Missing in Action: Clay Rapada

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Yankees will play their 162nd game of the season tonight, a game that could either give them the best record in the AL or contribute towards playing a one-game division tie-breaker against the Orioles tomorrow. The bullpen was used heavily in last night’s extra innings win but not to the point where one of the core relievers should be unavailable tonight. Even after throwing 43 pitches in two innings, I’m sure Rafael Soriano will be out there in the ninth if need be.

Joe Girardi‘s crop of trusted relievers is well-defined at this point, and one reliever who appears to be outside the Circle of Trust™ is second left-hander Clay Rapada. The funky 31-year-old sidewinder has appeared in 69 games this season, the second most of anyone in the bullpen outside of 80-appearance man and primary lefty Boone Logan. Rapada, however, has been kept on ice lately despite ample matchup opportunities. He’s thrown just one pitch (!) since September 23rd, a one-batter appearance on September 27th. One pitch (resulting in a pop-up) in the team’s last ten games.

From late-August through mid-September, Rapada made ten appearances and faced exactly one batter in nine of them. Of a 12 total men (11 lefties) he faced during that time, five reached base (three hits and two walks). One of those three hits was by the lone right-handed batter. Maybe that shook Girardi’s confidence in him. Rapada replaced Ivan Nova in the third inning of the extra innings comeback win over the Athletics two weeks ago, allowing a run while recording four outs. That’s basically been it, he’s made just two appearances since.

Now I get that Logan was excellent earlier in the season and that he’s earned Girardi’s trust in big spots, but Rapada has actually been more effective against same-side hitters this season. Here’s a quick breakdown of their performances against lefties…

TBF AVG OBP SLG wOBA K% BB% GB%
Rapada 114 0.185 0.265 0.257 0.241 28.1% 9.7% 44.9%
Logan 133 0.230 0.293 0.372 0.294 31.6% 7.5% 37.5%

Not the biggest of sample sizes, but that’s what you get when you’re dealing with lefty relievers. Both guys have done the job well this year, but Rapada has been a bit more effective despite marginally worse strikeout and walk rates. It’s a luxury to have two quality left-handed relievers, especially late in the season when rosters expand and matching up isn’t much of an issue, and the Yankees are one of just two AL playoff teams with that luxury. The Athletics and their duo of Jerry Blevins and Sean Doolittle are the other.

The final game of the season is tonight, so there’s nothing Girardi can do now to shift some of the left-handed matchup workload from Logan to Rapada. Hopefully Rapada won’t be rusty if he gets the call against the Red Sox, but either way both guys will be on the playoff roster and there’s little reason to favor one over the other. Logan has been a little shaky of late but still solid overall, yet Rapada is a bit of an untapped weapon right now. Giving him a little more responsibility shouldn’t be an idea that is completely off the table.

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Thoughts following the loss to the Twins

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Hard to believe it, but the regular season ends one week from today. The schedule seems to pass a little quicker every year. Anyway, the Yankees need some combination of wins and Angels losses totaling five to clinch a playoff berth, but we’re all focusing on the AL East crown. The magic number to win the division is just seven. That’s bigger than it appears.

1. The old saying is that you should beat up on the bad teams and hold your own against the good ones, but the Yankees are now just 3-3 against the Twins this year. They’ve historically owned Minnesota, winning 63 of the 80 games the two clubs have played during the Ron Gardenhire era coming into the season. Four of those 17 losses came against in-his-prime Johan Santana as well. Splitting six games isn’t a disaster, but sheesh, it really would have been nice to pad the win total again.

2. At what point does Clay Rapada start stealing some of the high-leverage matchup work away from Boone Logan? Logan has allowed runs — either his own or inherited — in four his last nine appearances with an overall 5.26 ERA (4.62 FIP) in 25.2 innings since the calendar flipped to July. Lefties are now hitting .235/.285/.361 (130 PA) off him this season while Rapada has held same-side hitters to a .190/.268/.260 line (113 PA). If nothing else, Boone probably just needs a breather. He’s appeared in 77 games (!) and seems to warm up even when he doesn’t get into the game.

