First Half Review: Relief Pitchers

At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. First up we looked at the starting pitching, now it’s time to take a look at the relievers.

The expectations

The 2008 bullpen was one of the best in the business – ranking second in baseball in both FIP (3.82) and K/9 (8.66) – and the relief corps was expected to approximate that performance in 2009. The cast of characters was essentially unchanged, save a contract extension to southpaw Damaso Marte. Brian Bruney was set to join him as the primary bridge to Mariano Rivera, while rookie Phil Coke was primed to assume a key role. The rest of the pen was going to be filled out by a series of interchangeable parts, including Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Jon Albaladejo, and David Robertson.

The results

The results so far have been a mixed bag. The bullpen was dreadful in April, better in May, and flat out dominant in June. They currently rank second in the majors with a 1.26 WHIP (just one baserunner every 100 IP out of the league lead), yet their ERA (4.19) is just 22nd best in the game. The relievers have thrown the fourth-most innings in the American League, a number that has to come down to avoid a second half burnout. That burden falls on the starting rotation, however.

The bullpen’s revival is the result of the the massive turnover in personnel from April to June. Let’s touch on the major pieces.

Mariano Rivera

Coming off a fairly major shoulder surgery, Mariano has been as fantastic as ever in 2009. Of course he did experience a rough go of it early after giving up some homers, but since May 21st he’s posted a 1.86 ERA and a 0.67 WHIP. Mo’s 14.33 K/BB is far and away the best in the game (next best is Scott Downs’ 8.06 mark) and the best of his Hall of Fame career. It took a little longer than usual, but Mo’s in midseason form and is as good as ever. He’s the least of the team’s concerns right now.

Brian Bruney & Damaso Marte

Bruney came out of the gate pitching like a man on a mission, out to prove all the B-Jobbers wrong about the lack of a solid 8th inning option. He struck out 12 and allowed just three hits over his first nine appearances, but went down with an elbow injury in late April. After being out for four weeks, Bruney lied about being healthy and came back too soon, ultimately landing himself back on the disabled list for another four weeks. He’s been nothing short of terrible since returning, allowing opponents to tattoo him for a .930 OPS. Right now, he’s a part of the problem and not the solution.

Marte’s season is just 5.1 ugly innings long, as a shoulder injury has shelved him since late April. When he was on the mound he was terrible, but how much of that is because of the injury we’ll never know. Currently rehabbing in Tampa, there’s still no timetable for his return.

Phil Coke & Phil Hughes

After a dynamite showing last September, Coke looked like he was poised to become the shutdown lefty reliever the Yanks have lacked for years. Coke’s overall numbers are rock solid, as are his splits against lefties, but his season has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. He was very good in April, pretty terrible in May, but fantastic since June rolled around. The only member of the bullpen to stick on the 25-man active roster all season besides Mariano Rivera, it’s no stretch to call Coke the Yanks’ second most reliable reliever of 2009.

The other half of Michael Kay’s stupid little Philthys Club, Hughes moved into the bullpen after Chien-Ming Wang appeared ready to become an effective starter once again, and has done nothing but dominate. His numbers out of the bullpen (18.1 IP, 0.65 WHIP, .379 OPS against) are better than Joba Chamberlain‘s first 18.1 innings of relief in 2007 (0.82 WHIP, .467 OPS against), more evidence that if you put a good starter in the bullpen he’d be a damn good reliever. There’s not much to say here, Phil Hughes the Reliever has been tremendous.

Al Aceves & David Robertson

The dramatic turnaround of the bullpen coincides with Aceves’ recall from the minor leagues. His 40 innings of stellar relief work have been just what the doctor ordered, as he’s pitched in every role and succeeded in every situation. Robertson has had his moments, mostly in low leverage spots, but he’s been an effective super-high strikeout arm that can go multiple innings if need be. He’s been pretty much everything you could want your fifth best reliever to be.

Jon Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, Brett Tomko & Jose Veras

Edwar and Veras were two stalwarts in last year’s pen, providing rock-solid middle relief all summer. This year was a different story, as the two combined to allow 28 runs and 70 baserunners in 43 IP. Edwar soon found himself back in Triple-A while Veras found himself with the Indians after being designated for assignment. Albaladejo has been up and down while Tomko was mostly down, but both guys have mostly acted as the last man out of the pen. Neither has been great nor horrible, they’re just kind of there.

The Up and Down Crew

Anthony Claggett was terrible in his one outing and doesn’t figure to be back up anytime soon. Stephen Jackson didn’t even manage to get into the game in his eight days on the big league roster before ending up in Pittsburgh. Mark Melancon has been meh in his limited showings. Zach Kroenke, Romulo Sanchez, Amaury Sanit and others are stashed away in the minors awaiting their turn.

