Archive for What Went Right

The Yankees have developed a knack for finding value on the scrap heap, consistently turning other team’s discards into useful pieces. It’s a wonderful skill for a front office to have regardless of payroll size. As expected, the Yankees dug up two useful veterans who wound up taking on bigger than expected roles this season.

Remember the three-run pinch-hit double against the Mariners? (REUTERS/Robert Sorbo)

Jayson Nix
One of the team’s very first moves last offseason was to sign the 30-year-old Nix to a minor league contract. He had some pop in his bat and was very versatile, with experience at all three non-first base infield spots as well as the outfield corners. Nix showed the team what he could do in Spring Training, but ultimately he was sent down to Triple-A to open the season.

A minor (and unknown) injury delayed the start of his minor league season by two weeks, but he was playing in Triple-A before long. When Eric Chavez dove for a ball and had to be placed on the 7-day concussion DL in early-May, the Yankees recalled Nix to take his spot on the roster. When Eduardo Nunez‘s defensive troubles became an unavoidable issue, he was sent down to Triple-A while Nix took over as the primary utility infielder.

All told, Nix hit .243/.306/.384 (88 wRC+) with four homers and six steals in 202 plate appearances for New York while starting at least nine games at second, third, short, and left field. He produced a 97 wRC+ against left-handers, a 142 wRC+ at Yankee Stadium, and a 163 wRC+ with men in scoring position. His defense was adequate at worst as well. Nix missed time with a hip flexor strain at the end of the season and played sparingly in the playoffs, but overall he was a rock solid bench piece for a team increasingly in need of quality bench help.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Derek Lowe
The Braves ate a whole bunch of money when they traded Lowe to the Indians last offseason, and before long it was easy to see why. The 39-year-old right-hander pitched to a 5.52 ERA (4.49 FIP) with Cleveland and was released in early-August. The Yankees pounced a few days later when CC Sabathia‘s elbow forced him to the DL and the pitching staff needed help, signing the former Red Sox through the end of the season.

Lowe agreed to pitch in relief and rewarded the team’s faith in him immediately. His first appearance in pinstripes was a four-inning save against Rangers in relief of David Phelps, who had replaced Sabathia in the rotation. Lowe appeared in several low-leverage situations but had worked his way up the bullpen totem pole by mid-September. Joe Girardi was using him regularly as a stabilizing force in the middle innings by the end of the regular season, effectively deploying him as a setup man to the setup men. He was 2009 Al Aceves-esque for a few weeks.

Lowe pitched to a 3.04 ERA (3.77 FIP) in 23.2 innings for the Yankees down the stretch, though he did get hit around in his three postseason appearances. Considering his dreadful performance with the Indians, it was easy to have very low expectations for Lowe. He instead proved his worth as a battle-tested and versatile veteran arm, adding depth to the bullpen down the stretch by essentially replacing Cory Wade as Girardi’s go-to middle reliever.

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If there’s one thing the Yankees do consistently well, it’s mine the scrap heap for useful players. They hit the jackpot with Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Eric Chavez, et al a year ago, but in 2012 the contributions were a little more subtle. The Bombers added a pair of funky, side-winding relievers during Spring Training, both of whom would up spending the majority of the season on the active roster and contributing more than expected.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Cody Eppley
The Yankees claimed Eppley off waivers from the Rangers in early-April, and pretty much the only reason why fans may have recognized his name was because he served up this grand slam to Frankie Cervelli a year ago. The 27-year-old was a nondescript relief prospect, but New York needed to replenish depth after dealing George Kontos for Chris Stewart. It was a typical end-of-camp transaction.

Eppley started the year in Triple-A and was recalled for the first time after Brett Gardner was placed on the DL with his elbow injury. That move was temporary — 13-man pitching staffs are far from ideal, but the Yankees needed bullpen help at the time — as he was sent down roughly a week later. Eppley was recalled for good in early-May, after Mariano Rivera blew out his knee. It was hardly the way the Yankees wanted to give the low-slot right-hander a chance, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled.

After being used primarily as a low-leverage arm in blowout situations, Eppley eventually climbed the bullpen totem pole and saw his fair share of important innings during the summer. He threw 46 innings across 59 appearances for New York this year, missing more bats than I expected (6.26 K/9 and 16.5%) while generating a ton of ground balls (60.3%). As you’d expect given his arm slot, Eppley was death on righties, holding them to a .262 wOBA with a 61.9% ground ball rate.

Although he was left off the ALDS roster, Eppley took Eduardo Nunez‘s ALCS roster spot (Nunez was later re-added when Derek Jeter got hurt) and threw 3.2 scoreless innings against the Tigers while appearing in all four games. He also had a 27-appearance (20.1 innings) stretch from mid-May through mid-July in which he pitched to a 1.77 ERA (3.34 FIP). By no means did Eppley save the bullpen or anything like that, but he produced more than expected and helped the Yankees a bunch after Rivera went down.

