches to do so, including 10 pitches to J.D. Drew. It took a monster 96 mph fastball to finally retire him. Still, he put himself in a tough position going forward. He’d have to keep his pitch count down in order to last longer than six innings. Things got so bad that he wouldn’t even start that inning.

The second inning actually lasted longer, 21 pitches, and included two hits, including one that allowed a run to score. That wasn’t too devastating, considering the Yanks had already put five runners across the plate. Adrian Beltre actually hit a pitch out of the zone to drive in Youkilis, so maybe it wasn’t all on Phil. A few hits will mean a few extra pitches in the inning, but we’ve seen pitchers settle down after a few long innings and still get through six or seven.

The Ortiz homer in the fourth was a bit annoying, but that didn’t compare to the fifth. Hughes started out quickly, retiring Jeremy Hermida and Darnell McDonald on just three pitches. He then got ahead of Marco Scutaro 1-2, but failed to retire him on two fastballs and a cutter. The final fastball led to a single up the middle. He got ahead of Dustin Pedroia 1-2 but again couldn’t put him away. Pedroia fouled off two fastballs, a cutter, and a curve before working the count full and then doubling on a cutter right down the middle.

Most frustrating, though, was Drew’s at-bat. Hughes actually got ahead 0-2 on Drew, but couldn’t finish him off. Drew fouled off an outside fastball before hammering a cutter inside. Both home runs came off cutters, so I think it’s fair to say that the pitch wasn’t exactly working for him. Or maybe the Red Sox had a better idea of what to expect. The two cutters in question were inside enough, but belt high. So maybe it was a problem with location.

Mostly, though, his problem was his inability to put away hitters. He only walked one, and threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes. Problem was, they weren’t necessarily good strikes. In fact, here’s the breakdown of those 71 strikes: 20 called strikes, 28 foul balls, 18 in play, and only 5 swinging strikes. Coming into the night he had a 9.7 percent swinging strike rate (that is, percentage of strikes that are of the swing and miss variety). Last night it was down to 7 percent. The foul balls were the real killers, as they ran up his pitch count and gave hitters longer lives. A few of them, like Pedroia, proved to be trouble.

This isn’t to say that Phil will have problems going forward. He didn’t seem his sharpest last night, and it showed when hitters fouled off pitches that, on better nights, they’d miss completely. That changes the game from a pitcher’s standpoint. The high number of balls in play didn’t help, either. Hughes faced 22 batters, and 18 of them put the ball in play. That’s well above his normal rate. Again, it goes back to all the fouls. He couldn’t put guys away, so instead of setting them down on strikes he had to rely on his fielders. While the Yanks defense is by no means bad, allowing so many balls in play can hurt from time to time. It’s the nature of the game.

I wouldn’t worry about Phil, though. This start almost ended well for him. By the end, though, as his pitch count ran into the 90s in just the fifth inning, he might have been tiring. That doesn’t excuse the performance, but instead gives him something to build on. His next chance comes over the weekend against the Mets.

All’s well that ends well

Photo credit: Peter Morgan/AP

That title comes courtesy of Matt from Fack Youk, whom I met with before the game. Along with Mike and Ben, Moshe from The Yankee U joined us as well. It was a nice little pre-game get together. I can only imagine if we had sat together all game.

This isn’t going to be a traditional recap. I had the thing written in my head in the bottom of the eighth. I’m going to include most of that — just because they won doesn’t mean there it was a blunder-free game. Still, we’ll lead with the most important stuff.

That straight fastball isn’t what it used to be

Photo credit: Peter Morgan/AP

Jonathan Papelbon did work in a few splitters during the ninth, but for the most part stuck with his fastball. It has some zip, hitting 94 to 96, but it doesn’t move all that much. When he spots it, he can be effective Thankfully, tonight he didn’t quite have everything.

The book on A-Rod is to pitch him inside so he can’t get his arms extended. That’s where he generates his power, so keeping pitches under his hands can neutralize him to an extent. He’ll adjust, as all great hitters do, but he might not do as much damage. Papelbon went inside with his first fastball to him, but also left it waist high. As soon as the ball took off the entire Stadium went nuts. This was no false alarm. We knew the game was tied before the ball landed in the visitor’s bullpen.

Papelbon actually went back to the splitter against Cano, twice actually, getting him to swing and miss on the second one. Cano was looking for a fastball in his wheelhouse and just didn’t get it. Once Papelbon got that first inside fastball across for a strike he didn’t come back in for the rest of the at-bat. He did go back inside to Cervelli, figuring, I guess, that Frankie couldn’t hit the inside heat. The second one, though, was a bit too inside.

