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April 15, 2003

Prospectus Today

Relief or Something Like It

by Joe Sheehan

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You know what the world needs? The world needs another article on the lousy work an AL East contender is getting from its relievers.

Except, this one isn't about the Red Sox and their closer-free bullpen. This is about the Yankees and their talent-free bullpen.

Let's compare the two:


Team        ERA     IP    H   BB   SO   HR
------------------------------------------
Yankees    5.96   25.2   36   15   27    0
Red Sox    6.38   42.1   55   22   28    6

Absurd amounts of electrons have died in servicing the debate over whether the Sox are correct in assembling their bullpen without acquiring a nominal closer, but the Yankee bullpen is allowing runs at about the same rate, and has just as many pitchers performing poorly. Leaving Tim Wakefield's one appearance out of the mix, here are the individual ERAs:

        Red Sox                      Yankees
Pitcher             ERA      Pitcher             ERA
-----------------------      -----------------------
Brandon Lyon       1.29      Antonio Osuna      2.57
Steve Woodard      2.70      Chris Hammond      3.18
Mike Timlin        4.70      Juan Acevedo       6.35
Chad Fox           6.75      Sterling H'cock    9.00
Ramiro Mendoza    11.57      Jose Contreras    10.80
Alan Embree       12.27      Jason Anderson    20.25
Bobby Howry       12.46

The Yankees have had to use their bullpen less, because their starters have gone deeper into games and they haven't had the 16-inning game the Sox did. Their short relievers are doing better, while they're getting nothing from the back of the bullpen. In fact, the Yankees are carrying one guy that Joe Torre won't use--Sterling Hitchcock has one thrown one inning as Tax Day dawns--and another who he's trying to introduce to baseball in the free world in Jose Contreras.

You know what's really something? Look back two years and see what the guys in the Yankee bullpen were doing. Antonio Osuna was tossing 4 1/3 innings before tearing his labrum; Hitchcock came back from elbow surgery and had a 5.63 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. Jose Acevedo was the best of the bunch, posting a 4.18 ERA in 60 1/3 innings. Jason Anderson split his year between the New York-Penn and Sally Leagues, Contreras split his year between poverty and repression, and Chris Hammond split his between hunting and fishing.

Osuna, Hitchcock, Acevedo, Anderson, Contreras and Hammond; there may not be a bullpen of less accomplishment than that anywhere in baseball. Yes, some of those guys had random good years in 2002, but the ones who did are old--the caliber of reliever that regularly floats from good run to bad run, 70 innings at a time. The absolute talent level in the Yankee bullpen is about as low as there is in the game, and if you took these guys out of pinstripes and put them in Brewer blue or D-Ray green, they'd be just another punchline.

Admittedly, this wasn't the Yankees' plan. Mariano Rivera is sidelined with a strained groin and Steve Karsay has bursitis in his pitching shoulder, leaving the team without its two best--and most expensive--relievers. Randy Choate is in the minors, and while Torre has never taken a shine to him, he'd be valuable in a multi-inning role. Choate would certainly be more useful than Hitchcock, the 12th pitcher on an 11-man staff. We may see Mel Stottlemyre toe the rubber before Hitchcock makes his next appearance.

Last night's game illustrated Torre's problem. He bounced through five relievers trying to find someone who could stop the bleeding. The first four all walked at least one batter each, and all but Osuna gave up a run before Hammond ended things in the ninth. Because he doesn't have the guns, Torre can't implement the usage pattern he's used with such success. It used to be that even if Rivera was hurt, Karsay/Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton would share closer duties, with Ramiro Mendoza sliding into the set-up role, and any problems would crop up in the middle innings. Now, there's just no one Torre can use reliably at any point in the game, so once he goes to the bullpen, it becomes a game of guessing who is going to be effective that night. He has two rookies of moderate ability and one guy he won't use. Osuna, Acevedo and Hammond, despite their collective 2002 line, are not the caliber of pitchers who can shut down teams or assume that level of responsibility in a bullpen.

So while Red Sox Nation gnashes its teeth and wonders why Ugueth Urbina got away, they're not alone in watching their relievers struggle, and all things considered, they're in better shape, with more talent than the Yankees and less reliant on one or two guys. The Yankees have to hope their rotation holds up, because for all the talk over the winter about how much pitching they have, their bullpen is a real problem as long as Rivera and Karsay nurse their owies.

Notes

  • At least the Yankees are going to score runs. Hideki Matsui (.306/.375/.490) and Nick Johnson (.278/.381/.472) have improved an offense that is now much better than it was in the waning days of the late 1990s dynasty. Even missing Derek Jeter, the Yankees lead the AL in runs scored and the majors in Equivalent Average, and that's largely because they're getting good performance from left field and DH--two slots that haven't been productive the past few seasons.

  • Jesse Foppert's debut: two innings, no hits or runs, a walk and two strikeouts. He threw 32 pitches, 22 of them strikes, and quite frankly, looked great. Ryan Jensen has no job to return to.

  • Just who the hell is in the Cardinals' bullpen? They're missing a big gun in Jason Isringhausen, but I don't know how many injuries it would have taken to get Russ Springer back into a major-league uniform. Lance Painter? Cal Eldred? Dustin Hermanson? Maybe I was wrong about the Yankee bullpen's lack of accomplishment.
    
                            2002           2001           2000
    Pitcher               IP    ERA      IP    ERA      IP    ERA
    -------------------------------------------------------------
    Russ Springer       17.2   7.13    62.0   5.08    47.1   3.42
    Lance Painter        0.0    ---    29.0   6.52    66.2   4.73
    Dustin Hermanson    22.0   7.77   192.1   4.45   198.0   4.77
    Jeff Fassero        69.0   5.35    73.2   3.42   130.0   4.78
    Cal Eldred           6.0  13.50   112.0   4.58    82.0   7.79
    
    
    I'm willing to accept that skills analysis--scouting--can pick up things that performance analysis can't. I think it's ridiculous to look at the performance records of these pitchers, though, and conclude that you'd want to invite any of them to spring training, much less have them pitching important innings. There's what, two good performances in that list out of 15? None of these pitchers were effective in 2002, and they combined for just 114 2/3 innings and an ERA around 6.00.

    The Cardinals can't win with this bullpen. Even if Isringhausen returns, he's going to be a one-inning guy, and might have trouble pitching in back-to-back games. Walt Jocketty has his work cut out for him.

  • Before last night's win against the A's, the Mariners had been 0-6 in night games, 6-0 in day games. That's just weird.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Bullpen,  Jose Contreras,  Sterling Hitchcock

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