2014 Season Review: Whitley & The Long Men

The Yankees opened the season with three players capable of serving as a long reliever. Adam Warren held the job just last year, David Phelps did it the year before that, and Vidal Nuno has always been more of a multi-inning guy than a lefty specialist. Warren quickly settled into a short relief role and both Phelps and Nuno were in the rotation due to injuries before long, so the Yankees went from having three potential long men to zero by time May rolled around. They cycled threw some collection of arms this summer. Time to review the long relievers.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Chase Whitley

Last winter, every other team in baseball passed over Whitley in the Rule 5 Draft. By mid-May, the career reliever was starting games for the Yankees because their rotation was so devastated by injuries. The team moved Whitley into the rotation full-time this year after a nice run of Triple-A spot starts late last year, and he earned the call-up by pitching to a 2.39 ERA (1.72 FIP) in 26.1 innings across six starts.

Whitley held the Mets to two hits and two walks in 4.2 innings in his MLB debut, and six days later he limited the Cubs to just one run in 4.1 innings. Joe Girardi understandably had a very quick hook, pulling the right-hander after 74 and 71 pitches, respectively. It wasn’t until his third start that he topped 90 pitches (he threw 91, to be exact). He allowed three runs five innings against the Cardinals.

Next time out, Ace Whitely was born. Whitely struck out six Twins and allowed just one run in five innings on June 1st, then he held the Royals and Mariners to two runs in seven innings and 7.2 innings in his next two starts, respectively. A five-inning, two-run outing against the Blue Jays followed that. After his first seven MLB starts, Whitely had a 2.56 ERA (2.74 FIP) in 38.2 innings. It was exactly what the Yankees needed given their rotation situation.

The wheels came crashing off the bus in Whitley’s eighth start, which was also the first time he faced a team for the second time. The Blue Jays clobbered him for eight runs on eleven hits and three walks in only 3.1 innings of work. The Red Sox punished Whitely for five runs in four innings next time out, then the Twins got to him for four runs in three innings. After allowing eleven runs in his first seven starts, he allowed 17 runs in his next three starts.

The Yankees pulled Whitley from the rotation after that — the Brandon McCarthy trade and Shane Greene call-up made that possible — and he settled into a long relief role. Whitely threw 26.2 innings in his final 14 appearances after being yanked from the rotation while also spending some time back in Triple-A. He had a 5.40 ERA (4.44 FIP) in those 14 outings. Here is a quick breakdown of Whitley’s season split into two parts:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% Opp. OPS
First 7 Starts 38.2 2.56 2.74 16.6% 2.6% 43.8% 2.1% .615
After That 37.0 8.03 5.59 19.7% 8.1% 46.8% 25.0% 1.030
Total 75.2 5.23 4.14 18.2% 5.5% 45.6% 12.0% .831

Even when Whitley was at his best during those first seven starts, I think we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. His stuff was good but not great — he’d break off a few nice sliders or nasty changeup every once in a while, but every pitcher does that — and it just seemed like it was only a matter of time before the league got a book on him and made adjustments. It happened fairly quickly and Whitley became unusable in non-mop-up situations. Those first seven starts though, they were excellent and a big help to the team at the time.

Alfredo Aceves

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

When the Yankees took all three of Phelps, Warren, and Nuno north out of Spring Training, they grabbed Aceves off the scrap heap to replace the depth in Triple-A. Someone needed to soak up all those extra innings and teams routinely sign veterans they can abuse so the actual prospects don’t get overworked. Fans (myself included) were pretty happy Aceves was back simply because of what he did in 2009. He built up a lot good will that season.

Aceves started the year in Triple-A and made three starts with the RailRiders before being called up to the Yankees in early-May. He made his triumphant return to the pinstripes on May 4th, when CC Sabathia got knocked around by the Rays and failed to complete the fourth inning. Aceves picked him up with 5.1 scoreless innings of relief, striking out five and allowing only three hits. It was vintage Aceves, the kind of stuff we saw back in 2009. Suddenly it looked like the Yankees had someone who could fill that revolving door in the back of the bullpen.

That didn’t happen though. Aceves was legitimately terrible after that first appearance. He pitched in nine more games with the Yankees and allowed runs in seven of them. In 14 total innings he managed to put 24 men on base, allow 14 runs, and serve up six (!) homers. After giving up two homers in his June 2nd appearance, Aceves, who is eccentric at best and downright crazy at worst, threw inside at several Mariners players, so much so that pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to go out to the mound to tell him to stop.