Then came Thames, who was sitting dead red and got one belt high inside. There it went, game over, Yanks come back off Papelbon to win a game they should have had in the bag much earlier.

Which brings us to…

Bad pitchers, bad management

After their efforts over the weekend, both David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain were not available last night. With Sergio Mitre also not available, that limited Girardi’s options. Further limiting Girardi’s options was Phil Hughes, who couldn’t pitch past the fifth inning. Hughes, however, is a topic for another post. The bullpen, however, is a topic ripe for immediate discussion.

Again, Hughes didn’t make this easy. He did, however, leave with a lead, and the Yanks tacked one on in the bottom of the fifth to give them two. Problem is, without Robertson ready for the sixth and Joba for a later inning, there was no real easy call there. He could have gone to Park, but then would have had to put together two more relievers to cover the next two frames before going to Mo in the ninth.

Girardi’s choice, unfortunately, was Boone Logan. The image to the right describes exactly how I, and many others, feel about Logan’s presence on the team. He’s a lefty who has gotten crushed by same-handed hitters this year. He does not throw strikes. In fact, it was his inability to throw strikes that cost the Yankees a run last night. He threw Victor Martinez, who has crushed lefties this year, three straight pitches out of the zone. After coming back with a gimme 3-0 strike, he delivered one middle-in, and Martinez was all over it. It looked like he was guessing all the way, and it paid off.

Logan did take care of the rest of the inning. Only Logan, though, could allow David Ortiz to hit a grounder to the one spot where the infielders weren’t standing. A double play took care of that, and then he finally took care of the lefty Jeremy Hermida. In any case, the Yanks could probably use a reliever tomorrow, and there should be no hesitation to call Melancon’s number and tell Logan to go have fun in Scranton. There’s just no place for him in a contender’s bullpen.

Chan Ho Park, fresh off the DL, then came out for the seventh, which seemed like the logical move. He probably would have come out for the seventh even if Joba had been available. Again, that worked out well. He killed a leadoff single with a sweet double play. My seats gave me a great vantage point of Jeter leading Cano with the throw, allowing him to flip to first while getting out of Darnell McDonald’s way. All’s good, right?

When Chan Ho came out for the eighth, I thought little of it. He’s a guy who can go multiple innings. Problem was, he hadn’t pitched multiple innings since April 13, which was the last time he appeared in a game before hitting the DL. He had a short rehab stint, in which he pitched a single inning. Girardi obviously wanted to go as far as he could with the relievers he had, but Park just wasn’t up to the task. A single and back-to-back homers later, and he had coughed up the lead and put the Sox in a good position to win. It was the second day in a row that the Yanks had blown a game in the eighth inning.

Damaso Marte might have been up to the task. He came in essentially with a blank slate, bases empty and none out, and put down the Sox 1-2-3. I’m not sure why Girardi didn’t call Marte’s number, especially with Drew leading off. I guess he’s still thinking of him as a LOOGY. In a game like last night’s though, I think he has to think a bit more deeply about it.

When Javy Vazquez entered in the ninth, it was clear that Girardi was just trying to get into the ninth with the two-run deficit. I’m sure he didn’t want to use Vazquez, that he was a option of last resort. He would have been a better option in the eighth, though, than Park. But, again, he was probably a break glass in case of emergency reliever. His four pitches will not affect his status as Friday’s starter.

A win’s a win, and last night’s was pretty sweet.

WPA Graph and boxscore

Wheeeeeeeeeeeee

More at FanGraphs. Here’s the boxscore.

Up Next

They say it’s going to rain, but if it holds up we have CC vs. Beckett tomorrow night.

Montero hits a salami in SWB win

Sorry guys, just got home from the game, so you get bullet points tonight. Big news of the day: 2009 second round pick J.R. Murphy has been promoted to Low-A Charleston. Still no sign of Slade Heathcott, though.

Game 38: Welcome to our house

Photo Credit: Michael Dwyer, AP

The first six times these teams met this season, they played up in Boston. Now it’s time to bring the rivalry back the Bronx. Considering that the Red Sox won just two of the first six games on their home turf, they should be very, very afraid. Joe Girardi‘s team is showing no mercy, trotting out its two best starters in the two-game set.

Phil Hughes, who shut down these same Red Sox just ten days ago, gets the ball tonight, looking to improve upon his league-leading 1.38 ERA. He’ll be opposed by the guy Boston paid $51,111,111 just to talk to, Daisuke Matsuzaka. He pitched well last time out, but he was facing a terribly impatient Blue Jays lineup (31.2% swing rate on pitches out of the zone, highest in the game) that fell right into his nibbling act. The Yanks are on the complete opposite end of the plate discipline spectrum (24.8%, fourth fewest) and won’t be so forgiving.

