THE MAKING OF A BULLPEN
PART 1: Trial and Error
The New York Yankees broke camp in Tampa, FL with seven relief pitchers and a hope that what they did last season and throughout the spring was not an illusion. Mariano Rivera was entrenched, as always, as the closer and there were no more questions about his health after his minor shoulder surgery over the winter.
The big question remained: Why was Joba Chamberlain in the rotation when the Yankees needed a set-up man for him. Manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland had faith in Brian Bruney, who had pitched so well last season before a foot sprain cost him four months of the season.
Phil Coke was impressive too. The former starter did well last season down the stretch and he had a sensational spring. Coke showed Girardi he could get both righthanders and lefthanders out and that he came into games throwing strikes.
The rest of the bullpen had some holdovers from last season’s bullpen that Girardi ultimately trusted. Damaso Marte came over in a trade with Pittsburgh as a lefty specialist but he did not perform well. After participating in the WBC in the spring, Marte came up with a sore left shoulder. The Yankees hoped it had healed for him to start the season. He did start the season but he was not healthy.
Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras both had their moments last season. Ramirez was impressive with his change-up and Veras had an impressive fastball and slider combination. But both also had moments when they could be wild. Yankee fans have long been wary of Veras when he was wild.
The last spot in the bullpen supposedly would go to a long relief specialist. Girardi said the candidates were last season’s holdover Dan Giese, late-season call-up Alfredo Aceves and spring free-agent signee Brett Tomko.
But Eiland and Girardi decided to release Giese and send Tomko and Aceves back to Triple A in order to keep Jonathan Albaladejo for the second straight season. Albaladejo, when he is on, is able to get groundouts with his sinking fastball and Girardi likes the mix he brings.
This is the bullpen the Yankees used to back what was arguably the best rotation they have had in years: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain.
But of the seven relief pitchers Girardi selected, only two of those pitchers are still in the bullpen and stayed on the active roster all season: Coke and Rivera. Two of the relief pitchers were placed on the disabled list (Bruney and Marte) and Marte is still rehabbing his shoulder that still has not healed from his work in the WBC.
One pitcher is no longer with the organization at all. Veras was designated for assignment on June 16 and he was claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Indians. His inconsistency has vexed Yankee fans for the last time.
Edwar Ramirez was optioned to Triple A on May 19 and has not returned. Ramirez was not getting his fastball over enough to make his change-up effective. His wildness led him to have to lay fastballs over the plate and hitters rocked his average fastball enough that Girardi had enough and sent him down.
Albaladejo was optioned to Triple on May 22 but has been back on two other occasions. He was recently recalled when Brett Gardner was placed on the disabled list but he is not expected to stay. The Yankees had wanted him as an extra arm for a limited bullpen and they plan to option him back to Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
PART 2: THE NEW CAST TAKES SHAPE
The Yankees tried a whole new cast of characters to replace the relievers they lost to injury and ineffectiveness. Two young guns were summoned from the minors early in April. Anthony Claggett was one. But he probably wished he never was called up.
He was called upon to pitch after Chien-Ming Wang had been shelled for eight runs and 1 1/3 innings against the Indians on April 18. Claggett did better than Wang but only slightly. he gave up eight runs in 1 2/3 innings. He and his 43.20 ERA have not been seen since.
Steven Jackson was another. But he never got a chance to pitch and he was eventually optioned back to Scranton and later was placed on waivers. the Pittsburgh Pirates claimed him and he is now pitching for them.
The Yankees then tried David Robertson and Mark Melancon, two young relievers the Yankees believe have a great future in the major leagues.
Robertson has pitched pretty well at times while Melancon has not shown he is ready to pitch yet at the major league level quite yet. After being sent up and down a few times, Robertson is back in the Yankees plans for the second half. Melancon was back at Scranton.
However, Melancon was recalled on July 10 to replace Albaladejo on the roster. He pitched against the Angels on that date and gave up three runs (two earned) and his ERA is currently at 7.71. He has not pitched in a game since. Albaladejo’s ERA is at 5.04 and he has not pitched since July 9. So it is a good bet that Melancon will be sent back to Scranton today and Albaladejo will remain with the team until Marte is ready to be activated.
In May the Yankees tried their two “long-relief” candidates from the spring: Alfredo Aceves and Brett Tomko. Aceves was recalled May 4 and Tomko came up on May 9. Both added a bit of stability to the bullpen.
Aceves only got better over time. Tomko, however, reached a point where he was not pitching much and when he was he was not effective. The Yankees designated for him for assignment July 21 and he likely will be released by the organization.
The last addition to the bullpen happened quite by circumstances and accident. Phil Hughes was called up to replace Chien-Ming Wang in the starting rotation. Hughes did well in his first start but he gave eight earned runs in his third start against Baltimore and after six starts and a 3-2 record and a 5.45 ERA, the Yankees decided to put Wang back n the rotation and Hughes would stay in the bullpen.
