Closer: Mariano Rivera
Set-Up Man: Phil Hughes
Lefthander: Phil Coke
Righthander: Brian Bruney
Long Man: Alfredo Aceves
In the first half of the season, the New York Yankees bullpen was very much a work in progress. By the end of the season it was a major strength of the team.
Give some credit for that to pitching coach Dave Eiland and manager Joe Girardi.
Spring training opened with many doubts about the Yankees’ bullpen. There were concerns about the offseason shoulder surgery on Mariano Rivera. There were doubts the Yankees had anyone who could get the ball to Rivera in the ninth. There also were questions on why no major moves were made when the bullpen failed so badly in 2008.
The Yankees broke camp with seven relievers: Rivera, Phil Coke, Brian Bruney, Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, Damaso Marte and Jonathan Albaladejo. Girardi had an audition for a long reliever in the spring between Dan Giese, Brett Tomko and Alfredo Aceves but chose Albaladejo for the second season in a row as his final addition to the 2009 pen. The team released Giese and Aceves and Tomko were sent to Triple A.
But April was not kind to this group.
The Yankees starting rotation did not pitch real well as a group and the team’s offense was missing Alex Rodriguez recovering from hip surgery. Still, the bullpen was contributing to that 13-15 record the Yankees had on May 8 when Rodriguez returned.
Six of the team’s 15 losses were attributable to the bullpen. Phil Coke lost two and Albaladejo, Veras, Marte and Rivera each lost one.
Eiland and Girardi decided that the bullpen could be better and they started looking for replacements for some of the original seven down on the farm.
Bruney, who looked to be the chosen one as the bridge to Rivera, pitched brilliantly in April until he started having issues with his right elbow. He was placed on the disabled list.
Marte, who had come up with shoulder problems after pitching in the World Baseball Classic, proved that he was not completely recovered from the injury and he was placed on the disabled list also a day after Bruney.
Eiland and Girardi opted for young righthander David Robertson and former starter Alfredo Aceves as bullpen replacements for Bruney and Marte. Tomko was later called up and replaced Robertson in the mix.
But in May, the Yankees continued to have problems with some members of the bullpen. The Yankees chose to option Ramirez back to Triple A on May 19 when Bruney was activated. But Bruney lasted only one appearance before he went back on the disabled list on May 26 and Robertson was recalled again.
On June 16, the Yankees finally decided to designate Veras for assignment for his recurring problems with finding the strike zone. Yankee fans who taken to booing Veras as much as former reliever Kyle Farnsworth, were pleased by the move. Bruney was activated again to replace Veras on the roster.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had called up Phil Hughes to replace Chien-Ming Wang as a starter in the rotation and he did start seven games from April 28 through May 31 with some spotty success. He was 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA.
Wang returned to the rotation and Hughes was shifted to the bullpen — temporarily. The idea was to keep Hughes around just in case Wang needed help out of the bullpen as he built up his arm strength.
But Wang instead landed back on the DL and this time it would be for the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury that required surgery. However, rather then use Hughes as a starter, the Yankees decided to keep him there.
It was a great move too because Hughes became the bridge to Rivera that Bruney could not be after his elbow injury. Many Yankee fans circle May 8 when Rodriguez returned as the third baseman for the Yankees climb back into contention in the American League East race.
But you also may want to circle July 3. That is the first time Hughes was used in the eighth inning as the bridge to Rivera. He has had that role ever since and the Yankees bullpen has been sensational from June through September.
The Yankees ran off a 23-8 record from May 8 to June 6 and the bullpen lost only four of those games: Tomko, Aceves, Coke and Rivera.
But from June 6 on, the Yankees bullpen was nearly flawless. From that date on June 6 through July 10 the Yankees were 23-15. The bullpen lost only two of those games.
Tomko and young righthander Mark Melancon came in to pitch early and ended up taking the loss in those games.
The new bullpen cast of Tomko, Robertson, Aceves and Hughes added to holdovers Bruney, Coke and Rivera was proving to be effective. But Bruney did struggle to regain his form after his two stints on the disabled list.
Brian Cashman also made his worst decision of 2009 on July 21. He designated Tomko for assignment and decided to go along with Girardi’s choice and allow Sergio Mitre to become the replacement for Wang after the All-Star break. Mitre failed miserably as a fifth starter and Tomko recorded a 4-1 record with a 2.95 ERA for Oakland. Oops!