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Clay Rapada
The Yankees have wasted a ton of money in their never-ending pursuit of left-handed relief, yet they stumbled across a solid southpaw option early in Spring Training. The Orioles had released the 31-year-old Rapada right before the start of camp and that’s when the Bombers pounced, inking him to a minor league contract. He pitched well during the Grapefruit League schedule and won the second lefty reliever job after Cesar Cabral fractured his elbow.

Rapada stayed on the big league roster all season, appearing in 70 games but throwing only 38.1 innings in true LOOGY form. He pitched to a 2.82 ERA (3.20 FIP) overall, but we can’t judge him by his overall results. Rapada was on the roster for one reason and one reason only, and that was to neutralize the other club’s left-handed hitters. He excelled in that role, holding same-side hitters to a .238 wOBA with a 28.7% strikeout rate and a 44.9% strikeout rate thanks to his funky side-arm delivery. Only five lefty relievers were more effective against same-side hitters in terms of wOBA against this year (min. 100 lefties faced).

Rapada retired five of six lefties faced in the postseason, with a walk to Prince Fielder being the lone exception. He set a new (and ultimately irrelevant) franchise record this year by facing exactly one batter in eight consecutive appearances, breaking Mike Myers’ old record of seven straight. After all the money given to Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano, it was Rapada who gave the Yankees the type of reliable left-handed relief they’ve been searching for, and he did it while earning close to the league minimum.

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What Went Right: David Phelps

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(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Even after unloading A.J. Burnett on the Pirates, the Yankees went into Spring Training with six starters for five spots plus an all-prospect rotation slated for Triple-A. They had more pitching depth than they’ve had at any other point in recent years, but as we know, these things tend to work themselves out. Michael Pineda hurt his shoulder in camp, which pushed Freddy Garcia into the rotation and left the long reliever gig up for grabs.

The Yankees had three viable candidates for the job in right-handers Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, and David Phelps. The three competed for the spot in camp but Warren (eight runs in 15 innings) quickly fell out of contention. Mitchell kept runs off the board (2.60 ERA) but he also walked (nine) nearly as many as he struck out (13). Phelps was the only one of the three to really stand out (2.08 ERA with 14/4 K/BB in 17.1 innings), plus he was showing newfound velocity, so he was rewarded by breaking camp with the team as the last guy out of the bullpen.

The 26-year-old Phelps made his big league debut in the team’s third game of the season, as Joe Girardi brought him out of the bullpen with men on first and second with one out in the eighth inning of a three-run game. He struck out the first man he faced (Elliot Johnson) on four pitches, then completed the escape job by coaxing a two-pitch ground out from Reid Brignac. Not exactly the toughest competition, but it was an impressive showing for a kid making his first career appearance as a Major Leaguer.

Phelps threw 2.1 scoreless and hitless innings of relief against the Orioles two days later, then tossed 5.1 innings of one-run and one-hit ball against the Angels in his Yankee Stadium debut four days later. The first run he allowed in the show was a Vernon Wells solo homer. Phelps pitched to a 3.57 ERA (5.64 FIP) in 17.2 innings across six April relief outings, but the Yankees needed him in the rotation because Garcia had been brutal. In his first career start on May 3rd, the day Mariano Rivera blew out his knee, Phelps allowed two runs in four innings against the Royals while being held to a strict pitch count.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

His next start six days later went much better (4.2 shutout innings against the Rays), but Andy Pettitte had been deemed ready and Phelps was sent back to the bullpen. He allowed two earned runs in 7.1 innings across his next five appearances, then was optioned all the way down to High-A Tampa when David Robertson came off the DL in early-June. The Yankees wanted to stretch Phelps back out into a starter, but he made only two minor league appearances before being recalled later in the month. They needed him to be the long man behind Warren, who was scheduled to make his big league debut in place of an injured CC Sabathia.

Phelps piggy-backed with Warren against the White Sox on June 29th then made a start against the Athletics five days later (one run in 4.1 innings).  The Yankees sent him down to Double-A after that to stretch back out, and he made two dominant minor league starts (no runs with 18 strikeouts in 13.1 innings) before rejoining the big league squad for good in mid-July. He threw 10.2 scoreless innings in his seven appearances then moved back into the rotation when Ivan Nova hit the DL with a bum shoulder. Phelps made seven starts (four good, three not good) before moving back into the bullpen in mid-September.