Aceves’ second stint in pinstripes ended after that appearance. The team designated him for assignment, he returned to Triple-A to make a handful of relief appearances, then was suspended 50 games for a failed drug test. Not performance-enhancing drugs, a drug of abuse. Reportedly cocaine. The Yankees released him after the suspension was over. Aceves had a 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 innings across ten games with the team. Let us never speak of this again.

Call me Esmil. (Presswire)
Call me Esmil. (Presswire)

Esmil Rogers

The Blue Jays have made some shockingly bad trades involving catchers the last few years. First they shipped Mike Napoli to the Rangers for Frank Francisco (Frank Francisco!), then they sent Yan Gomes to the Indians for Rogers. Gomes has broken out and is now one of the better catchers in the game. Rogers wore out his welcome in Toronto in less than two years (5.06 ERA and 4.81 FIP in 158.1 innings), but the Yankees were intrigued enough to claim him off waivers at the end of July.

Because he had been working as a starter in Triple-A before the Blue Jays cut him loose, Rogers was nice and stretched out, which allowed Girardi to use him for three innings in his first appearance with the team. He held the Red Sox hitless in the three innings in his Yankees debut. Five days later, Rogers made a spot start filling in for the injured Phelps, and allowed just one run in five innings against the Indians. His first three appearances — there was a one-inning relief outing sandwiched between the three-inning debut and spot start — were enough to earn him some more responsibility.

After the spot start, Girardi used Rogers as a sixth and seventh inning type reliever, occasionally in the eighth inning as well if the rest of the bullpen was taxed. He made 15 appearances after the spot start and two were disasters — three runs and one out on September 16th, four runs and one out on September 28th — uglifying his stat line. Rogers had a 4.68 ERA (4.17 FIP) in 25 total innings with New York, but I thought he generally pitched better than that. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t truly awful either. Most of the time, anyway.

Billings. (Presswire)
Dolla dolla Billings, y’all. (Presswire)

Bruce Billings

Billings was another one of those veteran arms for Triple-A — there were a lot of them this year, the Yankees didn’t have many actually pitching prospects in Scranton — though he did get called up to make one appearance with the big league team. He soaked up four innings against the Angels on April 25th, allowed four runs on four hits and a walk. Two of the four hits left the yard. Billings did strike out seven of 17 batters faced though. That’s cool. He was called up again at midseason before the team dropped him from the 40-man roster. Billings elected free agency and signed with the Dodgers, then spent the rest of the season in their Triple-A bullpen. Those for the four innings, Bruce.

Chris Leroux

Leroux was a starter with Triple-A Scranton at the start of the season, though he was unable to give the Yankees any length in his two appearances with New York. He allowed two unearned runs in one inning in his first game on April 29th, then he got clobbered for five runs in an one inning on May 2nd. That was in the 14th inning of this game, which you might remember because the Yankees made a spirited comeback to tie the game in the eighth and then again in the ninth to force extrainnings. Leroux was dropped from the roster soon thereafter and spent the rest of the summer either hurt or pitching for the RailRiders. What a summer of long men.

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2014 Midseason Grades: The Bullpen

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, outfielders, and rotation, so now let’s wrap up with the bullpen.

Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)
Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)

David Robertson — Grade A

So maybe replacing Mariano Rivera won’t be so difficult after all. Robertson inherited the closer’s job — to the dismay of more than a few — and has run with it, pitching to a 2.76 ERA (1.73 FIP) in 32 appearances and 32.2 innings. He is 23-for-25 in save chances with a career best strikeout rate (16.26 K/9 and 44.7 K%) and a career best ground rate (51.6%) while keeping his walk rate (2.76 BB/9 and 7.6 BB%) in line with the last two years. Robertson is also holding opponents to a .198 batting average, second lowest of his career (.170 in 2011) despite a career worst .356 BABIP.

Robertson has allowed ten earned runs this year with five coming in one disaster outing against the Twins on June 1st. He has allowed one run while striking out 27 of 56 batters faced since. Overall, 59 of 98 outs this season have been strikeouts, including 58 of 89 (65.2%) since coming off the disabled list (groin) in mid-April. No pitcher who has thrown at least 30 innings this season has a high strikeout rate. It’s not even close, really. Robertson leads in K/9 by more than one full strikeout and in K% by roughly three percentage points. He’s been dominant in every sense of the word.

