Sunday, September 1, 2013

Bullpen Mismanagement Condemns Yankees in Playoff Pursuit

   Before the question or concern is raised - no, I will not be writing a recap of today's (9/1) Yankees game, and I will not be writing recaps of Yankees games in the sense of summarizing the events as they happened. There are plenty of excellent sites out there that do that job better than I do, and to do one myself would be tedious, redundant, and a complete waste of time. If you want the recap of today's game, my personal favorite is RiverAveBlues. Check them out. They're stellar.

   Rather, what this piece will focus on is mismanagement and letting a team off the hook when they're right there for the taking. Last time the Yankees played the Baltimore Orioles was July 5-7 at Yankee Stadium, a weekend series where the Orioles entered the series a game and a half (henceforth 1.5) ahead of the Yankees in the standings. Behind a complete game, two-run gem by Ivan Nova and a 9th inning rally, the Yankees won the opener 3-2. The following afternoon, Andy Pettitte avoided major trouble, limiting the Orioles to four runs in six innings, the Yankees erased a 3-0 deficit, and ultimately prevailed to win 5-4, taking a half game lead over the Orioles in the process with a chance to finish the sweep and move 1.5 games ahead of the Orioles in the process. For eight innings, the plan was being followed. Hiroki Kuroda threw seven shutout innings, David Robertson bridged the gap in the eighth, and the Yankees had the greatest Closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, on the mound to finish the game. Of course, baseball being the way it is, sometimes things don't go to plan. With one out, Nick Markakis hit a scary fly ball to right field that had home run distance but was narrowly foul. He singled on the next pitch. The next batter was Adam Jones, and he took advantage of another mistake by Rivera, who left a fastball (not cutter) in the wrong place, and Jones promptly deposited it in the left-center field seats to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead and ultimately the winning margin. Having escaped Yankee Stadium with a stirring victory, the Orioles would win eight of their next eleven games, with the All-Star Break nestled in between there.

   Fast forward to August 30, and the same situation as before presented itself after the Orioles had a rather poor month of August, and the Yankees had surged in the previous three weeks to rescue themselves from the verge of a losing record to being back within 1.5 of the Orioles in the playoff race, and now only five games out of a playoff spot themselves, trailing the Oakland Athletics for the second wild card. The first two games followed a different tenor than the first series had, but the results were the same. Behind a fifth-inning onslaught, the Yankees pounded notorious Yankee Killer Miguel Gonzalez on Friday en route to an 8-5 victory. On Saturday afternoon, Ivan Nova continued his mastery of the Orioles, following up his tremendous outing in July with yet another complete game, this time without any runs allowed, necessary since the Yankees only netted a pair of runs courtesy of Robinson Cano, en route to a 2-0 victory that, for the first time since July 6, lifted the Yankees above the Orioles in the standings, and reduced their deficit in the AL Wild Card race to 3.5 games behind the Tampa Bay Rays, the closest the Yankees had been to a playoff position in a long period of time. In recent weeks, the biggest concern about the Yankees' playoff chances had not so much been about their deficit on the #2 Wild Card spot (which has shifted between the Rays and A's, depending on which team was hot and which team was cold), but the number of teams that lay in their path. For a while, besides the A's and Rays holding down playoff spots, the Orioles, Cleveland Indians, and even the Kansas City Royals sat ahead in the overall standings. A recent seven game losing streak has brought the Royals back underneath, but with the victories in the first two games against the Orioles, coupled with the five-game losing streak Cleveland had endured while facing the Braves and Tigers on the road (in what can plausibly be argued as being the Indians last tough road games of 2013), the Yankees were finally, if for just a day, relieved of their concern for those three teams who occupied the non-playoff spots in front of them. Trailing by only 3.5 games with no teams in front of them, the Yankees were nearing territory where they controlled their playoff fate over their last 25 games, as they have three games at Yankee Stadium in the penultimate series of 2013 (and the final home series of 2013).

  As the calendar flipped for the final time in the 2013 regular season, from August to September, the Yankees once again took on the Orioles on a Sunday afternoon under the Bronx sky with a chance to sweep the Orioles and send the Birds packing with a 1.5 game deficit on the Yankees in the standings. For six innings, it appeared this plan was following suit. Andy Pettitte had been solid if not spectacular, maneuvering through six innings of scoreless ball while the Yankees had taken some advantage of Baltimore starter Wei-Yin Chen's ineffectiveness (3 ER, 4 H and a career-high 5 BB) to build a 3-0 lead going into the 7th inning. It could likely be argued the Yankees should've been able to net more than they ultimately scored (1-7 with RISP in those first six innings), but with three innings to go and a fully rested bullpen off Nova's complete game the day before, the Yankees were in position to finish this sweep opportunity off and continue their push.

