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June 17, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Bullish on the Pen?

by Ben Kabak

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As the season began, the AL East bullpens took center stage in this space. As I noted then, the team whose bullpen had the highest WXRL had won the division in each of the past five years, and with some AL East clubs saddled with starting staffs chock full o’ question marks, relief arms figured to play a key role this season.

Last week, the division’s bullpens again drew headlines. The Yankees, armed with the American League’s best bullpen, saw their last remaining depth crumble away as set-up man Joba Chamberlain landed on the disabled list with a strained right elbow flexor. He has since undergone Tommy John surgery and will not return until early 2012. Although he says he felt no pain and couldn’t pinpoint when he was injured, it's clear that the Joba Rules failed to protect him, if indeed they didn't contribute to the damage.

Chamberlain joined an impressive list of disabled Yankees hurlers. The club already had $17.75 million invested in the injured trio of Damaso Marte, Pedro Feliciano, and Rafael Soriano, and with Phil Hughes out, the Yanks’ disabled relievers currently have a better pedigree than the healthy ones.

Despite Soriano’s ineffectiveness and the other arms being out for the season, the Yanks’ pen was the AL East front-runner over the first two months of the season. Let’s stack ’em up:

 

IP

HR

BB

K

ERA

Yankees

186.1

10

83

161

3.04

Rays

167.2

11

67

115

3.44

Rays

221

25

86

185

3.71

Red Sox

196

16

69

175

4.08

Orioles

218.1

35

88

186

4.37

Predictably, the Yankees’ bullpen has suffered a downturn over the last week. When Chamberlain succumbed to his wounds, the pen sported a sparking 2.76 ERA. In the ensuing 14 innings, the new crop of relievers—featuring Jeff Marquez, Amauri Sanit and Lance Pendleton, and which now includes Cory Wade—has walked 11 while striking out 16 and allowing two home runs. A torturous series against the Red Sox and some bad pitching in a blowout on Friday night against the Indians contributed to the uptick in runs allowed. Still, on the whole, the relievers have done an admirable job in the Bronx.

So far this year, the Yanks’ bullpen has gotten by on a combination of groundballs, strikeouts, and luck. The club’s K-rate of 7.8 per 9 innings ranks among the top four in the American League, and its 1.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio places the Bombers sixth among the Junior Circuit teams. Allowing a shade under 0.5 home runs per nine innings has limited the damage as well. But can they keep it up?

Looking closely at the team’s individual relievers reveals some fascinating statistics. At the top of the heap is David Robertson’s unusual season. In essence, Robertson has become a two-true-outcomes pitcher. A full 36.4 percent of plate appearances against the high-socks-sporting reliever have resulted in a strikeout, and his 14.7 K/9 IP is tops among AL relievers. On the flip side, he’s walking more than six men per nine innings. He has yet to allow a home run this year.

Robertson’s ability to keep the ball in the park and to keep batters from making solid contact has been the foundation of his success this year. His 19 percent line drive rate is just above the league average, and his fly balls are leaving the infield at a league-average rate. A 44.6 percent groundball rate places him in the top quarter of the league, but since so many of his plate appearances end without a ball in play, he hasn’t put himself in a position to give up many home runs. That he has cut down on his career line drive numbers suggests that he’s preventing opponents from making solid contact, but with a career home run rate of around 0.8 per nine innings, history dictates that someone will hit a home run off of Robertson soon enough.

Other Yankee relievers—the ones still healthy—are exhibiting similar tendencies. The ageless Mariano Rivera has yet to give up a home run this season, and while his strikeout rate is above average, Rivera’s walk rate, unlike Robertson’s, is well below the AL norm. Rivera is usually good for a handful of home runs a year, and this is the first year since 2002 that he has given up more flyballs than groundballs. As usual, though, he’s the least of the Yanks’ worries.

Most of the question marks concern the two guys who will be asked to pick up the bulk of the high-leverage innings with Chamberlain, Feliciano, Marte, and Soriano on the shelf. Luis Ayala and Boone Logan aren’t household names in American League cities, and most Yankee fans shudder to think of Logan facing a tough lefty in a tight situation. Logan, after all, has allowed 17 of the 46 lefties he has faced to reach base, after limiting them to a .190/.286/.215 line last season. He too has been remarkably lucky with the longball, allowing only one. He also has a 43.4 percent groundball rate and is keeping hitters to singles instead of extra bases at a rate nearly 10 percentage points better than his career mark.

Luis Ayala has been a revelation. Out of the majors last year, the one-time victim of the World Baseball Classic is sporting a 1.40 ERA for the Yanks. He has 15 strike outs in 19.1 innings and has issued seven walks while surrendering only one home run. As with the other Yankee relievers, his key indicators—groundball rate, line-drive rate, and home run total—are better than league average, and he too is limiting most of the damage done by opposing hitters to singles. Historically, his strikeout and home run rates have been worse that the marks he has mustered this year. Ayala is also sporting a groundball rate four percentage points above his career average.

With Chamberlain out for the year and Feliciano also unlikely to see action for the rest of the season, the Yankees will turn the ball over to a group of relievers who are showing the right tendencies but outpitching their past records. No one thought David Robertson, Luis Ayala, and Boone Logan would be called upon to construct the bridge to Mariano, and until and unless Rafael Soriano returns, they will be. Finding guys who are either stingy with flyballs or can strike out everyone can lead to bullpen success. The Yanks’ relief corps will be a lesson in team-building on the fly, and as relievers are often the most unpredictable of performers on the diamond, the duct-tape approach just might hold the pen together, as long as the balls continue to stay in the park.

Note: all stats through Tuesday.

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