The Yankees will need Robertson to continue his dominance in the second half for obvious reasons, though his looming free agency will be hanging over everyone’s head. The two sides have not discussed an extension but that could change at any time. Relievers like Robertson — super high strikeout pitchers with proven late-inning/big market chops and no history of arm problems — are rare and the Yankees should make every effort to keep him beyond this season. If his work this year doesn’t convince them he is the man to replace Rivera long-term, then I’m not sure they’ll ever find someone good enough.

Lots of (very) high fives for Dellin this year. (Presswire)
Undisputed best photo of the season. (Presswire)

Dellin Betances — Grade A

Just a few short months ago, Betances had a win a roster spot in Spring Training. Now he’s an All-Star high-leverage reliever who is 1996 Rivera to Robertson’s 1996 John Wetteland. Betances has a 1.46 ERA (1.37 FIP) while ranking third among full-time relievers in innings (55.1) and first in both fWAR (2.1) and bWAR (1.7). His strikeout rate (13.66 K/9 and 40.8 K%) is a bit behind Robertson’s but still among the highest in the league. He’s also stopped walking dudes (2.60 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) and is getting grounders (50.5%).

Joe Girardi has not been shy about using Betances for multiple innings given his history as a starter — Betances has recorded at least four outs in 25 of his 40 appearances and at least six outs 12 times — though he did take his foot off the gas right before the All-Star break because it did appear the big right-hander was starting to fatigue a bit. His stuff was still electric but not quite as crisp. Hopefully the break recharges his batteries. A little more than a year ago, Betances looked like he may soon be out of baseball. The move into the bullpen has saved his career and given the Yankees a second elite reliever to pair with Robertson in the first season post-Mo.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Adam Warren — Grade B

From spot starter to swingman to trusted high-leverage reliever. Warren has had his role redefined over the last few seasons and he has now settled in as a quality third option behind Robertson and Betances. His numbers — 2.79 ERA (2.70 FIP) in 42 appearances and 48.1 innings — are not quite as good as those two, but he gets strikeouts (8.57 K/9 and 22.4 K%), gets grounders (46.8%), and is stingy with ball four (2.79 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%). His fastball velocity has also ticked up in short relief, averaging 94.1 mph this year after sitting 93.0 last year.

As with Betances, Girardi has taken advantage of Warren’s history as a starter by using his for multiple innings on several occasions — he’s recorded 4+ outs in 18 of his 42 appearances. The Yankees have said that if the need arises, they would pull Warren out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation, but starters are dropping like flies and it hasn’t happened yet. Warren seems to have found a niche in short relief and he’s been a very valuable member of the bullpen despite being overshadowed by Robertson and Betances.

(Elsa/Getty)
Kelly and Kelley. (Elsa/Getty)

Shawn Kelley — Grade C

It was a tale of two first halves for Kelley, who opened the season as the regular eighth inning guy and nailed down four saves in four chances while Robertson was on the disabled list in April. He had a 1.88 (1.67 FIP) in his first 14.1 innings of the year before a disaster outing against the Angels on May 5th (two outs, four walks, three runs), after which he was placed on the disabled list with a back injury. It kept him out a month and he has a 4.05 ERA (3.21 FIP) in 13.1 innings since returning.

Kelley didn’t look right when he first returned from the back problem. He wasn’t able to finish his pitches and his trademark slider didn’t have much bite. It just kinda spun and floated. He looked much better in his last few outings before the All-Star break — one run, five hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings — and hopefully that’s a sign he’s now 100% and ready to take on some late-inning responsibilities so Girardi can spread the workload around. Definitely a mixed bag for Kelley in the first half.

Matt Thornton — Grade C

The rules of baseball fandom say we must hate the team’s lefty specialist, but Thornton has been solid (3.10 ERA and 3.04 FIP) in his 38 appearances and 20.1 innings. As his innings-to-appearances ratio suggests, Girardi has used him as a true matchup left-hander and not tried to force it against righties whenever possible. Thornton has held same-side hitters to a .229/.319/.244 (.262 wOBA) batting line with a 15.1% strikeout rate, a 3.8% walk rate, and a 50.0% ground ball rate. Solid.