His final appearance of the regular season came in Game 161, when the Yankees were still fighting with the Orioles for the AL East crown. They entrusted him with the start over the ineffective Nova, and he held the post-blockbuster Red Sox to two runs in 5.2 innings in the eventual win. Phelps was, by far, the team’s worst pitcher in the postseason, allowing at least one run in each of his three outings. He took the extra-innings loss in both ALDS Game Four and ALCS Game One, then allowed the Tigers to score an insurance run that turned out to the be the margin of victory in ALCS Game Three. It was a bitter end to an otherwise strong season.

All told, Phelps pitched to a 3.34 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 99.2 big league innings spread across eleven starts and 22 relief appearances this year. He showed that he could miss bats (8.67 K/9 and 23.2 K%) at the big league level even as a starter (8.48 K/9 and 22.4 K%). The walk rate wasn’t great (3.43 BB/9 and 9.2 BB%) and he was homer prone (1.26 HR/9 and 13.6% HR/FB), but that’s not completely unexpected for a rookie in the AL East. Phelps became just the fifth Yankees pitcher to throw at least 80 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA in his first full season since Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte in 1996*, joining 2006 Chien-Ming Wang, 2008 Joba Chamberlain, 2009 Al Aceves, and 2011 Nova.

Pineda blew out his shoulder and Nova took a step back while Mitchell was traded, Manny Banuelos blew out his elbow, Dellin Betances couldn’t find the strike zone, and Warren seemed to pitch his way out of the team’s plans with that one disastrous start against the ChiSox. Phelps was the team’s only young, upper-level pitcher to actually improve his stock in 2012, which he did by mixing four (really five) pitches, missing bats, and proving his versatility by bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. He stepped up and was an important swingman for the Yankees this summer, setting himself up to assume some more responsibility going forward.

* Not counting 1998 Orlando Hernandez. He was a long-time Cuban vet and was (supposedly) 32 when he made his debut that year. I don’t count him as a kid in this instance.

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What Went Right: CC Sabathia

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(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Coming into the 2012 season, CC Sabathia was one of baseball’s few guarantees. Everyone knew he was going to throw a ton of high-quality innings just like he has every year for the last half-decade or so. Although this season was certainly a little rockier than Sabathia’s first three in pinstripes, the end result was the same. The big man again threw a ton of high-quality innings for his team.

The season started with a slow month of April, which isn’t completely out of character for Sabathia. He surrendered five runs in six innings to the Rays on Opening Day, and after four starts he owned 5.27 ERA (3.57 FIP) in 27.1 innings. CC turned things around in his fifth, sixth, and seventh starts, allowing two runs in eight innings each time. He held the Braves to two runs in a complete-game win in mid-June, completing a ten start stretch in which he pitched to a 2.92 ERA (3.02 FIP) in 72 innings.

Sabathia allowed five runs (one earned) in 5.2 innings against the Mets next time out, and soon after the start he was placed on the DL for the first time in six years. A minor left groin problem was the culprit, though both Sabathia and team insisted he would still be pitching if it was later in the season or in the playoffs. The DL stint was sandwiched around the All-Star break, so CC only missed two starts with the injury. He was activated on the first day eligible and returned with six shutout innings against the Blue Jays.

Sabathia made five starts after coming off the DL and didn’t seem right even though he wasn’t pitching terribly (3.89 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 34.2 innings). After allowing five runs (three earned) to the Tigers on August 8th, the Yankees placed their ace on the DL for the second time of the summer. Left elbow inflammation did him in this time, and it was the first arm-related DL stint of his career. The Yankees again insisted it was minor and Sabathia again spent the minimum 15 days on the sidelines. He threw 7.1 innings of one-run ball against the Indians in his first start back and everything seemed fine.


The next four starts were rough (4.67 ERA and 4.47 FIP in 27 innings) but Sabathia insisted his elbow was fine, or at least “good enough to pitch,” to use his words. With only three starts left in the year, CC owned a 3.63 ERA (3.41 FIP) in 176 innings and was in danger of throwing fewer than 200 innings in a season for the first time in six years. Instead, Sabathia ran off three straight dominant starts of exactly eight innings each to close out the year, finishing with exactly 200 innings. He struck out 28 in those three starts, allowing four runs on four walks, eleven singles, one double, and one homer.

Sabathia was able to carry that dominance into the ALDS against the Orioles, holding Baltimore to two runs in 8.2 innings in the Game One win. Only a two-out, ninth inning double by Lew Ford prevented him from finishing the game, though CC did get the complete-game win in the decisive Game Five. He allowed just one run on two walks and four singles in the series clincher, pitching out of a bases loaded, one-out jam in the eighth to preserve the two-run lead. His 17.2 total innings set a new ALDS record. Sabathia got rocked in Game Four of the ALCS (six runs in 3.2 innings) to end his (and the Yankees) season on a very sour note.