3. Building on that point — doesn’t it seem like Joe Girardi is becoming a little Joe Torre-ish with his reliever usage? I get that the games and division race are close and everything, but he has a clear Circle of Trust™ and has leaned on those folks heavily down the stretch. Strong bullpens have been a staple the last few years, but this season the relief corps is quite leaky. Obviously Mariano Rivera‘s injury is a big part of that, but was the bullpen so effective from 2009-2011 because of how Girardi used it, or did the relievers just make the skipper look smart? It’s probably a little both, really. Either way, the bullpen has now allowed runs in six of the team’s last eight games. Yikes.

4. Might as well end with a positive: how amazing has Andy Pettitte this year? Obviously the leg injury is really unfortunate, but otherwise he’s pitched to a 2.71 ERA (3.32 FIP) in eleven starts and 69.2 innings. This is a 40-year-old guy who willingly spent a full year away from baseball, and yet he’s returned better than ever. Back in Spring Training I joked a bunch (I think I even said it in the podcast and in the weekly chat a few times) about the year off doing good for his arm and body overall, but I didn’t expect this. Eric wrote about this yesterday but it’s worth repeating: the veteran guys — particularly Pettitte and Derek Jeter — having been coming huge all season.

Midseason Review: Meeting Expectations

During the next few days we’ll take some time to review the first half of the season and look at which Yankees are meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, and falling short of expectations. What else is the All-Star break good for?

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

The Yankees head into the All-Star break with the best record in baseball at 52-33 despite having only played 14 games against teams with a losing record. I guess that’s what happens when all but three AL teams have a .500+ record, including every club in the AL East. Despite that win-loss record, the Yankees don’t seem to have clicked on all cylinders yet. The bullpen carried them in April, the rotation carried them in May and June, and the offense has shown flashes of being dominant but hasn’t really 100% clicked yet. That means there is still room for improvement. Here are the players who have been performing in line with preseason expectations…

Derek Jeter
At this time last year, the Cap’n was really just starting to get going. He hit a weak .270/.340/.370 in 2010 and was sitting on a .260/.324/.324 batting line when a calf injury forced him to the disabled list last June. The injury proved to be a blessing in disguise for Jeter, who worked with hitting coordinator Gary Denbo at staying back on the ball. He hit .331/.384/.447 after returning on Independence Day and he’s carried that success over into 2012.

Now, obviously the 38-year-old shortstop wasn’t going to hit that well all season, but Jeter has posted a rock solid .308/.354/.411 batting line in the first half this year. He had a huge April, a so-so May, and a poor June before picking things back up in early-July. Derek has already hit more homers this season (seven) than he did last season (six), and he’s on a similar stolen base pace (seven in nine chances so far). As you’d expect, most of his damage is coming against lefties (.381/.405/.552) but at least he’s putting up more of a fight against righties (.278/.333/.353) than he did in 2010 and the first half of 2011.

(AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Curtis Granderson & Robinson Cano
The Yankees two best offensive players last year have continued to be just that in 2012. Cano is right in the mix for the AL MVP award at this point thanks to his .313/.378/.578 line and 20 homers, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Robbie over the last few years. He’s unquestionably the best player on the best team in baseball and is in the middle of a career year, both at the plate and in the field. Despite a slow start in April, Cano continues to be brilliant.

Granderson has shown that last season’s power spike was no fluke, carrying a team leading 23 dingers into the break. He ranks fourth in the AL in long balls and is just a touch behind last season’s pace, when he went deep 25 times in the team’s first 85 games. Granderson’s .248/.352/.502 batting line is second only to Cano in its gaudiness, and he’s currently walking in a career best 13.1% of his plate appearances, the eighth best walk rate in the league. His strikeout rate (25.9%, eighth in the AL) is also a career high, but you take the bad with the good. When Curtis stops hitting the ball out of the park and getting on-base, the whiffs will become more of an issue.

CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda & Ivan Nova
Given the uncertainty surrounding Phil Hughes, these three came into the season as the guys Joe Girardi would rely on for quality outings once every five days. Sabathia has battled his fastball command all season long but he still carries a 3.45 ERA and 3.21 FIP into the All-Star break. His strikeout (8.83 K/9 and 23.1 K%), walk (2.44 BB/9 and 6.4 BB%), and ground ball (49.8%) rates are right in line with last season, his best in New York. A minor groin strain landed Sabathia on the DL for the first time in pinstripes but he’s expected back right after the break.