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

The only real negative about Thornton is he doesn’t miss bats, even against left-handed hitters. That 15.1% strikeout rate is 76th out of the 90 left-handed pitchers who have faced at least 50 left-handed batters this year. Lefties have swung and missed only 20 times at the 220 pitches Thornton has thrown them this year (9.1%). That kinda sucks for a left-on-left reliever. Thornton missed a week with undisclosed soreness right before the break but did return to pitch against the Indians last week. LOOGYs, huh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

Preston Claiborne and David Huff — Grade C

Remember how awful Claiborne looked in Spring Training? We were talking about him as a candidate to be dropped from the 40-man roster if a need arose, but the Yankees kept him around and he pitched to a 3.57 ERA (3.82 FIP) in 17.2 innings while going up and down a few times in the first half. Three of his nine walks were intentional, uglifying his numbers a bit. Claiborne is currently on the Triple-A Scranton disabled list with a shoulder injury of unknown severity, which is not insignificant given his status as the team’s primary up and down depth arm.

The Yankees re-acquired Huff from the Giants in mid-June as part of their continuing efforts to find a not awful long man, and he’s since given the team 16.2 innings of 2.16 ERA (5.18 FIP) ball. Girardi used him as a matchup lefty while Thornton was out with his soreness and that predictably did not go well. Warren was pretty awesome by long man standards last year and that kinda spoiled us. Most long relievers stink. Is Huff keeping runs off the board? His ERA says yes. Has it been pretty? No but who cares. In that role you just want someone who can limited the damage and Huff has done that for the most part.

Alfredo Aceves — Grade F

Did you realize Aceves threw the sixth most innings among the team’s relievers in the first half? I sure didn’t. The Mexican Gangster threw 5.1 scoreless innings in long relief in his first outing back with the team, but it was all downhill from there. He allowed 14 runs on 20 hits (six homers!) and four walks in his next nine games and 14 innings, putting his overall season numbers at 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 total innings. The Yankees designated Aceves for assignment in early-June, he accepted the outright assignment to Triple-A Scranton, and he was recently suspended 50 games after a second failed test for a drug of abuse. He will be missed by: no one.

Matt Daley, Jose Ramirez, Bruce Billings, Jim Miller, Chris Leroux, Cesar Cabral, and Wade LeBlanc — Grade F

The combined pitching line of these seven: 33.2 IP, 46 H, 36 R, 33 ER, 19 BB, 33 K, 6 HBP, 6 HR. That’s an 8.82 ERA and a 5.19 FIP in one more inning than Robertson has thrown this year. I didn’t even include Dean Anna. /barfs

* * *

Girardi has had to rely on his bullpen more than I’m sure he would have liked in the first half, mostly because of the rotation injuries. Yankees relievers have thrown 292 innings this season, the 13th most in MLB, though their 264 total pitching changes are only 23rd most. That’s because of guys like Betances, Warren, and Huff being used for multiple innings at a time.

The bullpen has a 3.85 ERA (3.60 FIP) overall, which is bottom third in the league, but they have a top-heavy relief crew with arguably the best setup man/closer tandem in the game. The late innings are no problem at all. The middle innings are where it gets messy. Kelley is the bullpen key to the second half to me — if he gets back to pitching like he did before his back started acting up, Girardi will have another trustworthy high-strikeout arm who could potential solve that middle innings problem.

Bullpen Shakeup: Yankees drop Aceves and Claiborne, add Ramirez and LeBlanc

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have shaken up their bullpen, at least slightly. Alfredo Aceves has been designated for assignment and Preston Claiborne has been sent down to Triple-A Scranton, the team announced. In corresponding moves, Jose Ramirez was called up and Wade LeBlanc was added to the active roster. LeBlanc was claimed off waivers from the Angels yesterday. The moves leave the Yankees with an open 40-man roster spot.

Aceves had a 6.52 ERA (6.22 FIP) in 19.1 innings during his second stint in pinstripes. He somehow allowed six homers in his last 12 innings. In addition to his bad pitching, I think the Yankees were sick of his attitude as well. Aceves didn’t seem to get on the same page as Brian McCann, plus Larry Rothschild had to go out to the mound the other day to tell Aceves to stop throwing inside after giving up a few homers. He’s long had some attitude problems.

Claiborne had a 3.57 ERA (3.74 FIP) in 17.2 innings. I think he’s going down because the team wants to get a look at Ramirez more than anything. Ramirez had a 0.84 ERA (2.86 FIP) in 10.2 Triple-A innings this year after missing the start of the season with an oblique problem. LeBlanc simple takes over as the veteran journeyman long reliever  Joe Girardi can use and abuse as needed. With the starters struggling to go five innings at times, that’s guy is kinda necessary.

The Yankees called up Scott Sizemore and demoted Zoilo Almonte yesterday, and today they shook up the bullpen a little bit. Carlos Beltran is expected to activated off the disabled list either tomorrow or the next day, so there is at least one more change coming. It’s not much, but it’s better than remaining status quo. Sizemore should be more useful than Almonte, Ramirez could be an impact reliever, and dumping Aceves is a positive almost regardless of who replaces him.