Obviously CC’s season did not go as smoothly as his first three in pinstripes given the two DL stints and his mid-season stretch of substandard pitching, but those are things we’re going to discuss a little later today. For now, we’re just going to focus on the fact that Sabathia again pitched to a near-3.00 ERA (3.38 to be exact) with stellar peripherals (3.33 FIP) in exactly 200 innings in what is generally considered a down year for him. That’s a career year for most pitchers. He showed a few kinks in the armor but otherwise gave the team exactly what it needed: tons of high-quality innings.

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What Went Right: Hiroki Kuroda

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(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

The American League East is not for every pitcher. The division features four hitter’s parks and four powerful lineups, and over the last five years it’s produced a dozen of baseball’s 40 90-win teams (30%). A pitcher needs to be outstanding at something to pitch there. Outstanding stuff, outstanding command, outstanding know-how, something. Guys with less than stellar stuff who can’t locate well or set hitters up usually don’t last long in this division.

When the Yankees agreed to sign Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year contract worth $10M in January, no one was really sure what he brought to the table. We knew they needed pitching help and we looked at the stats and watched the highlights clips, but what made the 37-year-old Kuroda different than all of the other career NL pitchers who failed in the AL East? What was the outstanding trait that he brought to the table? As it turned out, it was pretty much everything.

* * *

When Spring Training opened, eyes seemed to be on everyone but Kuroda. Michael Pineda — who was acquired about an hour before the news of Kuroda’s signing broke — grabbed headlines with his missing velocity. Phil Hughes garnered attention for being in better shape and pitching better than anyone else in camp. CC Sabathia was coming off knee surgery and Andy Pettitte stole headlines by un-retiring. Heck, even former Yankee A.J. Burnett drew more attention than Kuroda after bunting a ball off his face in Pirates camp. Kuroda went about his business and was just kind of there.

The regular season opened and Joe Girardi tabbed Kuroda as his number two starter behind Sabathia, replacing the departed Burnett. His first start in pinstripes didn’t go well at all — he allowed six runs (four earned) in 5.2 innings against the Rays in the eventual loss. Six days later he started the team’s home opener and was brilliant, dominating the Angels with eight shutout innings. Considering all the preseason hype surrounding the Halos, that start was huge. Five days after that, the Twins hung ten hits and six runs on Kuroda in just 4.1 innings. Three starts into his Yankees career, Kuroda was dubbed “inconsistent.”

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The tag stuck for a few weeks has Kuroda pitched well (two runs in 6.2 innings) but was outdone by countryman Yu Darvish in his fourth start, then didn’t make it out of the fifth inning against the Royals in his sixth start. Two starts later he allowed seven runs in five innings to the Blue Jays. After his first nine starts, Kuroda owned a 4.53 ERA (4.39 FIP) and was averaging fewer than six innings per start with a sub-2.0 K/BB. He showed outstanding staff at times, outstanding command at times, and outstanding know-how pretty much at all times, but things had yet to really come together for him. Start number ten was when it all started to click.

The Yankees were out on the West Coast in Oakland, the same venue where they started their turn-around and run to the division title in 2011. They took the first two games against the Athletics and Kuroda was brilliant in the finale, twirling eight shutout innings while allowing just four singles and a walk. Five days later he held the Tigers to two runs in seven innings and six days after that he one-hit the Mets across seven scoreless innings. The stuff, command, and know-how had all come together. From late-May through mid-August, a span of 16 starts, Kuroda pitched to a 2.22 ERA (2.77 FIP) in 113.2 innings.

During that 16-start stretch, Kuroda struck out eleven White Sox in seven scoreless innings, threw a complete-game two-hit shutout against the Rangers, and held the pre-blockbuster Red Sox to one run on four hits in eight innings. He allowed one run or less nine times in those 16 starts and allowed three or more runs just four times. Only once did he fail to complete at least six innings and 12 times he threw at least seven full. Following his run of dominance, Kuroda owned a 2.96 ERA (3.61 FIP) in his first 25 starts and 167 inning as a Yankee. He had taken over the role of staff ace as CC Sabathia battled groin and elbow injuries and Andy Pettitte went down with a fractured leg.

Despite Kuroda’s pitching brilliance, the Yankees were stuck in a tight race with the Orioles for the division title in the season’s final month. The workload — Kuroda threw 183.2 innings before the calendar turned to September, more then he’d thrown in two of his four years with the Dodgers overall — started to take a toll on him and his performance suffered. The Rays tagged him for four runs in six innings twice in the season’s final month and the Athletics got him for five runs in 5.2 innings. He held the Blue Jays to just two runs in 5.2 innings in his second-to-last start of the year, but they had ten hits off him.

