The 2009 Bullpen in Historical and Statistical Perspective

Following up on my comparison between the terrific 2009 rotation with those of the late 1990s, this post assesses the sterling 2009 bullpen and gauges its performance along side the late 1990s dynasty. As with the rotation, the 2009 bullpen compares rather favorably with most years, including the tremendous 1998 team. As with last week’s post, I maintained a similar criteria with a couple important addenda: saves, which to a degree are overrated (see Joe Borowski’s and Todd Jones’s respective numbers for further elucidation, two players for whom sabermetricians ought to invent a category I’ve dubbed the NBS, the Nearly-Blown Save); and batting average against (BAA). The latter especially complements the seminal WHIP statistic to illustrate bullpen effectiveness in keeping batters faced off the bases, for relievers, unlike starters, frequently start stints with inherited runners. They’re not just trying to get batters out but often to stanch rallies.

Year W-L & Rank (by %) ERA & Rank IP & Rank K/9 & Rank WHIP & Rank Saves & Rank BAA & Rank
2009 40-17 (2) 3.91 (4) 515 (2) 8.4 (2) 1.250 (1) 51 (T-2) .231 (1)
1996 25-21 (5) 4.10 (5) 518 1/3 (1) 8.8 (1) 1.385 (5) 52 (1) .251 (4)
1997 24-24 (6) 3.22 (1) 450 1/3 (4) 7.8 (3) 1.339 (4) 51 (T-2) .243 (2)
1998 28-9 (1) 3.76 (2) 395 1/3 (6) 5.9 (6) 1.293 (2) 48 (5) .252 (5)
1999 27-14 (3) 3.77 (3) 437 (5) 6.9 (5) 1.309 (3) 50 (4) .247 (3)
2000 22-16 (4) 4.52 (6) 459 2/3 (3) 7.0 (4) 1.447 (6) 40 (6) .257 (6)

Why 2009’s bullpen is the best of the bunch: Based on the above criteria, the 2009 Yankees stand out as the strongest, most consistent bullpen. They did the best job keeping batters off the bases (WHIP and BAA), had strong strikeout ability, played a bigger role in the decisions than their predecessors with 40 wins, and had a good ERA (fifth-best in the AL) despite logging 515 innings—far more than any of the rest except the 1996 championship team. In sum, they delivered great results despite the fact that more was asked of them than most other teams. Stocked with the steadily great Mariano Rivera (3-3, 1.76 ERA, 66 1/3 IP, 0.905 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 44 saves), the 2009 Yankees also sported a top-notch set-up man in Phil Hughes who, after starting 7 games, shifted to the bullpen and blew batters away at a rate reminiscent of Joba Chamberlain in 2007 (12.8 K/9). Realizing a precipitous jump in his fastball’s velocity into the 95-96 range, Hughes fanned batters at a rate of 11.4 K/9 with a WHIP of 0.857 in 51 1/3 IP as a reliever, proving unhittable for long stretches (31 hits allowed).  Particularly tough on righties (.184 BAA/.235 OBP), Hughes at times struggled against lefties, allowing a considerably higher batting (.257) and OBP (.348). He was hard hit in the playoffs as well. But overall, he made Yankees fans quickly forget injured and often inconsistent set-up man Brian Bruney with his outstanding work.

In addition to the dynamic duo of Mariano and Hughes, the Yankees had a deep bullpen last season. Phil Coke was traded to Detroit in the three-way deal that brought Curtis Granderson to The Bronx, and had his struggles down the stretch, limping into post-season baseball with a 4-3 record but an inflated 4.50 ERA with 10 homers allowed, tied for the most among Yankee relievers. Yet it is important to remember that, for several months, Coke was not just the only viable lefty bullpen option, but a very good one at that. With Damaso Marte shelved with a sore shoulder, Coke was very good through June and July before struggling through a brutal August (2-0, 11.17 ERA, 1.655 WHIP, .308 BAA), the one reliable lefty reliever for most of the year. Marte will need to fill Coke’s shoes to round out the 2010 bullpen. Coke was aggressive, challenging batters on both sides of the plate by using both sides of the plate to keep them off the bases.

As I discussed in his 2010 preview, Alfredo Aceves was tremendous, going 10-1 with a good 3.54 ERA and an outstanding 1.012 WHIP. Crucially, Ace was excellent against both lefties (.212) and righties (.228), and his capacity to work multiple innings was reminiscent of Ramiro Mendoza. David Robertson also provided solid relief (2-1, 3.30 ERA, 1.351 WHIP), and his sneaky-fast fastball and sick yakker allowed him to fan a phenomenal 63 in just 43 2/3 IP (13.0 K/9). Robertson was never more clutch than his amazing escape act in the top of the 11th of Game 2 of the ALDS. After allowing a single to Cuddyer to load the bases with no outs, Robertson set down Young, Gomez, and Harris to keep the game tied at three, before Mark Teixeira crushed a laser to left for the game-winner homer to lead off the bottom of the 11th.  He has lots of promise, and should see considerable action setting up for Mariano.

It is important to remember the particular conditions under which the ’09 pen labored—an entirely ineffective and eventually injured Chien-Ming Wang, two young starters in Chamberlain and Hughes, and at times brief stints from fill-ins Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin—all of whom combined to leave the back end of the rotation in a state of flux for most of the season. The result, from ineffectiveness, injury, and innings caps, was a much heavier workload than one would wish. Yet they thrived under such conditions—for the second year in a row, for the ’08 bullpen was also a strength of the underachieving ’08 Yanks (logging an astronomical 543 1/3 IP, second in the AL, sporting an AL-best 8.7 K/9, a 3.79 ERA, the third-best BAA at .235 and WHIP at 1.270). That certainly carried over to last season, albeit with some players in more prominent roles, especially Hughes, Robertson, and Coke.

