Projecting the Yankees – Part 4: The Bullpen

Closer:  Mariano Rivera

2010 Stats:  3-3, 33 SV, 1.80 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 6.75 K/9, 4.09 K/BB, 1.7 WAR

2011 Projections:  3-2, 35 SV, 2.15 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 7.22 K/9, 4.25 K/BB, 1.6 WAR

Marcel Projections: 3-3, 26 SV, 2.90 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 7.40 K/9, 3.19 K/BB

Bill James Projections: 5-2, 33 SV, 1.89 ERA, 2.52 FIP, 8.42 K/9, 5.27 K/BB

Mariano Rivera’s run of dominance has to end at some time, doesn’t it?  Yes, of course it does, but that doesn’t mean that we should expect it come this season.  While Rivera’s curious drop in strikeout rate (from 9.77 in 2009 to 6.75 in 2010) could be construed as a cause for concern, I’m not willing to make that assumption just yet.  At various points during his career, he’s experienced a similar drop in his K/9 rate without a corresponding drop in performance.  (See 2005-2007 for an example of this.)   How’s he able to avoid the pitfalls of such a 30% decline in his strikeout rate in a single season?  It’s simple.  His high ground ball rate (50 %+), low HR/FB rate, and elite-level control (BB/9 rate between 0.76 and 1.65 between 2006 and 2010) allow for a quite a bit of wiggle room.  In fact, provided he maintains his ability to induce grounders and avoid walks at similar rates, he could probably withstand further reduction in his K/9 rate without seeing a significant shift in his performance.

Considering Rivera’s whiff rate has been around the league average (~8%) for two consecutive seasons, it’s probably fair to assume his true strikeout talent level is much closer to his 2010 mark than his 2009 mark.  Despite his cutter coaxing fewer whiffs, Fangraphs still estimates its value at +16.9 runs in 2010 per their pitch run value scale.  Just for comparison, Mo’s cutter was the third most valuable in all of baseball behind only Roy Halladay and Jon Lester.  That’s pretty exceptional company, right?  Oh, and he did it in 190 fewer innings than Halladay and 150 innings fewer than Lester.

Like I said, Rivera can’t continue his dominance forever.  Even if he regresses a little (which I am predicting), he’ll still be among the two or three best closers in baseball.

Primary Set-Up Man:  Rafael Soriano

2010 Stats: 3-2, 45 SV, 1.73 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 8.23 K/9, 4.07 K/BB, 1.6 WAR

2011 Projections: 5-3, 8 SV, 2.62 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 10.12 K/9, 3.88 K/BB, 1.6 WAR

Marcel Projections: 3-3, 25 SV, 3.02 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 8.44 K/9, 3.00 K/BB

Bill James Projections: 5-1, 1 SV, 2.03 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 9.73 K/9, 3.53 K/BB

After years of struggling to put together a reliable bridge to Mariano Rivera, the Yankees have finally put a reliable core of shutdown relievers that can easily shorten any game to six or seven innings.  The centerpiece of that bridge is former Rays closer Rafael Soriano.  Soriano is a power righty armed with a whiff-inducing repertoire that includes a four-seam fastball (10.2%), cutter (12.3%), and a slider (14.6%).  Despite posting a whiff rate that was only slightly below his 2009 rate (11.7% vs. 13.0%), Soriano saw his K/9 rate drop by 32% between 2009 and 2010.  Considering his well above average whiff rate, it’s probably fair to expect an uptick in his strikeout performance this season.  Even with extreme drop in his strikeout totals, Soriano balanced it out by posting one of the lowest BB/9 rates of his career.  During his career, he’s posted K/BB rates exceeding 3.00 in all five of his seasons where he pitched at least 50 innings.

Unlike Rivera, Soriano’s a fly ball oriented pitcher, and relies more on his ability to induce pop-ups and lazy fly balls than double plays.  Despite his fly ball tendencies, Soriano gives up surprisingly few home runs.  It will be interesting to see how Soriano fares with the long ball while pitching half of his games in Yankee Stadium.  While his HR/FB rate versus lefties (9.7%) is still below the league average (~10.5%), Yankee Stadium heavily favors left-handed power hitters.  I don’t expect this to be an issue in 2011, but it could become a more prominent issue as he ages.

Soriano should have another very good season in 2011.  With Rivera entering his age-41 season, I’m expecting the Yankees to limit his workload in hopes of keeping him fresh for the playoffs.  As a result, I’m projecting Soriano to receive 8-12 save opportunities this season.

Middle Reliever #1:  Joba Chamberlain

2010 Stats: 3-4, 3 SV, 4.40 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 9.67 K/9, 3.50 K/BB, 1.4 WAR

2011 Projections: 3-3, 1 SV, 3.45 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 9.22 K/9, 3.31 K/BB, 1.2 WAR

Marcel Projections: 4-4, 1 SV, 4.02 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 8.36 K/9, 2.47 K/BB

Bill James Projections: 5-4, 5 SV, 3.79 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 9.59 K/9, 2.70 K/BB

How Yankee fans feel about Jonathan Papelbon and Kevin Youkilis is how I feel about Joba Chamberlain.  I can’t stand the guy.  He irritates me to no end.  Personal feelings aside, I can honestly say he’s a stud reliever.  In fact, we should make him the poster boy for why ERA is a terrible metric for judging relief pitching.*  Without going into a long, off-topic diatribe about my distaste for ERA, let me try to put it simply.  Had it not been for a brutal five inning stretch in late May, most people would have a much more favorable view of his 2010 season.  If we removed that stretch from his statistics (yes, I know we can’t really do this), his ERA would have dropped by a full run to 3.37.  While that’s not Mariano Rivera territory, it’s still very good.  Furthermore, it’s much more representative of his season than the 4.40 ERA he actually posted.

