2014 Season Review: The Obligatory Lefties

Thornton. (Presswire)
Thornton. (Presswire)

One thing has become very obvious over the last few years: the Yankees value having a left-hander in the bullpen. Two, preferably. Some teams don’t worry too much about carrying a southpaw, but not these Yankees. Joe Girardi likes to have a matchup lefty out there and the team has spent a lot of money trying to fill that spot. Remember Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano? Of course you do.

The 2014 season were no different, but, believe it or not, they only had 109 appearances by a left-handed reliever this year. That was the fifth fewest on baseball. At the same time, they had 56 lefty appearances of two or fewer batters faced, the fourth most in baseball. Girardi is definitely a fan of matching up for a batter or two if the opportunity presents itself. Let’s review the team’s surprisingly large collection of left-handed relievers from this past season.

Matt Thornton

The Yankees signed the 38-year-old Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M last season, figuring he could still be a quality specialist even though his performance against righties had declined big time in recent years. He was one of the top relievers in the game regardless of handedness not too long ago. Maybe there was still some magic in there.

Thornton threw only 24.2 innings across 38 appearances with New York, so Girardi definitely used him as a matchup guy. His overall 2.55 ERA (2.73 FIP) is good but that’s not the best way to evaluate a lefty specialist. Thornton held same-side hitters to a .237/.306/.250 (.258 wOBA) batting line with a 17.2% strikeout rate, a 3.1% walk rate, and a 54.3% ground ball rate. Despite still having mid-90s heat, his swing-and-miss rate against lefties was a paltry 8.3%. That’s well-below-average. Also, he allowed 14 of 43 inherited runners to score (33%), including five of the last 12.

In early-August, the Yankees simply gave Thornton away for nothing. The Nationals claimed him off revocable trade waivers and New York opted not to pull him back, so they let him to go Washington on the claim. It was … weird. Girardi and Brian Cashman both confirmed the move was made to create roster and payroll flexibility. Thornton had a 0.00 ERA (2.51 FIP) in 11.1 innings for the Nats after the claim and quickly emerged as an important part of their bullpen.

Huff returned in 2014 ... with glasses! (Presswire)
Huff returned in 2014 … with glasses! (Presswire)

David Huff

The Yankees spent the first ten or so weeks of the season cycling through some amazingly bad long relievers, so, when the Giants decided to cut ties with Huff in mid-June, the Bombers jumped at the chance to re-acquire him. The minor trade cost New York nothing but cash.

Huff, 30, had a 6.30 ERA (4.38 FIP) in 20 innings for San Francisco, but he actually pitched pretty well in pinstripes. He chucked 39 innings across 30 appearances — so he was multi-inning guy, not a specialist — and posted a 1.85 ERA (4.00 FIP), holding lefties to a .250/.301/.279 (.266 wOBA) batting line with a 19.2% strikeouts rate and a 6.2% walk rate. Huff also stranded 16 of 17 inherited runners. What more do you want from a low-leverage lefty?

Rich Hill

After letting Thornton walk, the Yankees grabbed Hill off the scrap heap and he actually had two stints with the team. He came up in early-August, made six appearances, was designated for assignment, then was called back up when rosters expanded in September to make eight more appearances. All told, Hill faced 19 lefties with New York, striking out seven, walking two, hitting one, and allowing four hits. That’s a .250/.368/.250 (.298 wOBA) batting line. At one point in September he struck out six in a span of eight batters faced.

Josh Outman

Outman. (Presswire)
Outman. (Presswire)

Hill was designated for assignment in late-August to make room for Outman, who the Yankees picked up from the Indians because he was a so very slight upgrade. He faced ten left-handed batters in pinstripes and held them to one hit. He also struck out one. That works out to a .100/.111/.111 (.099 wOBA). If you extrapolate that out over 60 innings, Outman was, like, the best lefty reliever ever, man.

Cesar Cabral

Two years ago, Cabral almost made the Opening Day roster as a Rule 5 Draft pick before suffering a fractured elbow late in camp. He made four appearances with the Yankees this season and faced five lefties. One made contract (a hit), one drew a walk, one was hit by a pitch, and two struck out. As you may recall, Cabral allowed three runs on three hits and three hit batsmen in one ugly April outing against the Rays. He was designated for assignment after the game, eventually landed back in Double-A, and that was that.

Jeff Francis

Confession: I totally forgot Jeff Francis was a Yankee. They acquired him in a very minor trade with the Athletics when they were desperate for pitching depth at midseason, and he somehow made not one, but two appearances in pinstripes. He threw a scoreless 14th inning in a late-July game against the Rangers — when Chase Headley hit the walk-off single in his first game with the team — and allowed a run in two-thirds of an inning against the Blue Jays a week later. They dropped Francis from the roster soon thereafter.

Wade LeBlanc

I did remember that LeBlanc was a Yankee this year! He made one appearance with the team. It went single, single, grounder to first, intentional walk, hit batsmen to force in a run, sac fly, ground out. The Yankees designated him for assignment to make room for Huff a few days later. I hope Wade LeBlanc goes into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.