Why 1997 ranks second: Anchored by Mariano (6-4, 1.88 ERA, 43 saves, 1.186 WHIP)—as the Yankees’ bullpens have been since 1996—the ’97 Yankees also had the ever-flexible Mendoza (8-6, 4.24 ERA, 1.384 WHIP in 133 2/3 IP starting and relieving), and a tough slew of set-up men in sidewinder Jeff Nelson (3-7, 2.86 ERA, 1.144 WHIP, 9.3 K/9 in 77 games), and the lefty tandem of Mike Stanton (6-1, 2.56 ERA, 1.260 WHIP, 9.5 K/9 in 64 games) and Graeme (“The Albatross,” courtesy of my boy Frank the Sage) Lloyd (1-1, 3.31 ERA, 1.531 WHIP). Although they sported the worst winning percentage of the lot (.500), they had the best ERA (3.22), the second-best BAA (.243), and the third-best K/9 ratio (7.8). They were a tough, well-rounded group that didn’t yield much to opponents.

Commonalities of Greatness

Mariano: It is simply impossible to over-estimate how central Mariano has been to the Yankees’ success by anchoring the bullpen; all else flows from him. Good set-up work means all the more for the Yankees, for Mariano is as close to a sure thing among closers as there has ever been, or will be. He has for the most part remained healthy, and has been consistently great year in and year out—actually lowering his career ERA and WHIP with great and efficient work in the last decade. Thus, the essential ingredient of the bullpen for the Yankees hasn’t changed one whit for 15 seasons now. That’s an incredible privilege.

The K: Unlike with my comparative assessment of the rotations, in which I somewhat diverged from Tom Verducci’s emphasis on the K from alpha starters, the ability of relievers to fan batters in late innings has been fundamental to the Yankees’ success—and I wholeheartedly approve. While regular reader smurfy made a very good comment on the prior (starters) post about ground balls and double-plays over the K with which I agreed, there is a particular value to having good-morning, good-afternoon, and good-night hardball throwers out of the pen, especially since they often enter and must escape jams. The K is a great solution, the ultimate equalizer for relievers. Many of these championship teams, and the best bullpens from those years, could do just that and at a prodigious rate.

Preventing Overwork: This is important for particular players but also for the unit. Joe Girardi has proven far more adept at apportioning relief work than his eventual Hall-of-Fame predecessor, Joe Torre. Girardi has illustrated his gift for detailed preparation for games and players by employing a system with Dave Eiland in which each reliever’s work is charted on index cards, preventing pitchers from being worked into the ground.  This also has its roots in Girardi displaying trust in more and younger relievers than Torre did, with the beneficial result of cultivating and utilizing the considerable depth the Yankees have stockpiled in recent years.

Depth and Flexibility: Related to this approach and the organization’s wealth of pitching talent, this has rendered parts of middle relief interchangeable, with middle relievers who did not perform, such as Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, and Jonathan Albaladejo shifted out in favor of Hughes, Robertson, and Coke last year. Despite his renowned reticence about young relievers, Torre too sported and used his depth, with Nelson, Mendoza, Stanton, and for a couple years Lloyd proving very reliable as well as durable. The ability to shorten games has been a Yankees formula for success in no small part because of Torre and how he used his bullpen talent.

They also had players who could work multiple innings (Aceves more recently, Mendoza during the dynasty), and at least one effective lefty who wasn’t just a LOOGY (Coke in ’09, Stanton and Lloyd in the late 1990s).

For 2010, the Yankees’ bullpen would be well served by having its innings cut considerably from the last two years which, combined, saw them log 1,058 1/3 IP. That’s a lot, has ranked the Yanks second and fifth in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and is pushing the envelope of the unit regardless of Girardi’s workload management and overall trust. It would also stay strong should Marte fill Coke’s shoes, especially with a comparable WHIP to Coke’s stellar 1.067—an illustration of the importance of WHIP, which helps explain his effectiveness despite a somewhat high 4.50 ERA. Robertson’s continued development into a strong set-up man with strikeout ability would also put the Yanks in good stead, as would Mark Melancon doing in ’10 what Robertson did in ’09—add depth in middle relief and fan batters with a good fastball and curve. Whoever is not the fifth starter between Hughes and Joba, presumably the primary set-up man for Mariano, needs to keep up the good, aggressive work. With these developments, good health, and of course the greatest of all time lurking and waiting for his Metallica serenade, the Yankees should continue to sport one of the best bullpens in the majors.

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2 Responses to The 2009 Bullpen in Historical and Statistical Perspective

  1. smurfy says:

    Another good story, Jason. I was happy, but had no idea the bullpen’s numbers were so good.

    Phil, faced with failure, said, nope, and put his pedal to the metal. That example, I think, got Coke fired up. But, Aceves should get a medal for the steady way he pulled. 1.012 WHIP!

  2. Thanks, smurfy. Yeah, the ’09 pen was just great, really bolstered once Hughes, Aceves, Robertson, and Coke assumed larger roles. Ace’s WHIP is ridiculous. His tendencies in 2009 were giving up hits and runs in bunches, and otherwise allowing little to nothing regardless of the length of his stint. If he continues to pitch that well, he’ll do wonders for the bullpen. He’s capable of starting, but I’d prefer to see him in relief and, hopefully, not overworked.

    No question about Hughes. He was money; just brilliant in blowing guys away.