Here’s the starting nine…

Jeter, SS
Gardner, CF
Teixiera, 1B
A-Rod, DH
Cano, 2B
Cervelli, C
Thames, RF
Winn, LF
Pena, 3B

And on the mound, St. Phil.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and can be seen on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Ben and I will be sitting up in the Grandstand (Section 416, Row 6 to be exact) while Joe kicks it with all the high rollers in the Legends seats. Come say hello if you want, we won’t bite. Otherwise, enjoy the game.

Irrationally skipping Javy or rejuggling the rotation?

Determined Javy is determined. AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

When the Yankees announced on Saturday that Javier Vazquez would be skipped this week and also available to pitch out of the bullpen, fans and analysts grew concerned. Were the Yankees about to pull a Carlos Zambrano with one of their starters just a few days after he seemingly had turned a corner in Detroit? Were the Yankees being too cautious with Javy as the Red Sox come to town? For a team not known for handling its pitchers, the Vazquez move appeared to be another subject to numerous second guesses.

Javy fans had good reason to be concerned as Joe Girardi explained the Yankees’ organizational thinking. “We might have to put Javy in the bullpen for a couple of days,” Girardi said. “Javy will probably have to pitch out of the bullpen for us the next couple of days, until we can get everything right.”

If everything doesn’t go right, rotation-wise, the Yanks may turn to Sergio Mitre again, a far inferior option to Vazquez. The Yanks, though, sound willing to call upon Vazquez out of the pen if one of their starters falter over the next four games. “You’ve got to worry about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, before we can worry about Friday,” Girardi said. “We want him to start on Friday is the bottom line, but sometimes, you have unforeseen circumstances that you cannot predict are going to happen.”

Ken Davidoff called this move an “acknowledgement that Vazquez clearly ranks fifth in the Yankees’ pecking order.” That is an obvious charge and one the Yanks would probably admit off the record, but the team has a better rationale for this move. Joel Sherman explains the “secondary reason” and “tactical advantages” for reshuffling the rotation:

If Vazquez started [Monday] and the other starters stayed in line then CC Sabathia would pitch Wednesday against the Rays and Tuesday in Minnesota. Instead, he now will pitch Tuesday against Boston and that will enable him to start Sunday night against the Mets. And the Yanks see that as wise since the game is at Citi Field, there will be no DH and Sabathia is one of the best hitting pitchers in the majors.

In addition, if Vazquez started tomorrow, then Andy Pettitte would have opened the Mets series on Friday night. That would have meant his next two starts after that would have been against Minnesota and Baltimore. But if Pettitte starts Thursday against the Rays – as he is now scheduled – then his next two starts will be against the Twins and Indians, both heavily lefty-swinging teams.

The Yanks wanted to make sure that both Sabathia and Pettitte started against the Indians, who rely on lefty swingers Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore, Russell Branyan and Travis Hafner. Cleveland began Sunday with a .215 batting average against lefties and a .576 OPS.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the Yankees are thinking ahead and projected their rotation. Furthermore, the move makes sense from Vazquez’s perspective as well. In his career against the Red Sox, he is 2-7 with a 4.23 ERA and his peripherals — 10.0 K/9 IP and a 3.48 K/BB ratio in 66 innings — are better than the won-loss record. A closer examination though reveals that Vazquez struggles against the current iteration of the Red Sox. Granted, we should take batter/pitcher numbers with a grain of salt, but active Red Sox have hit .298/.346/.519 against Vazquez. Although the current Mets have hit him hard as well (.309/.362/.459 with Gary Matthews, Alex Cora and Luis Castillo leading the charge), the Yankees prefer to start Javier in spacious CitiField.

With somewhat conflicting accounts — one from Girardi that talks of the pen and one from Sherman’s anonymously-sourced story supported by Vazquez’s career — Javier Vazquez is left twisting in the wind. But the Yankees still seem to consider him a rotation candidate. They’ve liked what they’ve seen from Sergio Mitre but know that Vazquez, when on, is a far superior pitcher. The leash with him will be short, but this reshuffled rotation is in no way an indictment of Vazquez. As long as he builds on his Detroit success, the Yanks’ pitching gurus should be pleased.

Park activated, Nova sent down

Via Bryan Hoch, the Yankees have activated Chan Ho Park from the 15-day DL after he battled a bum hamstring for the last month. Ivan Nova has been sent to Triple-A Scranton to make room on the roster. Getting CHoP back is big right now, given the unreliably of the middle relievers beyond Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera (yesterday notwithstanding). Furthermore, David Robertson and Joba respectively threw 30 and 23 high stress pitches yesterday, so they might not even be available tonight. Park might get thrown right into the fire.