In seven late-season starts following that great run, Kuroda pitched to a 4.73 ERA (4.43 FIP) in 45.2 innings. He stopped throwing his usual between-starts bullpen session in an effort to stay fresh in September, but the fatigue still effected him. It didn’t show up in his velocity as you’d expect (he actually threw harder at the end of the season), it was in his command. He’d miss out over the plate and get pounded. Kuroda curtained some concern with a strong effort in Game 162, when he held the post-blockbuster Red Sox to two runs in seven innings, but the Yankees still decided to use him as their number three starter in the postseason just to give him two extra days of rest.

The decision worked out very well. Kuroda held the Orioles to two solo homers in 8.1 innings in Game Three, which was good enough to keep the struggling offense in the game long enough for Raul Ibanez to come out of the phone booth wearing his Superman cape to save the day in the eventual win. The Yankees decided to roll the dice and started Kuroda on three days’ rest in Game Two of the ALCS because the playoff schedule was wacky and the only other alternative was to pull David Phelps out of the bullpen and start him. Kuroda responded by striking out eleven Tigers while allowing three runs in 7.2 innings, though it would have been eight innings of one-run ball had second base umpire Jeff Nelson not blown a call. That would have been the final out of the inning and Boone Logan/Joba Chamberlain tag-team never would have allowed the two inherited runners to score.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The season came to an end when Detroit swept the Yankees out of the ALCS, but 2012 was still a smashing success for Kuroda. He logged a career-high 219.2 innings (sixth most in baseball) and pitched to a 3.32 ERA (3.86 FIP). He posted his best walk rate (2.09 BB/9 and 5.7 BB%) in three seasons and saw his ground ball rate jump back over 50% (52.3% to be exact). The strikeout rate (6.84 K/9 and 18.7 K%) dropped just a touch from 2010-2011 (7.23 K/9 and 19.4 K%) and is easily explained by not facing being able to face a pitcher two or three times a game anymore. Perhaps being reunited with former Dodgers batterymate Russell Martin, who got Kuroda to throw more sinkers and sliders and fewer four-seamers as the season progressed, explains the improved walk and ground ball rates despite moving to the tougher league.

Kuroda won’t win the award but we’ll likely learn that he has received a handful of Cy Young votes when the awards are announced tonight. He might even grab a few down-ballot MVP votes. At 3.9 fWAR and 5.2 bWAR, Kuroda was the Yankees best non-Sabathia pitcher since either 2008 Mike Mussina (5.3 fWAR) or 2005 Randy Johnson (5.5 bWAR). Take your pick. He was a stabilizing presence in the rotation from mid-May through the end of the season and regardless of whether he comes back in 2013 — the Yankees made Kuroda a qualifying offer that he rejected, so he will bring draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere — that one-year, $10M pact will go down as one of the best one-year contracts in Yankees history.

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What Went Right: Eric Chavez

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(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Part of the reason why the Yankees won World Series after World Series in the late-1990s was the quality of their reserves. They had guys like Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry and Chili Davis on the bench, established star-caliber players who accepted lesser roles later in their careers for the sake of winning. The club has gotten back to that model in recent years, which led them to Eric Chavez in 2011.

Last season, Chavez’s first year in New York, went well but it wasn’t great. He missed nearly three months with a foot injury and hit .263/.320/.356 (80 wRC+) in 175 plate appearances overall, including .255/.322/.365 (83 wRC+) against righties. His offense was propped up by a number of big hits (.415/.468/.537, 165 wRC+ with runners in scoring position) and his defense at the hot corner was pretty strong. He wasn’t Raines or Strawberry or even Davis, but he was a solid bench piece.

The Yankees brought the 34-year-old Chavez back on another one-year deal in 2012, likely expecting more of the same. Instead, they got a whole lot more. He singled in his first plate appearance of the season and was used pretty sparingly for the first 15 games or so, but he made his second start of the year on April 20th and responded with two solo homers in Fenway Park. He homered again on April 30th, matching his long ball output from 2011 in his first month and 30 plate appearances of 2012. Chavez had a torrid 12-for-37 (.324) stretch with four doubles and two homers in mid-June and carried a .282/.336/.504 batting line into the All-Star break. He then went 3-for-3 with a homer in the third game after the break.

(Leon Halip/Getty)

When Felix Hernandez broke Alex Rodriguez‘s hand with a pitch on July 24th, Chavez took over as the regular third baseman against right-handers. He hit .333/.392/.543 in 89 plate appearances during A-Rod‘s absence, including an insane 16-for-34 (.471) stretch with five homers from late-July to mid-August. During a four-game series against the Tigers in early-August, he went 9-for-16 (.563) with two homers, including the game-winning dinger in the eighth inning of the series finale.

