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 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 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.
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.