But the bullpen came on strong after the All-Star break. The team was 51-37 at the break and was 52-22 after the break. The bullpen lost only five of those 22 games:
Hughes lost one on July 30 and Robertson lost another the next night. Marte lost a game on Sept. 11 and another on Sept. 30. Rivera lost one on Sept 18 to the Mariners on Ichiro’s two-run blast in the ninth to end his consecutive saves streak at career-best 36 straight.
That was it.
Look at the won-loss records of those in the bullpen:
They combined for a record of 35-13 for a .729 wining percentage. The high number decisions was due to some early departures by Yankee starters and the Yankees’ penchant for coming back to win games late. The team had 15 walkoff wins this season and they also lead the league in come-from-behind victories.
The bullpen was a large part of the reason why.
Rivera led the way with a 1.76 ERA and 44 saves in 46 tries.
But, Hughes actually was even better with a 1.40 ERA out of the bullpen with 65 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings.
Aceves’ 3.54 ERA is deceiving because he gave up nine runs over six innings in three consecutive appearances in August when he was experiencing fatigue in his arm. He also gave up three earned runs in 3 1/3 innings in a spot start July 9.
But in his 42 relief appearances this season, Aceves held the opposition scoreless in 25 of them. He gave up only one run in another eight games. So Aceves certainly earned Girardi’s trust as long r
eliever this season.
Coke was also better than his 4.50 ERA might indicate. Coke did pitch poorly in April with his ERA for the month reaching 5.73. But on July 4 Coke had lowered his season ERA to a season low 2.97.
But on July 11, Coke gave four runs in a relief appearance against the Angels in Anaheim and on Aug. 1 he was roughed up for six runs by the White Sox in Chicago. Between those two outings, Coke’s ERA jumped back to 4.98.
In his last 23 appearances of the season he was scored upon in only three and all of those were in August.
Bruney also has shown improvement since his ERA ballooned to 6.16 on July 29. In August and September combined, Bruney pitched in 21 games and 20 innings with an ERA of 1.80 and 13 strikeouts. He has also walked 13 batters in those 20 innings, which is still a concern. But Girardi thinks Bruney can contribute and he may earn a postseason spot in the bullpen.
Robertson was headed for true stardom this season before a balky elbow in September shelved him until the final week of the season. Robertson drew raves because of his ability to strike out batters despite not having a mid-90s fastball.
In just 43 2/3 innings pitched this season, Robertson has fanned 63 batters, a rate higher than Hughes and Rivera. He also has showed he can hold a lead in the middle innings. He was unscored upon in 32 of 45 appearances and in his final 17 appearances he did not give up a run in 14 of those.
If Robertson’s two appearances in the final series against the Tampa Bay Rays shows Eiland and Girardi he is healthy he could supplant Bruney on the postseason roster.
Marte likely will make the roster simply because he adds another lefthander to the bullpen besides Coke. Marte is 1-3 with a 9.45 ERA. But to be fair, Marte did pitch most of the early season with a bad shoulder and spent most of the rest of the season trying to rehab it.
If you throw out a dreadful four-run pounding in 1/3 of an inning at home against the Orioles on Sept. 11, Marte actually had a 1.17 ERA from Aug. 21 until the end of the season and he was effective against lefthanded hitters.
In the first half of the 2009 season, I gave this bullpen a overall grade of C+ because of the struggles of Veras and Ramirez and injuries to Marte and Bruney.
But with the ascension from the minors of Aceves and Robertson and the addition of Hughes and the recovery of Marte and Bruney, the bullpen — including Coke and the always sensational Rivera — just kept getting better and better as the season wore on.
This corps kept the Yankees in games so they could come back and they rarely lost leads in the late innings and allowed the Yankees to hold the leads that they did earn. So you have to give this bullpen an A+ for the second half of the season.
I would give it an overall grade of B+ only because of the early problems that later were worked out and the uncertainty about Bruney and Marte heading into the playoffs.
But one thing is for sure. The Twins will not like facing this bullpen anyway. Adding Joba Chamberlain to the bullpen mix only makes it that much deeper for the American League Division Series. This bullpen is simply the backbone of this team right now.
MID-SEASON BULLPEN GRADE: A+
OVERALL BULLPEN GRADE: B+