And the bullpen, non-Mariano edition?

Offseason discussion this year has focused on hitting and starting pitching, which is as it should be. What’s new, however, is that until the Yankees signed Chan-Ho Park virtually no attention had been paid to the bullpen. As recently as 2007 the team was so desperate for a reliable reliever that Joba Chamberlain was called up to the Majors early to stop the bleeding. This season the fanbase seems to take a solid bullpen as a given.

It’s difficult not to credit Joe Girardi for the change. While Joe Torre was notorious for picking one or two relievers and then ruining their careers, Girardi prefers precisely the opposite. As a casual fan I first began noticing that he was rotating through all his relievers in mid-2008, right before Kyle Farnsworth was traded for Pudge Rodriguez. Mid-season Michael Kay began explaining that Farnsworth and Edwar Ramirez had both gone the equivalent of 9 innings without giving up a hit, and had therefore pitched no-hitters. Two things stood out to me about this. First, I noted that Michael Kay is a moron. Second, statistically he was right. I credited Girardi’s commitment to keeping his relievers fresh, and giving everyone a chance to prove himself. But do the data play that out?

Here’s the Yankee bullpen, from 2007, non-Mariano edition:

Luis Vizcaino – 4.30 ERA, 71.1 IP
Kyle Farnsworth – 4.80 ERA, 60.0 IP
Scott Proctor – 3.81 ERA, 54.1 IP
Brian Bruney – 4.68 ERA, 50.0 IP
Ron Villone – 4.25 ERA, 42.1 IP
Mike Myers – 2.66 ERA, 40.2 IP

40 innings pitched is an arbitrary cut-off, but it proves the point. Torre also got 70+ innings out of Mo that season. His bullpen therefore fell disproportionately on Mariano and Vizcaino, with some preference for Farnsworth, Proctor and Bruney (it’s a wonder we clinched the Wild Card), but they definitely appear to be second choices. After Myers the workload on an individual reliever falls off considerably.

Now, let’s look at the the Yankee bullpen from 2008, non-Mariano edition:

Jose Veras – 3.59 ERA, 57.2 IP
Edwar Ramirez – 3.90 ERA, 55.1 IP
Kyle Farnsworth – 3.65 ERA, 44.1 IP
Dan Giese – 3.53 ERA, 43.1 IP
LaTroy Hawkins – 5.71 ERA, 41.0 IP
Ross Ohlendorf – 6.52 ERA, 40.0 IP

The first thing that jumps out at me is that these guys suck. Only Ramirez is still in the Yankee system. The second thing that stands out is not entirely on screen. The workload is evenly distributed. Girardi preferred Veras and Ramirez (never good) but didn’t overwork anyone. Unlike in 2007, in 2008 there was a steady diet of additional relievers who almost saw 40 innings: 6 with 30 innings pitched or more, in fact. In ’07 Sean Henn saw 36 innings and Torre gave no one else the ball for 30 all season.

The difference in distribution is incredible. Girardi gave the ball to 12 different pitchers for at least 30 innings to get to Mo over the 2008 season. Torre gave it to 7 different pitchers for at least 30 innings. The Yankees had roughly the same aggregated innings and pitchers in ’07 and ’08. The team had 28 different pitchers in 2007 (Colter Bean anyone?) for 1,450.2 innings. In 2008 the team used 27 different pitchers for 1,441.2 innings. Therefore, Torre did in fact over use his preferred pitchers, relative to Girardi. There are roughly 150 innings that Girardi gave to five different arms that Torre more or less dumped on his top 7.

That difference alone may not explain the improved bullpen performance, but the numbers indicate that Girardi got better returns from the ‘pen. With the exception of Ramirez, Girardi’s top 4 guys outperformed Torre’s across the board.

Girardi actually used the bullpen differently in 2009:

Phil Hughes – 3.03 ERA, 86.0 IP
Alfredo Aceves – 3.54 ERA, 84.0 IP
Phil Coke – 4.50 ERA, 60 IP
Sergio Mitre – 6.79 ERA, 51.2 IP
David Robertson – 3.30 ERA, 43.2 IP
Chien-Ming Wang – 9.64 ERA, 42.0 IP
Chad Gaudin – 3.43 ERA, 42.0 IP
Brian Bruney – 3.92 ERA, 39.0 IP

Including Bruney admittedly breaks the rule, but it was arbitrary and 39 innings is very close to 40. The pattern breaks a bit because the Yankees became spoiled for potential starters at the end of 2009. Hughes, Aceves, Mitre, Wang and Gaudin each made both relief and starting appearances. I’m too lazy to find a website that breaks out the numbers.

As a result, while Girardi continued to give the ball to a wide variety of relievers, that distribution was not as even as it was in 2008. Furthermore, Hughes established himself as a bridge to Mo with a starter’s durability and Aceves earned the long-relief job. It’s one thing to rely too much on a few relievers. It’s another thing to have established jobs for outstanding performers and give them more innings so long as they’re not being exhausted. I give Girardi the benefit of the doubt that he did the latter.

The 2009 list is pretty much the bullpen the team will have in 2010, minus Bruney, Coke (good riddance!) and Wang (good luck in D.C.) plus Park, whose AL relief value is an unknown. That’s a list of guys who put up fine-looking numbers in 2009, and Sergio Mitre, who must have compromising pictures of someone in the Yankee organization.

The team is banking on repeat performances, particularly from Hughes, Aceves and Robertson. That same logic backfired last season. Veras and Ramirez started the season with high expectations and were run out of the Bronx. That fluctuation may explain, in part, why the team went after Park. If a solid bullpen couldn’t keep it together from ’08 to ’09 why should it change its tendencies from ’09 to ’10?