   Of course, this is where the story takes a downturn. Andy Pettitte, sitting at 86 pitches, was sent back out for the 7th inning. Right from the start, this was a curious decision. Pettitte, 41, is the oldest starting pitcher in the American League, and despite a return to form in recent starts (0.75 ERA in his previous four starts), he had shown signs of fatigue as he eclipsed the 85 pitch mark, or pitched into the 7th inning. On 8/16 against the Red Sox, he began to get hit quite hard and could've left the game in much more danger if not for some fortuitous baserunning from David Ortiz. On 8/22 against the Blue Jays, he was taken out after six as he had already reached 100 pitches and been fortunate to escape a few prior jams that kept his line rather clean. On 8/27, again against the Blue Jays, he lasted seven shutout innings, but only threw 86 pitches. A clean, effortless outing where he was taken out before he had a chance to tire. Today, he was sitting around that 85 pitch mark, and even though it was the bottom of the Orioles lineup coming up, both Mike Morse and Daniel Valencia already had hits on the game against Pettitte, and with a fully rested bullpen in a crucial game, this was no game to be messing around with trying to squeeze outs from a tiring pitcher when better options were in the bullpen.

   I seldom disagree with most of Joe Girardi's bullpen decisions, given that, if he has shown one thing since being named Yankees manager in 2008, it's that he has an excellent ability to mold bullpens. Conversely, one flaw that often has on display is a degree of rigidness; with Mariano Rivera, it's understandable that he tries to limit him to three-out outings, due to his age. With David Robertson, it is a bit more perplexing. In 2009 and 2010, David Robertson did not hold high positions on the Yankees' bullpen hierarchy; in 2009, the Yankees set-up man role (8th inning guy) was originally for 2008 stand-out Brian Bruney; eventually Phil Hughes took this role over and thrived to the point of being almost unhittable and locking down the 8th inning. In 2010, Joba Chamberlain was originally slated for that gig; injuries and ineffectiveness eventually cost him the job in the final two months of the season, when Kerry Wood was acquired from the Indians and pitched so well that he eventually swiped the job late in the season. In 2011, Rafael Soriano was signed from the Rays to a rather exorbitant contract to be the 8th inning pitcher and potentially the heir to Rivera's throne; ineffectiveness and a two-month injury opened the door for Robertson to pitch the 8th inning, and he has remained there, more-or-less, ever since. In many ways, this has been a good thing for the Yankees, providing some long-term security in that inning as well as perhaps giving the Yankees and their fans a look at their 2014 closer after Rivera retires.

   It does have drawbacks at times, however, and a day like today is that day. Before rising to the role of set-up man, David Robertson was often deployed by Girardi as the proverbial "fireman" middle reliever; with his blazing fastball and curveball, he has always been able to rack up strikeouts, a vital necessity when coming in to try and stifle burgeoning rallies. However, having ascended to the role of set-up man has now left a hole in that fireman capacity, one that has never really been filled. In 2013, Shawn Kelley and Boone Logan have been used in a tag-team capacity of sorts to fill that role, and have generally done a good job, but both pitchers have their drawbacks. Shawn Kelley, in particular, has seen a meteoric rise in his strikeout rate since joining the Yankees, but is very susceptible to giving up home runs. Boone Logan, frustratingly, tends to get hit much harder by same-sided hitters than opposite-sided, defeating the concept of him being a lefty specialist, in some capacities.

   In any case, today ended up being a day for one of those drawbacks. Personally, I felt Shawn Kelley should've been out there to start the 7th inning, where he would start off with the bases empty and, despite recent struggles, would not be endangering his team if he got off to a rough start and needed to be taken out. Instead, when he entered the game, with two men on and no outs, he was now entering a situation where giving up a home run would turn the game on its ear; it got worse than expected, as he allowed a base hit to the first batter he faced (Matt Weiters) and then gave up a three-run home run to J.J. Hardy, turning a 3-0 Yankees' lead into a 4-3 deficit in, almost literally, the blink of an eye. This is the problem right here - being a homer-prone pitcher, Girardi simply did not bring in Kelley in a position where he could succeed under reasonable circumstances; power fastball/slider pitchers are prone to home runs since a well-timed fastball or hanging breaking ball can be hit out of the park with "relative" ease. If Kelley was not going to start the 7th inning, then it should have been David Robertson who was brought in to pitch with two runners on and no outs. This is the inherent flaw with having such rigid bullpen roles for non-closer jobs - you are handicapping your options unnecessarily, and affecting your team's chance of winning because you are saving a better pitcher for what will likely be a lower leverage role. The 7th inning was the biggest inning of the game, the highest leverage spot to that point, and in a huge game such as this one, with heavy playoff implications on the line for both teams, caution needs to be thrown to the wind, and the best non-Closer reliever needs to be deployed where needed, 8th inning be damned. You have to have an 8th inning lead to worry about how to protect an 8th inning lead, and David Robertson provided the best opportunity for that to happen. Girardi simply screwed that up.