Aceves may be the missing bullpen piece

Three days ago, in his latest clunker of a start, CC Sabathia failed to get out of the fourth inning. Joe Girardi gave the ball to his long man du jour, which meant the start of Alfredo Aceves‘ second tour of duty in pinstripes. The team signed him at the end of Spring Training to provide Triple-A depth after Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren, and David Phelps all made the MLB bullpen.

Aceves, now 31, was outstanding in relief of Sabathia, holding the Rays to three singles in 5.1 scoreless innings, striking out five and getting five ground ball outs compared to two in the air. He threw 72 pitches in those 5.1 innings, five fewer than Sabathia threw in 3.2 innings. The circumstances were unfortunate, but Aceves gave the team a real shot in the arm by soaking up so many innings and sparing the key relievers.

That type of performance was something the Yankees were not getting out of their long relievers for the first five weeks of the season. Girardi’s top relievers — David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, Dellin Betances, Warren — have been truly outstanding so far this year (Kelley’s recent hiccup notwithstanding), but the other two bullpen spots have been both problematic and a revolving door. Preston Claiborne has been fine lately, but still. Look at this:

IP BF HR K% BB% ERA FIP
Top Five Relievers 64.1 260 1 27.7% 8.8% 1.96 2.15
Everyone Else 37.2 191 8 22.5% 12.6% 7.41 5.50

I get that just about every team has crappy pitchers filling out the final two bullpen spots at any given time, but man that is a huge difference. Girardi’s top five relievers have been dominant. The other guys, the Claibornes and Chris Lerouxes and Bruce Billingses and Shane Greenes have been just terrible. Those numbers include Aceves’ strong work too, so imagine how much worse they were before Sunday. (No need to imagine: 8.63 ERA.)

A good long reliever is usually a luxury — Warren was quite good by long man standards last season — except right now it’s much more of a necessity for the Yankees. Because Nuno and Phelps are not fully stretched out and both Sabathia and (until last night) Hiroki Kuroda have been shaky, the club has gotten fewer than five full innings from their starter five times of the last 12 games. That’s bad. The rotation is giving the team no length at all.

With the rotation being such a weakness and no help on the way for the foreseeable future, the Yankees have two options. Either lean heavily on their oh so excellent late-inning relievers and risk burning them out, or find a competent long man. In Aceves, they might actually have that competent long man. No, he can’t pitch every day, but he’s certainly capable of soaking up three or four innings twice a week if need by. Leroux couldn’t do that. Neither could Greene or Billings.

Of course, there’s also a chance Aceves will pitch his way into the rotation. All he has to do is be better than Nuno andor Phelps and, well, that’s not really a high bar. Girardi told Chad Jennings that “anytime someone pitches well over distance, it’s going to trigger a thought” when asked about making Aceves a starter. You don’t need to try real hard to see him pitching his way into the rotation. In that case Nuno or Phelps would move into the long man role, which is still an upgrade over the other guys.

We need to be careful not to make too much of Aceves’ outing the other day. It’s unlikely the 2009 Aceves just showed up to the park that morning and is here to stay. Remember, he was throwing low-leverage innings against a lineup that was put together to hit a lefty in Sabathia, not a righty. Aceves was pretty terrible the last two years (4.95 FIP in MLB and 5.44 FIP in Triple-A) and that doesn’t go away because he was awesome for the World Series team a few years ago. He’s got to prove himself a bit. If he can be an effective multi-inning guy, the rest of the bullpen would fall right into place.

Yankees designate Chris Leroux for assignment, call up Al Aceves

The Yankees have designated Chris Leroux for assignment and called up Al Aceves from Triple-A Scranton, according to various reporters at Yankee Stadium. The team needed a fresh arm following last night’s 14-inning marathon and Aceves was scheduled to start today for the RailRiders, so he can give the team plenty of innings if need be.

Aceves, 31, had a 1.98 ERA (2.43 FIP) in 13.2 innings down in Triple-A. He was pretty awesome for the Yankees in 2009, hurt in 2010, good for the Red Sox in 2011, and awful for Boston from 2012-13. As much as I irrationally want to believe Aceves can revert back to his 2009 form through the magic of the pinstripes, it’s probably not going to happen. All he has to do is be better than the Lerouxs and Bruce Billingses of the world. Welcome back, Ace.