For my part, I have faith in some but not all of our middle relievers. Hughes is the real deal, and I believe he’ll be an excellent starter in a year or two. Robertson and Gaudin are young, and show real potential, particularly Robertson if his shoulder issues are ancient history. After that, I’m not convinced. I would not be surprised if Aceves, as much as I like him, turns out to be this year’s Jose Veras and fails to recapture last season’s magic. My opinion on Mitre is established and while I don’t believe it would have been wiser to burn the $1.2 million rather than giving it to Chan-Ho Park … you get the idea.

I’m therefore not convinced that the bullpen will look the same in April and July. Fortunately, over the smallest of samples, Girardi has already demonstrated that he can to find adequate relievers midseason.

10 thoughts on “And the bullpen, non-Mariano edition?

  1. I don't see how Phil Hughes can start the season in the Yankees bullpen. Consider:The Yankees long term development plan for Hughes is to be a starter. This year, they have placed an innings limitation on him while Joba Chamberlain has none. To move Hughes forward, I would think they would have to have him begin the year as a starter in AAA and then migrate to the MLB bullpen when he gets close to his innings cap. To keep Joba moving forward, you would assume he'd have to be a starter all year, particularly since he has no innings limitations and hence is farther along in the development process would dictate that he starts all year at the MLB player. this seems like simple logic to me… and the yankees have worked really hard on development with these guys, so i dont see them deviating from the plan. besides, (and i'm sure someone can pull numbers that bear this out) Joba is the better starter – he had some awful months last year, but some brilliant ones, too – wasn't his ERA in July under 2.50? having an ERA under 3 as a starter in the AL East is almost god like these days… he didn't sustain it, but then, i dont remember Phil Hughes making the opening day MLB roster last year and when he did come up, they were ready to send him back down again until necessity landed him in the pen… isnt that how it happened, or do i have some subconscious Joba-for-5th-starter agenda going?I'm going to revise my guess at the Yankees 25 man roster for opening day (probably on Saturday) and try to pick out rolls for the bullpen – i think Robertson might get a chance to set up

  2. I agree with respect to Joba. And while I don't feel he has the better potential he has proven himself to be a much better starter thus far. I don't truly believe its a competition. I think all of this is designed to get the best out of Joba, who has shown flashes of being brilliant, but he needs to improve. I see the argument that Hughes should begin in AAA (provided that doesn't affect his options). But he helps the team less that way. Removing him from the bullpen removes the Yankees 2nd best reliever. I would counter that his development improves facing big league hitters, even if its not in a starter's role. That's a philosophical debate among Yankee fans. But I still see Hughes being able to begin in the pen and migrate to the rotation in a year or two.

  3. I am a big believer of guys breaking into the big leagues as a reliever and getting that developmental process rolling by facing MLB hitters, but how do you get their innings total up that way? Obviously, pitcher development has changed a lot over the years and the fear of letting guys pitch significantly more innings from one year to the next and its relation to injury is a big concern these days. i agree that the yankees are a better team and win more games with Hughes as a the setup man than with any of their other bullpen options, but i just dont see how they can do both at the same time – that is, develop hughes as a starter and increase his innings pitched and have him setup. they can do both this year, just not at the same time. since the Yankees have made it clear that their goal for Hughes is to be a starter, i dont see how they can have him start the year in the pen

  4. You may have just won the argument. I don't know enough about getting a young pitcher's innings up to comment. It actually hadn't crossed my mind. I had assumed that it didn't matter if they trained him in the spring as a starter and then let hiim take whatever role he earned on the big league club. Otherwise, they run into a similar problem with Mitre, Gaudin and Aceves, all of whom are being trained as starters but are also older than Hughes. It comes down to how the Yankees feel they should develop Hughes in the long run. I'm curious to see now where he begins. For my part, I hope its in the bigs because he's an exciting pitcher.

  5. Ha praise from Caesar!I guess none of us know the Yankees true plan for Hughes and Chamberlain… which, in my view, doesn't necessarily depend on what they're going to do about a closer after Mariano retires, but if that's four more years after this season, you figure they can't worry about who succeeds him at this point… But, from what i've seen and heard, i dont think the Yankees project either guy to land in a bullpen role for their career. as fans, there is what we want, what we think will win the most games and the long term plan for the team… its tough to juggle all that stuff!~jamie

  6. I don't advocate developing either to be a closer or a middle reliever. Starting pitchers have more value, even when they're just ok at the job, and both Hughes and Joba have shown real potential to be excellent starters. But I also don't feel Hughes is ready to start this season. Until this dialogue I felt it was best for the team to bring him back in 2010 in the pen, so he could improve against big league hitters until next season when he would be old enough to dump his innings limit. But, if that risks his development as a potential starter then I understand why he may begin in AAA.

  7. "But, if that risks his development as a potential starter then I understand why he may begin in AAA."Yeah, exactly – just like last year! On Saturday, I'm going to try to assign bullpen roles based on a 25 man roster w Joba as a starter and Phil at AAA SWB

  8. As I stated earlier, if there is a consensus that Hughes needs to start in AAA to develop further as a starter then I understand why he needs to begin there. But if the team can continue to develop him as a starter but also start him in the pen in '10, then I think its whats best for the team this year.I wasn't going to pay attention to this before, but I will now focus on where Hughes begins the season.

  9. Hey, I updated my 25 man roster predictions and talked more about why Hughes can't make the 25 man roster – hope you are not buried under snow!~jamie