   No, wait, it gets better. Kelley was removed from the game before Hardy even reached home plate after trotting the bases, and Boone Logan did nothing to help stop the inferno that was swarming Yankee Stadium. A bunt single and nine-pitch walk to Nick Markakis (there's the "not getting same-sided hitters out" problem again) brought Manny Machado and Adam Jones to the plate, and Boone Logan out of the game. Here-in lies yet ANOTHER mistake, perpetuated in part by the Yankees' implausible decision to keep Joba Chamberlain on the roster despite being an impending free agent who will not return to New York, and has been plagued by extreme ineffectiveness this year (truthfully, I cannot wait until that guy is off the team). Preston Claiborne would likely have filled this role, but he was demoted last Sunday to keep Chamberlain on the roster while Claiborne would be promoted back to the top roster after the Single-A Tampa season ended (a circumvention of the 10-day demotion/promotion rule). Claiborne can return for Monday's game against Chicago, but that's about a day late and a dollar short in regards to Sunday's game. With no other seemingly sufficient right-handed pitchers deemed capable by Girardi, he once again eschewed the idea of bringing in Robertson to try and hold the deficit at 4-3, and brought in Chamberlain. After a generous bunt out by Machado, a pop-up that accomplished nothing (and, truthfully, Manny Machado sacrifice bunts far more than he actually should), Adam Jones promptly hammered a hanging slider over the dead center field wall, the second Earl Weaver home run of the inning that had taken a 3-0 Yankees lead and turned it into a 7-3 Orioles lead, a scoreline that would not change again.

   In effect, what can we gather here? We can gather that the Yankees held a 3-0 lead going into the final three innings, and their two best relief pitchers, Robertson and Rivera, two pitchers who had only pitched in one game over the past calendar week (both pitched on Friday), never even warmed up in the bullpen, let alone pitched. Instead of deploying Robertson in the 7th inning to try and mitigate an Orioles rally, instead Girardi opted to use his spate of C-calibre middle relievers who, instead of limiting the damage, instead blew the game wide open, and allowed the Orioles to, once again, escape Yankee Stadium with a salvage victory in the final game, and once again escape Yankee Stadium still a half a game ahead of the Yankees in the overall standings (and with the Indians win over the Tigers, the results of Saturday were annulled, with two more games off the schedule).

   All in all, the final result was a very irritating loss that has the potential to be a season-killing loss if the Yankees cannot recover in time from it. They play the White Sox in a Labor Day matinee back at Yankee Stadium, a quick turnaround from Sunday's disappointment. Furthermore, despite Chicago holding a dismal 56-79 record on the season, the White Sox swept the Yankees at U.S. Cellular Field in early August, which appeared to be the point in time when the Yankees season hit its nadir, punctuated by the Yankees losing the final game of that series in extra innings when, with a 5-4 lead and two outs in the 12th, Adam Warren induced a very weak ground ball to second base hat would have ended the game, until he decided to try and field the ball himself, muffed it, and gave the White Sox an extra out to work with, an extra out they took full advantage of with Alexei Ramirez getting a base hit and Alejandro de Aza hitting a walk-off two-run triple to give the Yankees what was, at the time and perhaps still, the most mind-numbing defeat of the 2013 campaign.

   Sitting at 3.5 games behind the slumping Tampa Bay Rays, who were swept by the Oakland Athletics with a 5-1 defeat on Sunday and now face the surging Anaheim Angels for four games at Angel Stadium this week, all is not lost with at defeat, necessarily. If the Yankees rebound against the White Sox and take care of business (easier said than done, as seen in the previous paragraph) and the Angels win two games from the Rays at home, the deficit shrinks to two games with 23 games still to play, a very do-able deficit with those three remaining head-to-heads still to be played. But what has to be remembered is that the Tampa Bay Rays are notoriously streaky and have been for the past number of seasons. They are only 11-17 in their past 28 games, but not long before that, they rolled off a 22-3 stretch that included a very impressive 8-2 roadtrip through the AL East right after the All-Star Break. The Rays have lost six of seven games, but when the three and four hitters in their lineup (Evan Longoria and Wil Myers) are slumping the way they are, it should really be no surprise they have struggled to score runs and win of late. That is not going to last, and there-in lies the chief problem - the Yankees went 3-3 against the Blue Jays and Orioles in a week where the Rays went 1-6. That's not good enough. The Yankees needed to win at least another game or two to really make a dent in that deficit. Now they need some more fortune to favor them as the Rays continue their 10-game west coast trip in Anaheim. With the Orioles and Indians playing each other for three games this week in Cleveland, there is a guaranteed winner and loser in those three games, and if the Yankees do what they should against the White Sox, there is a good chance they will slip back past the Orioles in the standings.

   One loss, no matter how crippling on a given day, is not a debilitating loss, especially since the Rays lost and the deficit remained 3.5 games. What can be crippling is whether the effects of the loss carry-over to Monday. The Yankees face Chris Sale on Tuesday, and if there is an "acceptable" game to lose to a hapless team like the White Sox, it is the game where, arguably, the best pitcher in the American League in 2013 is pitching. The Yankees need to put Sunday behind them quickly if they are to get back on the horse that has gotten them to within striking distance of a 2013 American League Wild Card playoff spot.

  Hopefully, Joe Girardi will hop back on the horse that has led him to generally good bullpen management, too.

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