A-Rod returned in early-September and Chavez went back to his usual role off the bench, but he didn’t stop hitting. He went 8-for-30 (.267) with four homers and more walks (seven) than strikeouts (six) in the club’s final 22 games of the season. Chavez didn’t hit all in the playoffs, literally zero hits in 17 plate appearances, but that’s not enough to take the shine away from his .281/.348/.496 (126 wRC+) effort in 313 regular season plate appearances. He hit 16 (!) homers, his most since 2006 and more than three times as many as he hit from 2008-2011 combined (five), and he also tagged right-handed pitchers for a .299/.366/.545 (144 wRC+) batting line in 244 plate appearances. The guy was a monster off the bench.

At the same time, the Yankees also got lucky that Chavez didn’t get hurt and miss a significant chunk of time. He did spend seven days on the concussion DL in early-May and was unavailable for a handful of games through the season for general maintenance, but otherwise Chavez stayed on the field all season despite needing a rigorous daily routine to get ready to play. He was arguably the team’s best bench player since those veteran laden late-1990s team, providing solid defense and excellent offense while subbing in during A-Rod’s injury and allowing the team to never miss a beat.

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What Went Right: David Robertson

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(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Last season was David Robertson‘s coming out party. The right-hander emerged as one of baseball’s most dominant setup men, usurping Rafael Soriano as the eighth inning guy while pitching to a 1.08 ERA (1.84 FIP) in a career-high 66.2 innings. His follow up in 2012 didn’t go as smoothly, but the end result was the same. Robertson was again one of baseball’s most dominant setup men.

The 27-year-old opened the season in pretty much the only way he knew how: with a Houdini act on Opening Day. Joe Girardi handed him the ball with a one-run lead in the eighth inning against the Rays, and Tampa had men on the corners with no outs in the span of eleven pitches thanks to a walk and a single. Robertson then struck out Stephen Vogt (four pitches), Jose Molina (five pitches), and Matt Joyce (five pitches) to escape the jam and end the inning. Pretty much par for the Houdini course.

Through his first dozen appearances, Robertson had allowed zero runs with 21 strikeouts against just three walks in 12 innings. In five appearances from April 20th through May 4th, he struck out 12 of 17 batters faced including eight in a row at one point. That’s when Mariano Rivera got hurt. The club’s long-time closer blew out his knee on the Kansas City warning track on May 5th, and Robertson was the obvious replacement in the ninth inning. He nailed down his first save three days later but blew the save next night, allowing a three-run homer to Joyce. Two days later he wiggled out of Boone Logan‘s ninth inning jam to preserve the four-run lead, and that was it. We wouldn’t see him for more than a month.

Robertson had strained his left oblique and needed to spend time on the DL. The injury cost him more than a month, as he didn’t return until June 15th after a handful of minor league rehab appearances. Soriano had seized the closer’s job during his absence, so Robertson came back as the setup man and was eased back into things. Girardi didn’t use him in back-to-back days at first and didn’t bring him into the game in the middle of an inning even though he had some chances. It raised some questions about whether Robertson was actually fully healthy, but he was pitching fine and striking a ton of guys out so it wasn’t a huge concern.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In 26 first half appearances, Robertson struck out 40 and allowed just seven earned runs in 24.2 innings. He walked a dozen, but that’s nothing unusual for him. The second half opened with seven straight scoreless appearances and just one run allowed in his first eleven outings. Robertson melted down in an early-August game against the Tigers (three runs in one inning), but the Yankees held on to win anyway so it didn’t hurt anything but his ERA. Another ten scoreless innings followed as he carried a 2.18 ERA into September.

Outside of the blow save against the Rays, Robertson’s most infamous blowup of the season came on September 6th against the Orioles, the first game of the important four-game series in Camden Yards. The Yankees had just scored five runs in the top of the eighth to tie the game at six, but Robertson surrendered a solo homer to Adam Jones to leadoff the bottom half, and then two batters later Mark Reynolds took him deep for a two-run shot. Three batters faced, three hits allowed, two homers, three runs. The Yankees went on to lose the game and Robertson’s ERA climbed by more than half-a-run.

Robertson allowed two runs in two-thirds of an inning in a win against the Blue Jays later in the month but that was pretty much it. He followed up his strong but injury-shortened first half with a 2.75 ERA (2.49 FIP) in 36 second half innings. Girardi leaned on his setup man heavily down the stretch, as Robertson made four sets of back-to-back-to-back appearances in the team’s final 35 games of the season after Girardi never once asked him to work three consecutive days in the first four years of his career. He was also the team’s best reliever in the postseason, allowing just one run on three hits and no walks while striking out seven in 6.1 innings. Despite missing all that time with the oblique issue, Robertson still threw 60.2 innings across 65 appearances during the 2012 regular season.

