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March 2, 2009

Prospectus Today

Learning to Spell Relief

by Joe Sheehan

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The Yankees received a lot of attention this past offseason for the vast sums of money that they committed to improving their lineup and starting rotation. What might be most improved, however, is a part of the team that had no attention paid to it or much money spent on it at all: the bullpen.

Other than re-signing 2008 trade acquisition Damaso Marte to a three-year, $12 million deal, the Yankees made the statement, however implicit, that they are committed to their homegrown relievers in 2009. One of the bright spots in the team's first October-free season since 1994 was the emergence of hurlers such as Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras, who combined to strike out 126 men in 113 innings with a 3.74 ERA. By the end of the season, Phil Coke and David Robertson were making contributions in low-leverage situations. Add in free-talent pickups like Brian Bruney and Alfredo Aceves, and the Yankees have more than enough effective relievers to go around, whether you've heard of them or not.

Staying out of the reliever market is a good idea for the Yankees, who have spent most of the decade trying and failing to recapture the magic that was Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson in the seventh and eighth innings. The set-up tandem from 1997 through 2000 contributed to three division titles, four playoff appearances, and three World Championships. Joe Torre's ability to run a bullpen was in no small part predicated on having those two pitchers around; since '01, Torre has never seemed quite as comfortable with his relief staff.

Attempts to rekindle that effectiveness, and even re-assemble the duo-both pitchers eventually found their way back to the Bronx, albeit not at the same time-have never quite taken, and at great cost. The Yankees have committed, almost annually since 2001, to free-agent relievers coming off of career seasons that would never be repeated:

  • After losing in the '01 World Series, their first season without Nelson, the Yankees signed Steve Karsay to a four-year deal. For $21 million, they got 101 innings of decent pitching, almost all of them in '02.
  • In '02, the Yankees replaced Stanton with Chris Hammond for two seasons and $4.6 million. Never a specialist, Hammond allowed a .287 batting average and .460 SLG to left-handed batters in his one season in New York, making him a source of frustration for Torre.
  • After bullpen failures helped contribute to the loss of the 2003 World Series, The team doubled up, signing Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill to two-year deals worth $7 million and $6 million, respectively. Gordon was an unqualified success, one of the best free-agent signings of Brian Cashman's career, putting up two seasons in which he threw 170 1/3 innings with an ERA of 2.38. Quantrill gave the Yankees 127 1/3 innings of replacement-level relief in a season and a half.
  • After the 2004 collapse to the Red Sox, the Yankees signed no free-agent relievers of note, but they did trade for Felix Rodriguez (32 1/3 IP, 5.01 ERA) and Stanton (14 IP, 7.07 ERA, released in July).
  • In the winter of '05, the Yankees signed Kyle Farnsworth to a three-year, $17 million deal. He gave them 170 1/3 innings of middling relief before being dealt last July.
  • A little more than a year ago, the Yankees signed LaTroy Hawkins: 41 IP, 5.71 ERA, and finally traded to Houston in July.

Other than the signing of Gordon, the Yankees' excursions into the relief end of the pitching pool available on the market have been a waste of time and money, costing the team cash from its coffers and wins on the field. Now, however, they're swearing off outside help for the first time in years, and attempting to win using the players on hand. It's the best plan they've had; Ramirez and Marte should be the closest thing to Nelson and Stanton that Yankee fans have seen in a while. Jose Veras can get both righties and lefties out in the seventh inning, and when he's unavailable, Alfredo Aceves can get ground balls. Phil Coke should make a good second lefty as more of a specialist than Marte is, and that still leaves Robertson for long relief, as well as free-talent pickups Brian Bruney and Dan Giese.

Fame and ability are only loosely correlated in baseball, and the relationship deteriorates further when you talk about non-closer relievers. There's a perception that the Yankees have a skills gap between their rotation and Mariano Rivera. That perception has driven the ridiculous and ridiculously popular idea that the team needs to use Joba Chamberlain as a reliever, specifically as an eighth-inning set-up man. Chamberlain had success in that role, but because of the nature of it-get three guys out-lots of pitchers can and do succeed there. The gap between Chamberlain and Edwar Ramirez in one inning a game is tiny, if there is one at all. Of the two, however, it's Chamberlain who can be an effective pitcher as a starter for 150-180 innings this year, and more in seasons to come. The Yankees can't replace that so easily.