* It’s a bad metric to begin with, but it’s even worse for relievers.

Going into the 2011 season, Joba appears poised for another solid season, peripheral wise.  He’s regained most of the fastball velocity he lost in 2009 while taking his regular turns as a starting pitcher, and appears to have recaptured his 2007 level control.  Provided he can keep his peripherals at his 2010 rates, Joba shouldn’t have any problems establishing himself in the upper echelon of middle relief pitching.

Middle Reliever #2:  David Robertson

2010 Stats: 4-5, 1 SV, 3.82 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 10.42 K/9, 2.15 K/BB, 0.7 WAR

2011 Projections: 3-4, 0 SV, 4.12 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 8.98 K/9, 2.01 K/BB, 0.5 WAR

Marcel Projections: 4-3, 1 SV, 3.04 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 11.78 K/9, 2.54 K/BB

Bill James Projections: 5-3, 0 SV, 4.05 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 9.30 K/9, 2.38 K/BB

The Yankees bullpen is much better with Robertson as their fourth option rather than their third.  As impressive as his strikeouts have been, I can’t think of a single comparable reliever who’s consistently posted K/9 rates exceeding 10.00, while racking up whiff rates in the 8-9% range.  Considering his relatively low fastball velocity (career – 91.6 MPH) and lack of a consistent second pitch (his curve and change have been mediocre to date), you’ll have to forgive me for thinking his strikeout rate will probably regress to the upper 8.00s, very low 9.00s before too long.  While Rivera, Soriano, and Chamberlain have proven they can sustain their performance despite a drop in their K/9 rate, I’m not convinced that Robertson has that ability.  The three aforementioned pitchers all have above average control.  Robertson (career BB/9 rate of 4.75) does not.  Unless he can drop his walk rate by a full walk or more, he’ll have a tough time keeping runners from scoring.  While he’s still relatively young (turns 26 on 4/9), it’s seems pretty reasonable to assume that if he was going to exhibit improvements in his control, he would have done so already.

I don’t want it to appear as if I’m giving a “Doom’s Day” assessment for Robertson.  I’m really not.  I’m only warning of regression potential for 2011 and years beyond.  While I project him to be an effective reliever this season, I do so with caution.

Middle Reliever #3:  Boone Logan

2010 Stats: 2-0, 0 SV, 2.93 ERA, 3.73 FIP, 8.55 K/9, 1.90 K/BB, 0.4 WAR

2011 Projections: 1-3, 0 SV, 4.50 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 8.12 K/9, 1.94 K/BB, 0.3 WAR

Marcel Projections: 3-2, 0 SV, 4.12 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 7.47 K/9, 2.05 K/BB

Bill James Projections: 2-3, 0 SV, 4.40 ERA, 4.21 FIP, 8.60 K/9, 2.15 K/BB

Logan is what he is.  He’s a left-handed middle reliever with extreme platoon splits.  Over his career, his triple slash line against LHH is .248/.324/.355; and against RHH, it’s .324/.400/.513.  Provided he pitches predominantly against lefties, he should be fine coming out of the bullpen for the Yankees.  While Logan’s strikeout and ground ball rates are pretty solid, his walk rate leaves little to be desired.  Considering the number of base runners he gives up via the free pass, his ERA could suffer severely if he experiences any kind of poor luck on balls in play.

7 thoughts on “Projecting the Yankees – Part 4: The Bullpen

  1. I know he's out at least another couple weeks with a rotator cuff strain, but no Pedro Feliciano?

  2. Chip,

    I can't find the stupid article now, but a few months back Buster Olney's (I think) blog included a fantastic table that discussed release points and extension of pitchers, and how that played into perceived pitch speed. David Robertson was the #1 player on the list in terms of added perceived speed due to release point. If I find it, will post a link–maybe this will jog some other reader's memory who knows where this is. Either way, I believe that's why he's able to muster so many strike outs (and has throughout his career).

  3. Ahh, espn pay wall. If the methodology of how they calculated effective velocity is described in the article, could someone paraphrase that please? In that Baseball digest article they talk about a foot difference in release point will shorten the distance of flight by 1.8%, but where does this data come from? The pitch f/x system automatically lists every single pitcher's release point at 50 ft. from home plate.

    • I don't read their 'in" stuff as the free stuff doesn't support the need.

      However, I remember that Randy Johnson had a 18" advantage due to his height (stride & arm length)…so, if that is correct and the rubber is 60'-6" from the plate he would be roughly 2 1/2% closer to the plate than the average guy. Therefore his 96 MPH release would be almost 98 1/2 MPH at release point and with it being that much closer would result in less velocity lost. These two things combined would likely lead to a reaction time that would equate to about 100 MPH.

    • The TrackMan generates a more complete picture of velocity. "Our radar picks up the pitch at the moment of release so we get a 3-D view of a pitcher's release," Orenstein wrote in the e-mail. "Consequently, we are the first technology that can measure a pitcher's extension, which allows us to essentially redefine pitch velocity.

      "The table below shows that Player 1 gets the ball to the plate slightly quicker than Pitcher B (Time of Flight = time it takes for ball to reach home plate). In terms of performance, pitchers with better extension tend to get more swinging strikes and generally have higher K/9 rates. For guys that throw 95+ mph, extension has less of an effect, we see that swinging strike rates on fastballs between 85-95 mph are higher for pitchers with better extension."

      Effective Velocity
      As you can see, where a pitch is released has plenty to do with its perceived velocity.

      PitcherTime of Flight (sec)Release Speed (mph)Extension From Mound (ft)Estimated
      Effective Velocity (mph)
      No. 1.408917.094
      No. 2.409945.393