At the end of the year, the right-hander owned a 2.67 ERA (2.48 FIP) with his usual sky-high strikeout rate (12.02 K/9 and 32.7 K%). He did allow a career-high-tying five homers one year after allowing just one, which was a bit of a problem. The good news is that he also posted a (by far) career-low walk rate, just 2.82 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%. He came into the season with a career 4.72 BB/9 and 12.2 BB%, and even last year it was 4.73 BB/9 and 12.9 BB%. The cool part is that nearly all of the walk improvement came in the second half …

In those 36 second half innings, Robertson walked just seven batters. From July 21st through the end of the season, a span of 36 appearances and 33 innings, he walked just five batters. From August 11th through September 24th, a span of 22 appearances and 82 batters faced, he walked zero batters. That seems impossible, but it’s true. He closed the season out with 81 strikeouts against just 19 walks, setting a new career-high (by far) with a 4.26 K/BB.

Robertson wasn’t as great as he was a year ago, but no pitcher, not even Mariano Rivera, sustains a near-1.00 ERA. He did have two really memorable meltdowns and at times he stopped throwing his curveball for no apparent reason, but it never really cost him effectiveness. Robertson hurt the Yankees the most when he wasn’t on the mound due to the oblique injury, but otherwise he was again a fantastic setup man and one of the five or six best non-closing relievers in the game.

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(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It was a year of two halves for Boone Logan, the Yankees’ polarizing southpaw reliever.  As a founder of the Boone Logan fan club on Twitter and a frequent defender of his, I believe I might be of service in this discussion.  I have always viewed Logan as useful bullpen piece: lefties with his power fastball-slider combo don’t grow on trees, and at times he is not entirely useless against opposite-handed hitters.  He doesn’t have the consistency or command at this stage in his career to be a Matt Thornton type who is deadly against both righties and lefties, but he is a solid contributor in the Yankee ‘pen.  In the first half of 2012, Logan at times looked like he was taking the next step and becoming the kind of shutdown lefty that the Yankees have been fruitlessly seeking for many years.

Logan got off to a strong start to 2012, giving up just one run in the first month of the season, and striking out about 13 batters per nine innings (though with a walk rate approaching 5/9 innings).  May was a rougher month ERA-wise as he gave up five runs in 9 2/3 innings, but his peripherals were vastly improved — he walked just one batter the entire month.  June saw him give up just two runs, though his strikeout rate dropped somewhat.  Overall in those first three months of the season, Logan’s line was: 28 innings, 37 strikeouts, eight runs (2.57 ERA), 11 walks, and two homers allowed while being used very heavily by manager Joe Girardi.

In a post I wrote earlier in the year for TYA, I wondered what was the cause for Logan’s early success.  One area that I highlighted was a change in Logan’s pitch mix, where he was throwing more sliders than in previous years, and fewer fastballs.  He was also getting vastly improved whiff rates on the slider, indicating that he was not losing effectiveness by throwing it more often. There was some tangible evidence suggesting that the big first half was legitimate improvement and not a small sample size fluke.

While it was only three months, Logan’s first half performance was very important for the Yankees.  Their bullpen depth was shortened due to injuries/ineffectiveness of several guys ahead of him on the depth chart.  He often worked in a setup role rather than just as a specialist, and he handled himself quite nicely.  While the Yankees obviously still missed Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, Boone’s early effectiveness did help to cushion the blow.  Logan’s heavy workload in the first half (where he was among the league leader in relief appearances) may have taken a toll on him later in the season, but there is no question that he answered the bell when the team needed him early on.

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What Went Right: Nick Swisher

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(REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

Since coming to the Yankees four years ago, Nick Swisher has been a model of consistency. He’s played between 148-150 games each year with New York, hit between 24-29 homers, posted a .359-.374 OBP, hit to a 120-129 OPS+, produced a 124-135 wRC+, and has been worth 3.2-4.1 fWAR. It’s been the same thing year after year, and outside of the postseason, that’s been very good for the Yankees.

The 31-year-old Swisher opened the season by coming to camp in noticeably improved shape — “It’s the best-looking I’ve ever been,” he joked — and he mashed in Spring Training (.323/.344/.710). He carried that over into the start of the regular season, going 17-for-60 (.283) with four homers in the team’s first 15 games. By the end of the month he owned a .284/.355/.617 batting line with six homers in 21 games. May was rough, but by the All-Star break he had his season line at .262/.336/.477.

