Offseason discussion this year has focused on hitting and starting pitching, which is as it should be. What's new, however, is that until the Yankees signed Chan-Ho Park virtually no attention had been paid to the bullpen. As recently as 2007 the team was so desperate for a reliable reliever that Joba Chamberlain was called up to the Majors early to stop the bleeding. This season the fanbase seems to take a solid bullpen as a given.
It's difficult not to credit Joe Girardi for the change. While Joe Torre was notorious for picking one or two relievers and then ruining their careers, Girardi prefers precisely the opposite. As a casual fan I first began noticing that he was rotating through all his relievers in mid-2008, right before Kyle Farnsworth was traded for Pudge Rodriguez. Mid-season Michael Kay began explaining that Farnsworth and Edwar Ramirez had both gone the equivalent of 9 innings without giving up a hit, and had therefore pitched no-hitters. Two things stood out to me about this. First, I noted that Michael Kay is a moron. Second, statistically he was right. I credited Girardi's commitment to keeping his relievers fresh, and giving everyone a chance to prove himself. But do the data play that out?
Here's the Yankee bullpen, from 2007, non-Mariano edition:
Luis Vizcaino - 4.30 ERA, 71.1 IP
Kyle Farnsworth - 4.80 ERA, 60.0 IP
Scott Proctor - 3.81 ERA, 54.1 IP
Brian Bruney - 4.68 ERA, 50.0 IP
Ron Villone - 4.25 ERA, 42.1 IP
Mike Myers - 2.66 ERA, 40.2 IP
40 innings pitched is an arbitrary cut-off, but it proves the point. Torre also got 70+ innings out of Mo that season. His bullpen therefore fell disproportionately on Mariano and Vizcaino, with some preference for Farnsworth, Proctor and Bruney (it's a wonder we clinched the Wild Card), but they definitely appear to be second choices. After Myers the workload on an individual reliever falls off considerably.
Now, let's look at the the Yankee bullpen from 2008, non-Mariano edition:
Jose Veras - 3.59 ERA, 57.2 IP
Edwar Ramirez - 3.90 ERA, 55.1 IP
Kyle Farnsworth - 3.65 ERA, 44.1 IP
Dan Giese - 3.53 ERA, 43.1 IP
LaTroy Hawkins - 5.71 ERA, 41.0 IP
Ross Ohlendorf - 6.52 ERA, 40.0 IP
The first thing that jumps out at me is that these guys suck. Only Ramirez is still in the Yankee system. The second thing that stands out is not entirely on screen. The workload is evenly distributed. Girardi preferred Veras and Ramirez (never good) but didn't overwork anyone. Unlike in 2007, in 2008 there was a steady diet of additional relievers who almost saw 40 innings: 6 with 30 innings pitched or more, in fact. In '07 Sean Henn saw 36 innings and Torre gave no one else the ball for 30 all season.
The difference in distribution is incredible. Girardi gave the ball to 12 different pitchers for at least 30 innings to get to Mo over the 2008 season. Torre gave it to 7 different pitchers for at least 30 innings. The Yankees had roughly the same aggregated innings and pitchers in '07 and '08. The team had 28 different pitchers in 2007 (Colter Bean anyone?) for 1,450.2 innings. In 2008 the team used 27 different pitchers for 1,441.2 innings. Therefore, Torre did in fact over use his preferred pitchers, relative to Girardi. There are roughly 150 innings that Girardi gave to five different arms that Torre more or less dumped on his top 7.
That difference alone may not explain the improved bullpen performance, but the numbers indicate that Girardi got better returns from the 'pen. With the exception of Ramirez, Girardi's top 4 guys outperformed Torre's across the board.
Girardi actually used the bullpen differently in 2009:
Phil Hughes - 3.03 ERA, 86.0 IP
Alfredo Aceves - 3.54 ERA, 84.0 IP
Phil Coke - 4.50 ERA, 60 IP
Sergio Mitre - 6.79 ERA, 51.2 IP
David Robertson - 3.30 ERA, 43.2 IP
Chien-Ming Wang - 9.64 ERA, 42.0 IP
Chad Gaudin - 3.43 ERA, 42.0 IP
Brian Bruney - 3.92 ERA, 39.0 IP
Including Bruney admittedly breaks the rule, but it was arbitrary and 39 innings is very close to 40. The pattern breaks a bit because the Yankees became spoiled for potential starters at the end of 2009. Hughes, Aceves, Mitre, Wang and Gaudin each made both relief and starting appearances. I'm too lazy to find a website that breaks out the numbers.
As a result, while Girardi continued to give the ball to a wide variety of relievers, that distribution was not as even as it was in 2008. Furthermore, Hughes established himself as a bridge to Mo with a starter's durability and Aceves earned the long-relief job. It's one thing to rely too much on a few relievers. It's another thing to have established jobs for outstanding performers and give them more innings so long as they're not being exhausted. I give Girardi the benefit of the doubt that he did the latter.
The 2009 list is pretty much the bullpen the team will have in 2010, minus Bruney, Coke (good riddance!) and Wang (good luck in D.C.) plus Park, whose AL relief value is an unknown. That's a list of guys who put up fine-looking numbers in 2009, and Sergio Mitre, who must have compromising pictures of someone in the Yankee organization.
The team is banking on repeat performances, particularly from Hughes, Aceves and Robertson. That same logic backfired last season. Veras and Ramirez started the season with high expectations and were run out of the Bronx. That fluctuation may explain, in part, why the team went after Park. If a solid bullpen couldn't keep it together from '08 to '09 why should it change its tendencies from '09 to '10?
For my part, I have faith in some but not all of our middle relievers. Hughes is the real deal, and I believe he'll be an excellent starter in a year or two. Robertson and Gaudin are young, and show real potential, particularly Robertson if his shoulder issues are ancient history. After that, I'm not convinced. I would not be surprised if Aceves, as much as I like him, turns out to be this year's Jose Veras and fails to recapture last season's magic. My opinion on Mitre is established and while I don't believe it would have been wiser to burn the $1.2 million rather than giving it to Chan-Ho Park ... you get the idea.
I'm therefore not convinced that the bullpen will look the same in April and July. Fortunately, over the smallest of samples, Girardi has already demonstrated that he can to find adequate relievers midseason.