Not wasting money on old relief pitchers and giving those jobs to $400,000-per-year players is one way to afford market-value commitments to free agents. The Yankee roster is increasingly bifurcated into eight-figure and six-figure players, and that's the proper way to assemble a baseball team these days. Concentrate your resources in your stars, then use player development, scouting, and performance analysis to fill out the roster with inexpensive players who are worth far more than they're being paid. The assembly of the 2009 bullpen, as much as the $400-odd million spent on free agents, is what should be scary for the rest of the AL East. That kind of quality decision-making goes a lot further than a checkbook does.

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:  Yankees,  The Who

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Aaron/YYZ

Joe, not mentioned is that there's more power arms coming up in the farm system to fill out the bullpen, in the forms of: Melancon and possibly guys like Bettances, Brackman, Bleich, McAllister...

Mar 02, 2009 16:48 PM
rating: 2
 
JayhawkBill

I was interested by Joe Sheehan's concept that the Yankees might be using their farm system to achieve relief pitching excellence at bargain price, and I checked it using Clay Davenport's Depth Charts and salary figures from Cot's Contracts. (Rather than AAV I took 2009 salary, and I assigned a $400,000 2009 salary where none was provided for pre-arb players.) Here's what I got looking at the AL East (pardon the formatting):

AL East Bullpens

Team VORP Salary

Red Sox 108.4 12.9
Blue Jays 94.6 19.7
Rays 72.8 16.8
Yankees 65.3 22.8
Orioles 50.0 16.0

The Yankees seem to have the fourth-best bullpen at the highest salary.

Considering that Joe Sheehan seems to be discounting the issue of Mariano Rivera - certainly a very valuable closer both in 2008 and throughout his HOF-caliber career, and probably worth his salary - I looked again at the AL East bullpens, this time removing the VORP and the salary of their closers:

AL East Bullpens (No Closer)

Team VORP Salary

Red Sox 86.0 6.6
Blue Jays 83.8 9.7
Rays 68.3 12.8
Yankees 42.8 7.8
Orioles 39.3 13.3

Now the Yankees drop to fourth in salary, but they're also fourth in projected VORP. The Blue Jays and Rays appear to have bullpens - excluding closers - worth three or four more wins than the Yankees' bullpen at an additional cost of only two to five million dollars' salary. That would appear to be exceptional value, far exceeding norms of Marginal Cost per Marginal Win for a contending team.

I find two different lessons learned here than Joe Sheehan does:

1) The Red Sox seem to be doing something right. Theo Epstein is generously supplementing home-grown talent with bargain-basement free agents and judicious trades. The Boston 2009 bullpen includes Jonathan Papelbon, very different from Rivera but possibly similar in value. It also includes Japanese free agents Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito, trade acquisitions Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Wes Littleton, and Randor Bierd, and farm products Manny Delcarmen and Justin Masterson. Perhaps considering and using all options is better than just supplementing eight-figure free agents with pre-arb talent.

2) The Yankees have certainly put together many excellent teams in recent years, but it's difficult to escape the point that their "quality decision-making" has at its core the decision to exceed the median MLB team salary by astronomical amounts. In 2008 the Yankees spent about $75 million on player salaries than the Red Sox, the second-highest spending team in their division, and almost $130 million more than the median MLB team. The median MLB team could be expected to earn about 81 wins. If the Yankees can't exceed that by a very significant margin by spending 250% as much money on salary as the median MLB team, then there's little reason to be considering their salary allocation strategies as any approach to an optimal strategy.

Mar 02, 2009 18:15 PM
rating: 18
 
hippoes

Thank you poster for this, numbers!
Joe's piece is remarkable in the way numbers are completely missing, is this an analysis or what? Someone could write a very similar article and 'prove' that Sox, Rays and Jays have much superior bullpens (apart from maybe the Mariano factor, difficult to quantify) and, maybe Jays aside, the other teams in the same division appear to have a much more efficient "quality decision-making" approach to team building, youth and salary management.
Honestly I was expecting much more from Joe, this feels like a deadline beating piece of the "I have to put something on the site, this will do".