Expectations for the second half

With the success the bullpen has experienced over the last month or so, it’s tough not to be optimistic about the second half. However, a key piece in Hughes or Aceves (or both if it comes to it) could be lost if their services are needed in the rotation. Don’t be surprised if the team seeks out another relief arm at this year’s trade deadline. Regardless, the Yankees will need the bullpen to do the job consistently in the second half if they plan on making the postseason.

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Veras traded to Indians

Via MLBTR, the Yanks have traded the recently DFA’ed Jose Veras to the Indians in exchange for cash considerations. I figured they would at least get a Grade-C prospect out of it, but whatever. Can’t fault the Tribe for taking a flier on an arm like Jose’s.

In other news, the Nats called up old buddy Tyler Clippard. T-Clip’s been absolutely unhittable since moving to the pen, allowing just 35 base runners and four earned runs with 42 strikeouts in 39 innings.

Bruney activated; Veras DFA’d

The winner of the “Bruney Bruney’s Off the DL and Someone Gets Sent Down or Released” Contest is none other than Jose Veras. After a few days of speculation, the Yankees went with the decision to DFA Jose Veras when they activated Bruney a few minutes ago. They now have 10 days to waive, trade or release him before he can become an unrestricted free agent. Our money’s on a trade.

For the Yankees, this decision seemingly came down to a choice between Veras and Brett Tomko. David Robertson has an option but has also been a part of the newly effective bullpen. While Tomko has hardly been spectacular, Veras has been worse, and the Yankees no longer trust him in any sort of medium- or high-leverage situations. Tomko will go when Damaso Marte is back. For now, Veras drew the short straw, and it’s hard to argue with that decision.

The Yanks’ 22-man roster

With the Yanks up 10-3 in the ninth inning last night, Joe Girardi turned the ball over to Jose Veras for the final three outs of the game. Veras, as Mike said, pitched to the score, and it was ugly.

The first batter, Shin-Soo Choo, homered. Then, Jose Veras hit Mark DeRosa with a pitch. After a ground-out, Ben Francisco plated DeRosa with a double. All of a sudden, the Yankees were a Cleveland home run away from a save situation.

For Veras, his appearance capped off a May to forget. After beginning the season with a 5.73 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in April, Veras has been utterly terrible. This month, he has thrown 8.2 innings and has allowed 11 hits and 8 walks. He has a 7.27 ERA to go with that 2.31 WHIP. Jose Veras is now so bad that the Yanks can’t even trust him in a seven-run game.

Meanwhile, also making an appearance last night was Angel Berroa. The Yanks’ 25th man pinch ran for Matsui and never made it past second base. In his last pinch-running cameo, Berroa was thrown out at the plate by about 15 feet on a foul ball down the line. He earned himself a whopping four at-bats this month and hasn’t done anything.

Finally we arrive at Brett Tomko. Since being called up by the Yanks during the first week of May, Tomko has made five appearances for the team. His last outing was a one-inning effort against the Phillies last Sunday when he gave up a hit and two walks in the 11th. He got the loss and threw just 14 of 30 pitches for strikes.

With these three players rarely used or underperforming to an extreme degree, the Yankees are playing at a peak level with a 22-man roster. At AAA, they have Shelley Duncan, the International League’s leading home run hitter who would give the bench far more pop than Berroa provides. They have Mark Melancon and George Kontos throwing well and throwing strikes for Scranton.

At this point, we don’t even need to offer up more analysis. The Yankees have three dead spots on their roster. They owe nothing to these players, and we’ve seen enough — sometimes by simply seeing nothing at all — to know that they don’t belong anymore. It’s time for the Yankees and Brian Cashman to pull the trigger on these three players. With a full 25-man roster, the first-place Yankees, 16-5 over their last 21 games, could be that much better.

Yanks break out brooms for the first time in 09*

The floodgates opened early last night, with the Twins and the Yankees combining to score eight runs in the first inning. One starting pitcher wouldn’t make it through the frame; the other lasted two outs into the seventh. The Yankees were lucky enough to be on the right end of that equation. At the outset, it didn’t appear they would be.

Pettitte didn’t look sharp at all in the first, allowing three straight hits that plated two runs. After the victories of the past three days, this did not feel so good. A four-game sweep is asking a lot, sure, but is it so much to not let the game get out of hand early? Thankfully Andy recovered by retiring Joe Crede (why was he hitting fifth?) and Jason Kubel to end the inning.

Remember in the game thread when I mentioned that the Yanks needed something like their first two games facing Perkins last year? It was even better. As is often the case with big innings, the play-by-play captures that frame perfectly:

Both Teixeira’s and A-Rod‘s home runs were no-doubters. They might not have been 420-foot bombs, but there wasn’t a question of their departure once the bat hit the ball. It was a momentous occasion indeed, the first time Tex and A-Rod have gone back to back. We raise a glass to this and to many more over the next eight years.

It took two pitchers facing 11 batters while throwing 41 pitches to retire the Yanks. They recorded eight hits in the inning. It was one of those frames where you just kick back and enjoy the carnage. Everything after Teixeira’s go-ahead homer was gravy, and there was enough to host a feast for everyone on RAB.