Of course, Hughes was expected to be sent back to Scranton to keep his innings up as a starter. But that did not happen. Hughes stayed and Hughes got better and better in the bullpen.
Now he is considered the set-up man for Rivera. Now the once-maligned Yankees bullpen is looking a lot better and a lot deeper.
The revised seven are: Melancon, Robertson, Bruney, Aceves, Coke, Hughes and Rivera.
Part 3: THE BULLPEN STARTS OFF BADLY
The original group of seven relievers, including Rivera, got off to a very shaky start to the season. Remember that on May 8, when Alex Rodriguez returned to the starting lineup, the Yankees had a sub-.500 record of 13-15.
Here is an interesting statistic about the bullpen during those first 28 games. Of the Yankees’ 15 losses, six of them were as a result of the bullpen. Phil Coke, who struggled mightily in April, was tagged with two of the losses. Albaladejo, Veras, Marte and Rivera were charged with the others.
The starting pitchers lost the rest of those games. If you remember, Wang was pitching hurt and he lost all three of his starts. Sabathia was very inconsistent in April and he lost three his starts. Pettitte, Chamberlain and Hughes each lost one.
Part 4: BULLPEN PICKS IT UP IN MAY
In May, with A-Rod back, Tex hitting and the starters pitc
hing a bit better, the bullpen started losing less games and keeping the Yankees in more games. After a May 7 game in which Rivera lost a tied game to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth inning on a Carlos Pena home run, through June 6, the Yankees bullpen only lost a total of four games.
The Yankees record during that stretch was 23-8. The four losses were charged to Tomko, Aceves, Coke and Rivera again. Rivera blew a 7-5 lead to the Rays in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on June 6 for his only blown save of the season.
The starters lost the other four games. Burnett lost two and Hughes and Pettitte lost one apiece.
Part 5: NEAR PERFECTION SINCE
Here are the numbers that will prove the Yankees bullpen has been a intergral part of the team’s overall success. Since the Yankees were 32-23 on June 6 when Rivera blew his lone save, the Yankees record has been 28-15. The bullpen has only lost wo of those games.
Brett Tomko, used in relief of a game CC Sabathia was forced to leave early due to biceps tendinitis, lost a game 6-5 to the Florida Marlins on June 21.
Mark Melancon, used in relief of a struggling Joba Chamberlain in Anaheim on July 10, ended up losing to the Angels 10-6.
Since Phil Hughes made his first relief appearance on June 8, it is a safe bet to say it has been the main catalyst in the one of the best bullpen turnarounds in a long time. Experts from all over the spectrum had predicted that the Yankees would not beat the Boston Red Sox in the American League East because of the Red Sox superiority in the bullpen.
Where are those experts now?
Do they still believe the Yankees bullpen is so bad it will cost them the division?
Let’s look at some stats from June 6 (Aceves start on July 9 is not included):
Rivera: 19 games, 19.1 innings, 5 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 19 strikeouts, 0.47 ERA
Hughes: 18 games, 25.2 innings, 13 hits, 2 runs, 6 walks, 31 strikeouts, 0.70 ERA
Aceves: 15 games, 22 innings, 16 hits, 4 runs, 3 walks, 16 strikeouts, 1.64 ERA
Coke: 24 games, 20.2 innings, 13 hits, 7 runs, 5 walks, 20 strikeouts, 3.05 ERA
** Coke’s ERA excluding a nightmarish outing against the Angels on July 11 when he gave up 4 runs in one inning would be 1.37.
Part 6: BRUNEY SHOWING SIGNS
Brian Bruney has had a rough season. Tabbed as the Yankees set-up man coming out of spring training Bruney wanted to prove right away the Yankees did not need Joba Chamberlain as long as he was around.
He promptly pitched poorly in his first outing, giving up two runs to the Orioles in April 6. But from that appearance until he injured his elbow on April 21, Bruney showed why he was chosen for the role. In seven games he pitched 6.2 innings, gave up no hits, no runs, walked none and struck out 12.
He tried to come back to the Yankees on May 19. He pitched a scoreless inning but went back on the disabled list. He was activated off the disabled list June 16 but he has not been the same pitcher since his return.
In 10 appearances Bruney pitched 8.1 innings, 11 hits, 8 runs, 8 walks and 7 strikeouts. The ERA during that stretch was a very ugly 8.64. Yankee fans have booed him unmercifully.
But Girardi may be seeing signs of getting his closer back. Bruney last two outing have been good. 1.3 inning, 0 runs, 1 hit and no walks and 3 Ks. Bruney struck out Oakland’s Mark Ellis with runners on second and third with one out. Girardi called it the biggest out of the game.
So if Bruney is in fact recovering from his elbow problems he could add to what already is a strong bullpen. Add a healthy Marte to the mix and the Yankees might have their deppest bullpen since the days of Rivera, Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson and Ramiro Mendoza.