Is Joe Girardi taxing his bullpen?

So far this season the Yankee bullpen has lived up to its preseason hype. The Bronx relievers have a combined ERA of 3.07, which is ninth-best in all of baseball and third-best in the American League. In 138.0 innings of relief work, the Yankees have allowed only 123 hits and 60 walks, which translates to a WHIP of 1.33. To put this performance in perspective, CC Sabathia has an ERA of 3.06 and a WHIP of 1.30 so far on the year.

Unfortunately, this strong performance may not be sustainable. With Rafael Soriano on the disabled list, Joe Girardi has been turning to Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera more than any other relievers on the team. As a result, all three are on pace to pitch an ill-advised numbers of innings.

Robertson currently projects to pitch 66.1 innings this year. Chamberlain is on pace to pitch an astounding 85.1 innings this season. Rivera is on pace to pitch 74 innings this season, and is also 41 years old. Each of these totals would represent bullpen abuse for the respective pitcher.

Of the three, Robertson’s current level of usage is most sustainable. While 66.1 innings would represent a new career high for the right hander, it would not be a substantial increase from his current career high of 61.1 innings, which was set in 2010. The same cannot be said for Joba. Flat out, Girardi needs to use Joba less. Chamberlain has never logged anything close to 85 innings of work as a reliever. Last season the Yankees called on Chamberlain to pitch a then career high 71.2 innings of relief work. Joba’s rate of usage this season represents a twenty percent increase on his work load last season. That’s a dangerous proposition for a pitcher with Chamberlain’s injury history, which is why Joba was unavailable to pitch during the first game in Baltimore this past week.

While the current demands on Chamberlain and Robertson are concerning, at least those two pitchers are young and presumably durable. Mariano, on the other hand, is an old man (for a ball player). As a result, his usage has reduced each season since 2004. That year he logged 78.2 innings of work. He has steadily been called upon less and less each season since then, until in 2010 he pitched only an even 60 innings, the second fewest of his career.

If the current rate of usage continues, Mariano would pitch the most innings that he’s pitched since 2006 and would record his first season-over-season increase in innings pitched since 2004. An increase in innings pitched from 60 in 2010 to 74 this season represents a year-over-year increase of nearly 25%, and a sure fire recipe for an injury.

Fortunately, in his short tenure with the Yankees Joe Girardi has demonstrated a willingness to rest his best relievers and distribute work evenly among all his arms in the ‘pen. So far it looks like that trend will continue in 2011. Girardi found time to rest Chamberlain and Robertson this past week, and with a little help from the offense hasn’t had to use Rivera since Wednesday. If Girardi is smart, he’ll continue to find more time to rest these three arms. He may not have a choice because if trends continue for the rest of the season he risks injuring one of his best young relievers, or the greatest closer of all time.

15 thoughts on “Is Joe Girardi taxing his bullpen?

  1. Tom "the fat guy" Lin

    We need freaking Soriano back.
    And if Pedro comes back healthy and strong…our bullpen will be untouchable.

  2. Phil C

    I don’t think that Girardi has much choice at present on the way he is using his bullpen. I’m not overly concerned at present, but I agree that in the long run this could become a problem. In addition, if Garcia or Colon breakdown, there will be even more pressure on the bullpen. Unless Hughes can come back strong expecting the starters at Scranton to pitch deep into games is problematic.

    If Soriano doesn’t return soon and doesn’t adjust he attitude this problem will worsen. Feliciano’s injury hasn’t helped any either. Other than Logan the remaining relievers aren’t ones who generate a lot of confidence in close games. Girardi may need to try some of the arms at AAA and see how they respond to pressure situations.

    • Adam B

      Soriano needs to come back and hopefully we will have made a move for another starter by the time this becomes an issue, a guy who can go deeper than 6 innings.

  3. john k

    The yanks had multiple days off in April to allow for Giradi to use relievers without abuse. The rate of usage seemed high if you use a per game basis. However, I assume the usage rate will decrease over the season as doubleheaders occur to make up for those rainouts and the schedule normalizes. Of course, Soriano and Hughes’ injuries (with Colon’s move to the rotation) has put a crimp in the bullpen plans, but Giradi has shown a track record of good bullpen management over the course of a year. I’m sure he’ll find a way to use other arms to not burn out Mo, Joba, and Houdini over the full year.

  4. DW

    I would be more worried about Robertson. He came into yesterday’s action having thrown more pitches as a right handed reliever in the AL. Only Tim Collins of the Royals a lefty has thrown more pitches as a reliever in the AL.

  5. Kevin Ocala, Fl

    Know the much maligned Soriano deal isn’t so stupid. Maybe the Yanks front office knows a little more than we fellow armchair GMs. Over a season no team can have enough depth. ‘Nough said.

    • Joe G

      No, 3 years at that rate for a reliever (especially one who is currently “injured”) is stupid. Even the GM, who disagreed with the signing, agrees.

      Time to see some of those young, inexpense arms from AAA get a chance. This is when drafting an abudance of hard throwing starters comes in handy. Whichever ones don’t stick in the rotation can still contribute out of the pen.

  6. I don’t like what I see regarding the usage of all three. Girardi has gone Joe Torre on us this season. He always calls for Robertson, Joba, Logan for lefties, and then Mo. In the past he distributed the work better. It is entirely possible that he has willingly relied on those three too much to start the season because other options have yet to present themselves, but bullpen arms are notoriously fragile. This isn’t sustainable in the long run.

  7. I believe age is a factor in Mo only..all the other relievers are having a typical year coming out of the bullpen

  8. bornwithpinstripes

    i was sure downs was going to be a yankee after last season, how they passed on him for the ex met with all those innings in his arm and downs coming from the AL east pitching lights out was a hugh mistake..to me logan is a dog in the big spot..he will get worse as the pressure mounts..if marte and the ex met are coming back, then logan will be a good fill in, but if they are not projected ,then we need to find a solid lefty…if hughes comes back, he should go to the pen, we are going to need another solid arm

  9. Frank

    Ayala has looked pretty good. He may turn out to be a pleasant surprise and help relieve any stress to the BP.

    • bornwithpinstripes

      absolutly agree, i was surprised girardi gave him the ball in the ninth vs mets..he should have done those types of moves for the last three years..

  10. tommy cassella

    retardi already ruined dontrelle willis,he turned him from a certain hall of famer to the hall of shame, and that is exactly where retardi belongs,amen.

  11. n. ciccone

    I don’t think Joe is overusing anyone – he has spread it around to all the other pitchers in the pen; not just Joba and Robertson. And they’ve even called up others from the minors to get a fresh arm when it was needed, so that he doesn’t overuse anyone. Don’t know what games you were watching

  12. [...] these guys can’t go on like this forever, they’ll be burnt out by season’s end. Mike Jaggers-Radolf at The Yankee Analysts looked at these three yesterday and showed that they were on target for some serious innings [...]

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