Mar 03, 2009 01:00 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Actually, I wonder if bullpen VORP is very descriptive considering how reliever performance can fluctuate and the relatively small sample-size. Is 400-450 innings of bullpen work enough to evaluate effectiveness?

Mar 03, 2009 08:27 AM
rating: 1
 
Patrick

Are those numbers from 2008 or projected for 2009?

Let's also not pretend the Red Sox are a model of fiscal restraint, either. I'm a Yankee-hater, but compared to much of MLB, the Red Sox are nearly as bad.

Mar 03, 2009 07:01 AM
rating: -1
 
havybeaks

Wow, this was one of those cases where a comment was a better read than the article itself! Good job, JayhawkBill.

Mar 03, 2009 09:29 AM
rating: 1
 
eighteen

This is good analysis, but it doesn't address the point made in the article.

Joe's point is NOT that "the Yankees might be using their farm system to achieve relief pitching excellence at bargain price" - it's that the Yankees finally woke up and realized their approach to building a bullpen is stupid (how does Cashman keep his job?), and as a result their bullpen this year will be both better and cheaper.

The article makes no comparisons whatever between the Yankees and other teams, makes no claims about the relative value/effectiveness of the Yankees bullpen versus other teams. All it does is compare the Yankees old approach to the new, and concludes they upgraded their bullpen without spending very much at all.

Again, good analysis, but don't put words in Sheehan's mouth and then claim the analytical high ground.

Mar 03, 2009 10:47 AM
rating: 7
 
Matt Kory

I understand Mr. Sheehan's point (I think) that the Yankees, independent of other teams, have improved their decision making as evidenced by their bullpen construction. However, I think its fair to compare them to their direct competition, as jayhawkbill's did. One way to judge how the effectiveness of the Yankees 'improved' thought process is to look at their direct competition.

Mar 03, 2009 11:14 AM
rating: 1
 
eighteen

Oh, I think Jayhawk's analysis is very good, and carried the article further down the analytical and discussion path. My problem is with him sneering at Sheehan over something Joe never said or implied in the article.

Mar 03, 2009 14:30 PM
rating: 0
 
JayhawkBill

Don't put words in Joe Sheehan's mouth? Let's check his actual, exact words from the close of his article again:

"Not wasting money on old relief pitchers and giving those jobs to $400,000-per-year players is one way to afford market-value commitments to free agents. The Yankee roster is increasingly bifurcated into eight-figure and six-figure players, and that's the proper way to assemble a baseball team these days. Concentrate your resources in your stars, then use player development, scouting, and performance analysis to fill out the roster with inexpensive players who are worth far more than they're being paid. The assembly of the 2009 bullpen, as much as the $400-odd million spent on free agents, is what should be scary for the rest of the AL East. That kind of quality decision-making goes a lot further than a checkbook does."

See, I don't see the assembly of a group of pitchers whom Clay Davenport's Depth Charts estimate to be fourth-best of five AL East teams' bullpens this year as "scary for the rest of the AL East." I also don't see "not wasting money on old relief pitchers and giving those jobs to $400,000-per-year players" as the Yankees' secret to affording high-salary free agents; I see setting their payroll roughly $50 million higher than any other team's payroll and roughly 150% higher than the median MLB team's payroll as their secret to affording so many free agents, and I think that it wouldn't have made much difference overall had they invested another two percent of their payroll - maybe four million dollars - in set-up and long relief, as both Toronto and Tampa Bay have chosen to do this year. Calling the decision to rely on some lower-priced pitching talent as "quality decision-making (that) goes a lot further than a checkbook does" seems misleading when the difference between the Yankees' payroll and the median MLB payroll is over 20 times greater than the difference between the Yankees' non-closer bullpen payroll and the Orioles' non-closer bullpen payroll, the highest such payroll in the AL East. It just seems, at least for the Yankees, that the checkbook can and does go further...much further.