Kuroda got tagged with the inconsistent label early on but has been a rock since late-April, allowing no more than two earned runs in ten of his last 14 starts. His 3.50 ERA is the 13th best in the junior circuit and the peripherals are solid as well: 4.07 FIP, 6.92 K/9 (18.4 K%), 2.67 BB/9 (7.1 BB%), and 47.4% grounders. Kuroda’s given the team exactly the kind of stability they expected when they signed him to that one-year, $10M pact last offseason.

Following last night’s grind-it-out win, Nova has already struck out more batters this season (100) than he did a year ago (98) in 55.1 fewer innings (232 fewer batters faced). An early-season bout of homeritis — 12 homers in his first nine starts but just five in his last eight — has his ERA at 3.92 (4.32 FIP), but that has been coming down steadily over the last two months. Nova is missing bats (8.16 K/9 and ), limiting walks (2.69 BB/9 ), getting ground balls (48.3%), and soaking up innings (110.1 IP, 11th in the AL). He’s taken a nice big step forward in his second full season.

Have yourself a weekend, Andruw. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Andruw Jones, Jayson Nix & Chris Stewart
The Yankees aren’t usually known for their bench players, but this season they’ve gotten some fantastic work out of their reserves. No one is having a truly awful year off the bench, especially after Andruw Jones clubbed four homers in the two-day span this weekend. He’s hitting .244/.326/.535 with 11 homers overall, including .253/.305/.529 with seven homers against lefties.

Nix took over once Eduardo Nunez‘s defense landed him back in Triple-A, and although his .221/.284/.412 line is nothing to write home about, he’s done most of his damage against lefties .256/.293/.436 in sort of a platoon/rest the regulars role. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by his defense, particularly at short. He’s not great, but he’s not an embarrassment. Offensive expectations for Stewart were so low that his empty .256/.276/.293 batting line feels like a win. His defense hasn’t been as great as advertised but overall, he’s a solid backup that has probably gotten a little too much playing time in the first half (has started 30% of the team’s games).

David Robertson, Boone Logan & Clay Rapada
The bullpen has continued to be a strength for the Yankees, just as it has been for the last three or four years now. They’ve pitched to a 3.20 ERA (3.37 FIP) as a unit, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that Mariano Rivera threw only 8.1 innings before blowing out his knee shagging fly balls in May. Robertson missed a month with an oblique strain but his strikeout (14.59 K/9 and 38.1 K%) and walk (4.38 BB/9 and 11.4 BB%) rates have actually been better than his breakout campaign a year ago. He’s run into more trouble than usual lately, but he wasn’t going to sustain what he did last year anyway. Robertson remains highly effective and one of the game’s most dominant late-inning relievers.

Logan stepped up in a huge way when Robertson hit the DL and the workload has been catching up to him of late; he’s pitched in 43 of the team’s 85 games, the most appearances in baseball. His 3.77 ERA (3.55 FIP) is backed up by a sky-high strikeout rate (11.90 K/9 and 30.6 K%) and he’s held left-handed hitters to a .235/.293/.397 batting line. His lefty specialist counterpart has been effective since being plucked off the scrap heap, as Rapada has held same-side hitters to a .150/.246/.217 line that is essentially identical to his .152/.250/.219 career performance. If anything, you can probably make a strong argument that he’s exceeded expectations, same with Nova, Cano, and Kuroda (considering the league switch).

Poll: Making room for David Robertson

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The Yankees have received some pretty stellar pitching over the last three weeks or so, and it’s about to get a whole lot better. David Robertson aced his second minor league rehab appearances yesterday afternoon, and afterward Joe Girardi confirmed that his top setup man will rejoin the team today and be activated off the DL on Friday. Cory Wade and Boone Logan have done a superb job setting up Rafael Soriano in recent weeks, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve all missed Robertson in the late innings.

Getting Robertson back on the roster won’t be a problem but the Yankees do have some roster flexibility and a number of different options. We know Wade, Logan, and Rafael Soriano aren’t going anywhere, but there’s a case to be made that everyone else in the bullpen should be replaced. Each has their own pros and cons, of course.