Foolishly thinking six runs were enough, the Yanks went into hiding for the next few innings, giving knuckleballer R.A. Dickey a relatively easy go of it. It took him just 12 pitches to retire the 3-4-5 guys in the second and the same number, despite a Robinson Cano single (erased with a caught stealing), in the third.

Meanwhile, Minnesota chipped away at the lead, picking up a run on a Mike Cuddyer homer in the fourth. They had a chance for more in the fifth, but Brendan Harris got caught between third and home on a grounder back to Pettitte. He might have been able to turn two there with a quick turn toward second, but Andy did the right thing by getting the lead runner. They did get another in the sixth, as Denard Span hit a soft fly ball to center, allowing Carlos Gomez to score from second.

With the Yanks lead cut to 6-4 and with Mariano unavailable for the night, things started to get a bit sticky in the sixth. The frame started out fine, with Melky hitting a hard single to right, followed by a Ramiro Pena single. Frankie Cervelli laid down a perfect bunt in a perfect situation, moving runners to second and third with one out and the top of the order coming up. Unfortunately, either Luis Ayala hunkered down or the home plate ump expanded the zone, as both Jeter and Damon went down looking. Gameday did not like the one to Jeter, but agreed with the Damon call.

The seventh…ugh, the seventh. One question dominates this frame: Why did Joe Girardi feel that he had a better chance with Jose Veras than with Andy Pettitte? Andy had already recorded two outs, though he had just walked Jason Kubel. Considering Kubel has been killing the ball, that’s acceptable. So in walks Cuddyer, who had homered off Pettitte earlier. Apparently, this one at bat is worth more in Girardi’s eyes than a season full of frustrating appearances from Jose Veras. And how does Veras reward Girardi’s faith? By walking Cuddyer on five pitches to load the bases. If not for Carlos Gomez not being too good and particularly undisciplined, the inning might have gotten out of hand. But he popped up, and the Yanks were out of it.

This topic deserves a tangent, especially since Edwar Ramirez came in for the next inning and had his own troubles throwing strikes. We at RAB preach patience. Middle relievers are middle relievers because they’re not particularly good pitchers. If they were, they’d be starters, or at worst closers or set-up men. But they’re not. We cannot expect too much of them. However, one thing that can be expected of them is to throw strikes. When they don’t they get the team into precarious positions. This is what Veras and Edwar have done all season long. They performed admirably last year, but we know that reliever performance is volatile. After watching another maddeningly frustrating performances by these two last night, I have reached the breaking point. Enough with Veras, enough with Edwar. DFA the former, option the latter, activate Bruney, recall Robertson. The whole idea behind this bullpen construction was that the parts were interchangeable. If one guy sucked, he could be swapped for another. Well, we’ve seen enough suckage from Edwar and Veras to warrant such a switch. We can only hope that the Yankees brass is as fed up as the fans are.

On a Mo-less night and an evening before the Yankees get their setup man back, Edwar Ramirez could not get the job done. True, the homer to Span was a complete golf swing, but it still left the yard. And he still did go 3-0 on Mauer before eventually walking him. That forced Phil Coke into the game early to face Justin Morneau, who had homered twice off him in the series. Not exactly the position the Yanks wanted to be in. But Coke made Morneau look foolish, using the lefty-lefty matchup to his advantage, fooling Morneau into three feeble swings. Inning over. Just one more to go.

Despite this moment of heroism, Coke would battle through the ninth. He led off by walking Joe Crede — which takes some serious, serious work. As in, I have a hard time believing Coke didn’t try to walk him. A pinch runner, wild pitch, and two groundouts later, the score was just 7-6. All of a sudden, that seventh-inning Tex homer loomed large — even larger after Coke walked Gomez, a guy who, like Crede, you have to try to walk. The guy was clearly a nervous wreck out there, as Girardi and then a Cervelli/Pena combination had to calm him down. In the end, Mike Redmond gave Coke the greatest gift a hitter can give a pitcher: swinging at balls out of the zone. Two in a row, according to Gameday, though I thought the one before those was questionable, too.

So the Yanks walked away with a win and their first series sweep of 2009*. All of the games were pretty tense at points, making each victory even sweeter. Most of the Yanks got in on the offensive barrage. Well, except Nick Swisher, but I kinda brought that up so I could note that he had a couple of nice looking hacks today. Hopefully that’s a sign that he’s coming out of his funk. Robinson Cano came out of his mini slump, going 2 for 4 with a double. Let’s hope Swish follows in kind.

The Yanks have now won six in a row, and as if things could get better they’ve got their ace taking the hill tomorrow night. He’ll square off against that troublesome Baltimore lineup, while the Yanks bats will get their first look at Brad Bergesen. Maybe they can reverse their recent trend of futility against mediocre rookies and give Bergesen the Scott Richmond treatment.

*Meh, I’m not counting the rain-shortened Oakland series.