If that's "sneering at Sheehan over something Joe never said or implied in the article," as you wrote below, well, my apologies to Mr. Sheehan. I'd thought that I had been disagreeing with him on the exact core points of his article's summary, not sneering at something never written. Joe Sheehan was and is a good professional writer, and I'm just an amateur who saw a different perspective on this one issue, researched it, and posted it.

Perhaps, though, the results of the 2009 season will differ from what seems likely from PECOTA. PECOTA's not perfect, and the Yankees' bullpen could prove deep and dominating this year. Still, PECOTA's been as good as any system in recent years, especially with the recent improvements in how it projects minor league players, and I'll take PECOTA over any single expert's subjective ideas. But Joe knows his stuff about MLB talent way better than most professionals and almost all amateurs, and it's certainly possible that he sees something PECOTA doesn't.

But my figurative money is almost always on PECOTA in early March, except where injuries have altered the Depth Charts, and PECOTA and the Depth Charts consider the Yankees' bullpen less strong than those of their divisional rivals, excepting the Orioles' bullpen. If the Yankees bullpen is a comparative weakness, I'm not sure that Joe's analysis is accurate, especially if the Rays and the Blue Jays did better for little more investment.

Mar 04, 2009 15:04 PM
rating: -1
 
eighteen

Then I owe you an apology for misreading your post's tenor.

I still think the article is confined to discussing a change in process, and you're taking that a step further by analyzing the new process' results. As I said before, I think you did that very well; and it's a necessary follow-up to the article because, as you note, the Yankees don't benefit much from a new approach if all it does is save them a few bucks.

Mar 05, 2009 01:37 AM
rating: 0
 
kylelitke

Good article, although at the moment it seems like Bruney is more likely to act as setup man along with Marte than Edwar is. Edwar has been too inconsistent for the Yankees to trust him in that role right now, I suspect.

Mar 03, 2009 00:01 AM
rating: 1
 
Adam Madison

As soon as I read the description, I thought to myself, "This sounds like a piece Joe would write only because he's a Yankees fan."

Mar 03, 2009 04:42 AM
rating: -3
 
yanks2009

I think Joe's point is that the Yankee bullpen is improving without them spending globs of money on highly overrated pitchers. He doesn't say that the team is better than the rest in the AL East. His point is that the bullpen, which has been a major source of headaches for the team, is now going on the right track.

Mar 03, 2009 06:10 AM
rating: 6
 
Rob_in_CT

The Yanks have finally figured out that handing large amounts of money to the Kyle Farnsworths of the world is a bad idea. Hurray. It's something.

Mar 03, 2009 08:03 AM
rating: 4
 
eighteen

I think the Marte contract shows the Yankees really haven't learned their lesson, that the current reliance on (mostly) homegrown talent is more a function of circumstance than design. I have a hard time believing Cashman and/or the Steinbrenners woke up one day and said "Hey, we gotta change our bullpen approach."

Mar 03, 2009 10:53 AM
rating: 1
 
ekatta

Not discounting the VORP comparisons because numbers don't lie and jayhawkbill I did enjoy your analysis, but look at any article written about the Yankees/mentions the Yankees doing something well at all, then read the comments section. It will always be almost entirely Red sox fans complaining the article was biased for reason x y or z for the Yankees and look at the red sox stats etc.
Now look at any article about the red sox, and look at the comments section. Same thing, except this time it's praise for the red sox and why the yankees stink.
Considering this is a primarily stats related website, where all of the articles really revolve around statistical analysis to make points, I appreciate Jayhawkbill's anaylitic reply instead of just cutting into why Rivera stinks and is over the hill etc, but in general redsox fans really have to take it down a notch. But I don't think that will happen, so I'll just stop reading comments sections. Thanks.

Mar 03, 2009 09:29 AM
rating: -2
 
hippoes

Are we even looking at the same website? Not that you will ever read this, but just wondering what you are on about.

Mar 03, 2009 12:29 PM
rating: -1
 
jnossal

"Jose Veras can get both righties and lefties out in the seventh inning"

Really? Because he gave up 5 HRs to LHs in 25 IP with the Yanks last year. His minor league splits are somewhat mixed given that he's pitched less than 30 innings with four teams the last two years. In his last extended minor league campaign (2006 Columbus, 52 IP), Veras was indeed effective vs both sides. But in Oklahoma 2005, he was again tattooed by LHs with a 5.61 FIP over 64 innings.

