In 2011 we saw the St. Louis Cardinals use a powerful offense while leaning heavily on a revamped bullpen to roll all the way to a World Series title. Having a strong bullpen for the postseason has never been as important as it has during the past couple of seasons, and for good reason. Pitchers throw fewer innings per outing with each passing year, which means a larger part of the 9 inning burden falls on pitchers who throw no more than 70 innings a season normally. Many of these players will be called upon in situations with enormous ramifications, whether it be to match up with a slugger like Joey Votto or to get out of a bases loaded jam. Let’s take a look at which teams’ bullpens are best prepared to enter the war of attrition known as October baseball.
The Yankees have now won 9 games in a row, and 21 out of their last 31 games. The team has surged to the front of the AL East pack by decimating the top of the NL East. In the last 10 days the Yanks have swept the 3rd place Mets, 2nd place Braves, and 1st place Nationals, putting together the most impressive streak of victories in all of baseball this season. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons the Yankees dominated the NL East:
The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:
The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.
The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.
The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.
The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.
The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.
In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.
Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.
Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.
The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.
Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.
The greatest closer of all-time, and one of the most special, kind, and respectable baseball players of all time, The Great Mariano Rivera, tore his ACL, possibly his meniscus as well, and will miss the remainder of the season. I’ve grown up my entire life having Mariano at the back of the Yankees bullpen, shutting down the opposition with one dominant pitch, his cutter, in an almost mechanical way that makes you wonder if he’s half-man, half-machine, and even thinking about the rest of the season without Mo makes me a little sick. I can only hope that the last memory of Rivera on a baseball field won’t be him crumpling up against the Kauffman Stadium wall, writhing in pain. I would love to see him come back, maybe even in October if everything goes well, but if not then next season. But I don’t want to let my thought wander too far in that direction, because its all speculation and most of it makes me sad. I’d rather take a look at some of the best highlights from his career (to date, hopefully) and appreciate how great a player Mariano truly has been.
-Rivera’s career regular season numbers: 1292.2 innings pitched, 2.21 ERA, a record 608 saves, a record 206 ERA+, 0.998 WHIP, 1119 K’s, 277 walks. These numbers are staggeringly good, and no reliever even approaches them.
-Rivera’s postseason numbers were even better: 141 innings pitched, 0.70 ERA, 527!!! ERA+, 0.759 WHIP, and 110 strikeouts. When the game was on the line against the best of the best, Mariano took his up to another level.
-Mariano has the all-time saves record, at 608. He broke Trevor Hoffman’s previous record of 601 saves, and stands at 608 saves total.
-One of my favorite Rivera moments was the night he got his 500th save on Sunday night baseball against the Mets on June 29, 2009. He came into the game with a runner on 2nd in a 3-2 game with 2 outs in the 8th inning. Rivera calmly struck out Omar Santos on (what else?) a cutter, and the Yankees came to bat looking for insurance. The Mets brought closer Francisco Rodriguez, who at the time appeared to be the heir apparent to Mariano’s role as best closer in baseball and was coming off of a season in which he saved 62 games. The Yankees were able to load the bases and Rivera was going to come to the plate with 2 out in the inning. On the 1st pitch the Rodriguez delivered, Mariano took a mighty cut and rocketed the ball to the backstop. Rodriguez immediately lost his composure, and proceeded to walk Rivera for his 1st career RBI.
-In what may have been his last World Series, Rivera got the final 5 outs over the Phillies to give the Yankees the title.
-The lone World Series save that Mariano Rivera blew, occurred in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. That World Series was the best of the last 2o years, and the individual game is the stuff of legend. Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling dueled each other to a 1-1 draw over the 1st 7 innings. An 8th inning homer by Alfonso Soriano gave the Yankees a brief lead, and as it had been so many times before, Mo was brought in to close the door with 2 outs in the 8th. He would get out of the 8th easily, but Rivera wouldn’t be so lucky in the 9th. After scoring 1 run to tie the game, the Diamondbacks loaded the bases and the rest is history. Luis Gonzalez came through with a clutch hit off of Rivera, for his only blown World Series save of his career.
-One of Rivera’s greatest playoff performances came in the memorable 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox. He was the MVP of the series for throwing 8 innings of 1 run ball while only allowing 5 base runners. He was magnificent in Game 7 in particular, allowing no base runners over 3 of the most pressure packed innings ever and got the win when Aaron Boone sent a Tim Wakefield knuckler deep into the New York night.
-Mariano Rivera is also the last player to ever regularly wear the number 42. The number was officially retired throughout baseball in 1997, but since Mo was already using it, he was allowed to keep #42. I can think of no other player that this honor fit better, because Rivera always exhibited the kind of class Jackie would have been proud of.
As for the Yankees, the will go forward with David Robertson as their closer. Robertson had the best season of any reliever in baseball in 2011, throwing 66.1 innings with a 1.08 ERA and an astronomical 14.7 Ks/9 rate, so he should adjust nicely to the closer role. The bigger effect is that the Yankee bullpen has lost most of its depth, with Joba Chamberlain on the DL as well. Rafael Soriano will probably pitch the 8th inning and other high leverage situations, so the Yankees will have to find another arm to fill in in middle relief. New York is struggling right now, but much of that can be attributed to injury. Brett Gardner has been on the DL. Michael Pineda is lost for the season. Eric Chavez just hit the 7 day concussion list. And Nick Swisher is out with a back injury. The Yankees entered the season as one of the deepest teams in the league, but with a quarter of the roster on the DL, the team has struggled losing 3 straight.
I will be at Kauffman Stadium this weekend to take a couple of games in, and while its disappointing Mariano won’t be closing any games out, it will still be nice to catch some early season action. Lastly I want to wish Mariano a speedy recovery and I hope that he is able to come back and pitch again. Baseball just won’t be the same without him.