By Swisher’s standards, that actually wasn’t all that good. He was hitting for power and a not horrible average, but the walks just weren’t there. Walks are a Swisher trademark, and he got back on the horse and became a free pass machine in the second half…

The Yankees were fading in the standings but it wasn’t because of their right fielder. Swisher hit .298/.392/.510 in the first month after the All-Star break and carried a .272/.356/.485 batting line into the season’s final month. While everyone focused on the Orioles, the rejuvenated Ichiro Suzuki, and the molten hot Robinson Cano, Swisher quietly hit .407/.521/.661 with more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) in the final three weeks of the season to help the Yankees keep the Orioles at bay. He capped the year off with a 7-for-11 series against the Red Sox, singling with the bases loaded in his final at-bat of the season.

Swisher got painted with the unclutch brush a long time ago, but he was (by far) the team’s best hitter with runners in scoring position in 2012. He put up a .301/.406/.589 batting line in 181 plate appearances with men on second and/or third, a 164 wRC+ that ranked fourth among all hitters in those situations this year (min. 150 plate appearances). His docket of big hits included this extra innings homer against the Orioles, this huge game against the Red Sox (the 15-9 comeback win), and this go-ahead homer against the Braves.

When Mark Teixeira went down for more than a month with a calf injury, Swisher stepped in at first base and the Yankees didn’t miss a beat. He started 27 games at first and played 41 games at the position overall, his most since 2008 with the White Sox and more than the first three years of his Yankees career combined. Swisher avoided the DL for the seventh straight season — he did miss a week with a hamstring issue in May and another week with a hip issue in July — though he did dip below 150 games played for the first time since 2005. He only made it into 148 games in 2012.

Swisher’s season ended with another poor postseason showing (5-for-30, .167), something that unfortunately became a trend during his four years in New York. The Yankees will probably never come out and say it, but I think the playoff struggles are at least part of the reason why they’re comfortable letting him walk as a free agent this winter. His Yankees career will likely come to an end this winter with a .268/.367/.483 batting line (128 wRC+) batting line in 498 games and 2,501 plate appearances. Swisher’s performance this year — .272/.364/.473 (128 wRC+) with 24 homers — was one of the team’s three best offensively and a big reason why they held off the Orioles to win the AL East.

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The 2011 season was a nightmare for Phil Hughes, who battled shoulder and back injuries after logging a (by far) career-high workload the year before. He came into the 2012 season not necessarily as a virtual lock for the rotation, but he definitely had a leg up on Freddy Garcia for one of the final spots behind CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda‘s shoulder injury took care of the rotation logjam and Hughes had himself a rotation spot.

Phil was terrible in April, but we’ll talk about that a little bit later today. Right now we’re going to focus on his season starting in May, when he turned things around and became a key cog in the rotation. It all started in Kansas City, a few days after Mariano Rivera blew out his ACL on the warning track. Hughes put together his best start of the season (to date) against the Royals, striking out seven while allowing three runs in 6.2 innings. It wasn’t great by any means, but compared to April, he looked like Cy Young.

That start against Kansas City was a jumping-off point for Hughes, who followed up with 7.2 innings of one-run ball against the Mariners and five total runs allowed in his next three starts. The Angels pounded Phil in his hometown in his first June start (seven runs in 5.1 innings), but he rebounded to allow just one run in a complete game win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers his next time out. After that win over the Royals, Hughes allowed no more than two earned runs in eight of his next ten starts and in 14 of his next 20 starts to drop his ERA to 4.02 on the season.

At the end of the year, after logging a career-high 191.1 innings in a career-high 32 starts, Phil posted a 4.23 ERA and 4.56 FIP. His strikeout (7.76 K/9 and 20.3 K%) and walk (2.16 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%) rates were both better than the league average, and his 3.59 K/BB ranked tenth among qualified AL starters. From that start against the Royals through the end of the season, Hughes pitched to a 3.82 ERA (4.26 FIP) with 7.53 K/9 (20.0 K%), 2.07 BB/9 (5.5 BB%), and a 3.64 K/BB in 169.2 innings across 27 starts. He threw a strong start against the Orioles in the ALDS before exiting his ALCS start earlier this a back injury to close out the year.

Was Hughes the ace-caliber pitcher he was promised to be during his prospect days? No, of course not. That ship has all but certainly sailed. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a valuable contributor though. Hughes was a rock solid mid-rotation starter for the Yankees this season, especially following his disastrous April. He has two big league seasons as a full-time starter in the AL East under his belt (2010 and 2012) and has been roughly league average both times while making a bit under $4M in the process. He could improve going forward, but what he did in the final five months of the season was enough to help the Yankees win another division title.

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