Platoon splits can be highly variable. But to casually toss off the claim that Veras won't need a LOOGY wingman to cover his flank from LH power...I'm not buying it. More likely Veras is just the second coming of Felix Rodriguez and that tale has already been told.

Mar 03, 2009 11:11 AM
rating: 3
 
destro55

Yes, really. In 2008 Veras held lefties to a .217 BAA and .413 slugging. Homeruns happen, and a small sample of only 5 doesnt prove or disprove anything. You might as well mention he only allowed one double to a lefty. Look at the bigger picture.

Mar 03, 2009 11:48 AM
rating: 0
 
destro55

And for what its worth, for his career he's help lefties to a .388 slugging and a .207 BAA, which 44K's in 49 IP. That's pretty much the dictionary definition of being effective against lefties.

Mar 03, 2009 12:03 PM
rating: 0
 
jnossal

Mmm. So small sample size discounts the 5 homers, but apparently not a factor when considering the 217/433 split?

Where'd you come up with 49 IP? In his major league career, Veras has thrown 78 IP, with 30 against LHs in the last two years. I don't have the 2006 splits handy, but even if all 11 of his IP that year were vs LHs, you can't come close to 49 IP.

Maybe Veras made a jump. He has a live arm. Maybe he'll be better. It happens. But I'm saying a blithe assertion that he'll have no trouble vs LHs runs contrary to an existing history. And I don't even want to go into the fact that his 4.5 BB9 last year was the BEST rate of his major league career. (Minor league rate 3.6 BB9, if you were wondering).

I am honestly glad though that at least someone had more evidence for their argument than a simple, "he'll do fine".

Mar 03, 2009 20:28 PM
rating: 0
 
Ogremace

I think it'll be interesting to see if Bruney can demonstrate his talent level over a full season. Injuries have limited his effectiveness with the Yankees but anyone who has watched him has to be impressed. He comes right at hitters (even if he sometimes misses his locations) and he has great power stuff.

Despite his lack of durability and his terrible BB rate in '07 he's been one of the reliable bullpen arms since coming from Arizona and i think he's got a chance to really show people how great he can be this coming season.

Mar 03, 2009 17:21 PM
rating: 0
 
Darsox64

Stanton and and Nelson weren't anything special from '98 to '00. Ironically, this is a question of perception versus reality

As a result of the amazing defense of 1998 and decent defense of 99, those shiny ERAs, according to Davenport, should have been

1998 1999
Stanton 5.75 4.49
Nelson 5.83 4.38

On a certain level, this only drives home Joe's point, but at the same time, the Yankees never had a good bullpen beyond Rivera. They just once had a good defense (and VALUED it, for example, by employing Brosius), in comparison to the past seven years or so.

Mar 04, 2009 22:48 PM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Just because the guys you threw a lot of money at didn't perform well doesn't mean that using in-house candidates will be any better - just cheaper.

BP loves to downplay the importance of relievers but some of the biggest successes (Philly last year) and biggest disasters (Cleve every other year) are directly related to bullpen performance.

The BP mantra seems to be - go cheap - because they may be just as good. But teams that have already made a significant investment in other talent (Yankees) can't afford to just roll the dice and sees where it lands. They did that with Hughes and Kennedy and it was a disaster and wasted all the investment they made in other salaries.

There answer - sign more SP talent to put the odds in their favor. Do they really want ot see that further investment go down the tubes relying on inexperienced relievers like they did with the inexperienced starters last year?

Mar 05, 2009 14:33 PM
rating: 0
 
jnossal

Yep, well, I'm guessing nobody is going to see this, but Veras got DFAed today after posting a stellar 5.96 ERA in 26 IP while walking 14 and allowing three HRs in 11 IP vs LHs. Yeah, I know small sample size. But it was big enough for the Yankees.

I like Joe Sheehan's columns. But he really does put on the Yankee goggles a little too often.

Jun 16, 2009 20:40 PM
rating: 0
 
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