Cody Eppley
Sending Eppley back to Triple-A seems like the most obvious move since he’s been the designated up-and-down guy early this season. He hasn’t pitched great but he hasn’t been ineffective either — 3.55 ERA with a 4.55 FIP and a 67.5% ground ball rate — and lately Joe Girardi has been using him as a right-handed/ground ball specialist in the sixth and seventh innings. That’s the best way to use the sidewinder, though a ROOGY isn’t exactly the most efficient use of roster space. The Yankees could send Eppley down on Friday and call him up at a later point without a problem.

David Phelps
Do you know how long it’s been since Phelps has appeared in a game? Eleven days now. He hasn’t pitched since game two of the Tigers series in Detroit, when he started the bottom of the ninth inning in the eventual walk-off loss. Phelps has made two appearances totaling five outs in the last 20 days, and his brief warm-up session last night was the first time he’s even done that much since the Tigers’ game. The Yankees don’t need to carry two long-men and although Phelps has done nothing to lose his job — 2.94 ERA and 4.50 FIP — they could opt to send him to Triple-A to make sure he gets regulars innings as a starting pitcher. Winning is always the number one goal, but the Yankees could send him down to focus on his development without weakening the big league club.

(REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

Freddy Garcia
Since being banished to the bullpen, Sweaty Freddy has worked sparingly in mop-up duty. He missed a few days following the death of his grandfather but has otherwise appeared in just six of the club’s last 41 games, and only once in those six games was the score separated by fewer than three runs. It’s been pure mop-up work and is totally redundant with Phelps on the roster. Freddy has no trade value so the Yankees would have to just cut ties with him, a legitimate option but probably not the smartest thing in the world. Pitching depth has a way of disappearing quickly and Garcia can do a lot of different things if needed, particularly start.

Clay Rapada
Cutting Rapada was unlikely even before his recent stretch of solid pitching (despite a heavy workload). The Yankees obviously place some value on having two left-handers out in the bullpen given how much money they’ve spent on those guys in recent years, and for the most part Rapada has done the job. He is out of minor league options, so the Yankees wouldn’t be able to send him to the minors without first passing him through waivers. Rapada ain’t clearing waivers, I can promise you that.

* * *

The Yankees have enough bullpen depth that there’s no obvious candidate to go once Robertson is healthy. They’re going to shed one solid bullpen arm in favor of an elite reliever, and that’s pretty awesome. Since we polled you folks about replacing Brett Gardner internally yesterday, we might as well do the same for getting Robertson back on the roster.

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Update: Clay Rapada leaves game with viral infection

10:09pm: The Yankees say Rapada has a viral infection, which sounds pretty open-ended. If he needs to go on the DL, the recently claimed Justin Thomas could easily take his spot as the second lefty. Just get Rapada away from the rest of the team, please.

9:41pm: Clay Rapada was helped to the clubhouse for an unknown reason in the sixth inning of tonight’s game. He faced two batters and was removed for matchup purposes, then was shown being helped out of the dugout. Very odd. Stay tuned for updates.

The two LOOGY problem

(Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

The season is only three games old, but we’ve already seen the Yankees get burned by letting a left-handed reliever face a right-handed batter on two occasions. Clay Rapada gave up a double to Evan Longoria (and a walk to switch-hitter Ben Zobrist) in Saturday’s game, then Boone Logan gave up a homer to Jeff Keppinger yesterday. Stuff like that will happen over the course of a season, but it’s still a reminder of how problematic a two-LOOGY bullpen can be.

“It’s 6-2 and you’re down,” said Joe Girardi after Saturday’s game. “It’s the [seventh] inning. We’ve got a lot of days early on. We have one day off in the first 16 or 17 days, so we can’t burn these guys out in the first two days.”

First of all, let’s just ignore that Girardi basically said he doesn’t think his team could come back from four runs down. That’s an asinine statement we could facepalm over at some point in the future. The important thing is that he doesn’t want to burn out his bullpen, which is obviously very good to hear. Managing the bullpen’s workload is Girardi’s best trait, and it’s not particularly close. The problem is that the bullpen isn’t well-suited for two lefty specialists.