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Moving Thornton creates flexibility, appears to be a precursor to a bigger move

"What'd they trade you for?" "Nothing." "Ouch." (Presswire)
“What’d they trade you for?” “Nothing.” “Ouch, dude.” (Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees dumped lefty reliever Matt Thornton on the Nationals after Washington claimed him off trade waivers. The Yankees literally gave Thornton away — the Nats claimed him and the Bombers could have pulled him back off revocable waivers, but they opted to send him and the $4.5M or so left on his contract south to the nation’s capital for no return. It was a surprising move only because the Yankees need as much pitching as they can get these days.

“We have some young left-handers who are emerging quickly that we’re excited about,” said Brian Cashman to Dan Martin after the move was announced. “It’s about flexibility in 2014 and 2015. I’m not shut down for business, whether it’s buying, whether it’s reshuffling the deck, as we’re doing today … We’ve been mixing and matching all year. That’s not going to stop. I can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Both Cashman and Joe Girardi cited the team’s collection of upper level lefty bullpen prospects — Tyler Webb, James Pazos, and 2014 second round pick Jacob Lindgren were all mentioned by name — as one reason why they let Thornton go. (Girardi didn’t seem to fully trust him, which I’m guessing made the move easier.) It seems they simply believe they can replace him from within and better use that $4.5M elsewhere. Given their recent history with veteran lefty relievers on multi-year contracts, dumping Thornton before he went all Damaso Marte or Pedro Feliciano on them makes sense.

Soon after the deal, Ken Rosenthal reported the Yankees are “working on other things” and could reallocate the savings from Thornton elsewhere. I know $4.5M doesn’t sound like much, especially when the team has a $200M+ payroll and $3.5M of the $4.5M comes next year, but Hal Steinbrenner is very focused on the bottom line and it does appear the club is bumping up against some kind of payroll limit. Hal reportedly had to give Cashman approval to up payroll at the trade deadline, and even then they had cash thrown into the Brandon McCarthy ($2.05M), Chase Headley ($1M), and Stephen Drew ($500K) deals.

The Yankees are presumably still looking to add some rotation help this month — Chuck Garfien noted Yankees special assistant Jim Hendry was in Chicago scouting the White Sox last night, presumably because the very available John Danks was pitching (he got capital-D destroyed) — and the Thornton deal gives them some extra money to make that happen. Not having that roster spot married to a specific veteran pitcher makes swapping out players easier as well, even if we’re only talking about calling up fresh arms whenever they’re needed. (Like today.)

I don’t see this as the Yankees admitting signing Thornton was a mistake. Not at all. Circumstances have changed over the last few months and right now the financial and roster flexibility is more valuable to them than a good but not great left-handed specialist. It’s not often you get to simply walk away from a contract like that, even a relatively small one like Thornton’s. The Yankees took advantage and are now in position to use the savings elsewhere, specifically on a rotation upgrade. I don’t think getting rid of Thornton was the endgame. I think it was the first domino.

Yankees send Matt Thornton to Nationals on trade waivers

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have sent left-hander Matt Thornton to the Nationals via trade waivers, the team announced. Washington claimed him and the Yankees simply did not pull him back, so it’s a straight waiver claim. Thornton and the $4.5M or so he is owed through next season go to the Nationals for no return. Jon Heyman first reported the news. Ken Rosenthal says New York is working on other moves and may reallocate that money elsewhere.

Rich Hill was called up to replace Thornton, say the Yankees. He’ll join David Huff to give Joe Girardi two lefty relievers. Hill signed a minor league deal with the Yankees a few weeks ago after being released by the Angels. He made four appearances with Triple-A Scranton and is a pure specialist thanks to a funky sidearm motion. Think Clay Rapada. The Yankees are currently carrying an eight-man bullpen out of necessity — their starters aren’t pitching deep into games at all — but swapping out one lefty specialist for another doesn’t really change their depth.

Thornton, 37, had a 2.55 ERA (2.73 FIP) in 24.2 innings across 46 appearances this year, so Girardi was wisely using him as a matchup guy. Left-handers hit .237/.306/.250 against him with a 17.2% strikeout rate. Thornton had good numbers overall but he allowed half of the runners he inherited to score since June 1st and his 7.8% swing-and-miss rate ranks 179th out of the 217 relievers to throw at least 20 innings this year. Letting a soon-to-be 38-year-old lefty specialist who relies primarily on his fastball, can’t gets swings and misses, and is owed ~$4.5M makes sense.

The Yankees do have some lefty relief depth in the minors, most notably Tyler Webb and Jacob Lindgren. Webb has climbed from High-A Tampa to Triple-A Scranton while holding lefties to a .190/.248/.270 batting line in 2014. He has an 81/18 K/BB in 57.1 innings overall. Lindgren was just drafted in June and has a 30/4 K/BB in 13.1 pro innings. He was just promoted to Double-A Trenton. I suspect Hill is just keeping a spot warm for Lindgren, who could be called up when rosters expand in September, after he gets a few more minor league innings under his belt.

The Yankees haven’t had much luck giving multi-year contracts to lefty relievers these last few years, though unlike Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano, they were able to move Thornton to another team before it got ugly. This move is about the Yankees feeling they can better use that $4.5M elsewhere on the roster given the left-handed bullpen options they have in the upper minors. That’s all. How they spend the savings now is what will be really interesting.

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.

Injury Updates: Tex, Beltran, Thornton, Pineda

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Here some updates on various injured and banged up Yankees, courtesy of Brendan Kuty, George King, Kevin Kernan, and Chad Jennings.

  • Mark Teixeira (knee) may need to have fluid drained again at some point. He had surgery to clean up some cartilage during the 2007-08 offseason and has had to have it drained every once in a while since. Teixeira hasn’t had any trouble since sitting out a game last week.
  • Carlos Beltran (knee) was examined by doctors and told the swelling is only a minor issue. It’s his hamstring more than the knee and he remains day-to-day. “That happened to me before,” he said. “I came in [Monday] and had a lot of treatment. I feel better. I’m going to do the whole preparation and see if I can get into the lineup [Tuesday] … The doctor came and said these type of injuries, with anit-inflammatories, it can be back (to normal) soon.”
  • Michael Pineda (shoulder) has been throwing off flat ground for more than a week now and everything is going fine. The Yankees are hopeful he can throw off a mound either later this week or early next week. “He’s playing catch,” said Joe Girardi. “He’s up to 90 feet. I think the hope is that at the end of the week, next week, we start to get him on a mound.”
  • Matt Thornton was unavailable for a few days last week due to soreness. Not sure if it was his arm or what. Thornton warmed up in the extra innings loss to the Rays last Monday, never got into the game, then did not pitch again until Saturday. He missed time with an oblique issue last year but otherwise has been pretty healthy since about 2004.

Second lefty seems unlikely despite Thornton’s rough spring

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even though he caught an awful lot of crap, the Yankees had a pretty reliable lefty reliever in Boone Logan over the last few years. They wisely walked away when the Rockies offered Logan a total of $16.5M across three years this winter, instead opting to sign the veteran Matt Thornton to a more sensible two-year, $7M pact. Lefty reliever is a hardly a position worth big free agent bucks.

Logan is recovering from offseason elbow surgery and has yet to appear in a Spring Training game for Colorado while the 37-year-old Thornton has made four Grapefruit League appearances so far this spring. They’ve been four pretty terrible appearances: 14 batters faced, seven hits, one strikeout, three runs charged. He has only faced four left-handed hitters but three have hits. The other grounded out. Not ideal, but it is only spring.

“I know where I need to make improvements,” said Thornton to Brendan Kuty earlier this week. “The off-speed is coming along. I can use it in any situation. I was talking to Brian McCann after [my last] outing. He feels confident with any pitch we’re throwing out there, whether it’s the four-seamer, two-seamer slider or split, but you still have to get ahead. The next few outings I’m going for strike one, no matter what it is. You can’t fall behind guys.”

Thornton was once one of the top relievers in the game regardless of handedness, but, as I detailed in the season preview, his performance has slipped with age and he’s strictly a lefty specialist at this point. The Yankees know this and Joe Girardi is usually very good with platoon situations, so I don’t expect it to be much of an issue. He’ll be a glorified Clay Rapada rather than someone who is asked to get righties out with any sort of regularity.

As it stands right now, it seems unlikely the Yankees will carry a second lefty in the bullpen come Opening Day. Cesar Cabral continues to pitch unimportant late innings in spring games and appears to have been passed by Fred Lewis on the depth chart. Lewis has been impressive in camp but doesn’t have a promising minor league track record. Vidal Nuno is the most likely candidate for a potential second lefty spot, and he could wind up in Triple-A stretched out as the sixth starter.

Michael Pineda looked fantastic yesterday and solidified his hold on the fifth starter’s spot, meaning David Phelps and Adam Warren moved one step closer to the bullpen. That leaves only two open bullpen spots, one of which will go to Dellin Betances based on his performance this spring. Nuno could grab that last spot, it wouldn’t be that surprising, but Cabral and Lewis are a bit more off the radar. The Yankees could take a second lefty north if they’re concerned with Thornton, but I think they’ll go with him as the only southpaw until he shows he’s not up to the task in the regular season.

2014 Season Preview: The Setup Men

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.

Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.

RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).

The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.

That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.

LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.

Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:

ERA FIP K% HR/FB% FB velocity RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2010 2.67 2.14 33.9% 6.0% 96.1 .254 .224
2011 3.32 2.62 24.1% 6.5% 95.8 .291 .274
2012 3.46 3.19 19.9% 8.3% 95.0 .302 .291
2013 3.74 4.04 16.0% 9.8% 94.3 .370 .280

Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.

* * *

Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.