The Yankees’ three best relievers are tied to very specific innings. Rafael Soriano is the seventh inning guy, David Robertson the eighth inning guy, and Mariano Rivera the closer. Those are their innings when the Yankees have a lead, the game is tied, or when they’re behind a run or maybe two. That’s it. David Phelps is a rookie and the mop-up man, so his appearances figure to be sporadic and generally low-leverage. That leaves Logan, Rapada, and Cory Wade for the middle innings. Unless Wade can magically re-enter games at opportune times, Girardi is going to forced to use the two lefties in spots he normally wouldn’t. That’s how Jeff friggin’ Keppinger winds up hitting a homer and reasonably close games become blowouts.

“I can’t use Mo, Robertson and Soriano every day, and when we’re losing, we try to get some innings out of some other guys down there,” said the skipper yesterday. Like I said, I understand not wanting to overwork guys and I commend Girardi for it, but Logan and Rapada should not be used against righties at all. Unfortunately, they will be unless Phelps takes on more responsibility or Girardi becomes a little more flexible with his end-game trio.

Second Lefty Poll: Rapada or Cabral?

Hooray for funky lefties. (Paul Sancya/AP)

It as appears as though the Yankees only have one open relief spot at the moment, assuming the loser of the Phil Hughes/Freddy Garcia fifth starter competition heads to the bullpen. With three rounds of roster cuts already in the books, the number of realistic candidates for that last spot is down to just two: left-handers Clay Rapada and Cesar Cabral.

The Yankees have been looking for a second left-handed reliever for a few too many years, but now they appear to have a pair of qualified candidates. Rapada and Cabral share handedness but not much else. They’re different pitchers with different styles at different points of their careers. Which one is a better fit for the Yankees?

The Case for Rapada
A 31-year-old journeyman, Rapada has impressed by retiring all but one of the 12 left-handed batters he’s faced this spring. The one exception is a walk (after getting ahead in the count 0-2, no less), but he’s atoned by striking out seven of the remaining 11 batters. Rapada’s big league track record is limited, though he has held the 136 lefties he’s faced to a .153/.252/.200 batting line with a 26.5% strikeout rate. His Triple-A track record is more of the same.

Rapada has been groomed as a lefty specialist since the day he signed with the Cubs as an undrafted free agent in 2002. They dropped his arm angle almost immediately, and now he relies of the deception of his sidearm motion more than sheer stuff — mid-80s heat with a mid-70s slider — to get same-side hitters out. He’s a true LOOGY and has excelled in the role over the last few years. There should be no growing pains.

The Case for Cabral
Cabral, a 23-year-old taken from the Red Sox (via the Royals) in this past offseason’s Rule 5 Draft has impressed as well this spring. He hasn’t been as good as Rapada, but he’s struck out eight of the 20 left-handers he’s faced while allowing six hits and walking zero. One of those hits was a homer. Cabral moved to the bullpen full time to start the 2010 season, and since then he’s held same-side hitters to a .202/.263/.294 batting line with a 35.4% strikeout rate in 133 PA. That’s mostly at High-A with a little Low-A and Double-A mixed in.

The Yankees obviously like Cabral, otherwise they wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of trading up in the Rule 5 Draft to get him. He’s more of a power pitcher than Rapada, sitting in the low-90s with a changeup and a slurvy slider. The changeup is his best secondary pitch, which theoretically means Cabral could face some right-handed batters and at least hold his own. He has all three minor league options remaining and is under team control through at least 2017. With zero Triple-A or MLB experience, there figures to be more than the usual ups and downs associated with young pitchers.

* * *

Unless something unexpected happens, the Yankees can only break camp with one of the two. Rapada can opt out of his minor league deal at the end of Spring Training, and he’ll surely get a job elsewhere given his spring performance. Because he is out of minor league options, the Yankees won’t be able to add Rapada to the 40-man roster and send him to Triple-A. Cabral simply won’t clear waivers as a Rule 5 Draft pick, he’s been too impressive as well.

The last bullpen spot won’t sink the season, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s really no wrong answer here. Both Rapada and Cabral are worthy of being the second left-handed reliever on a contending team.

Who should the Yankees take as the second lefty?
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