Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This writer, as my regular readers know, has endorsed wholeheartedly the Yankees' decision to return Joba Chamberlain to his rightful place in the starting rotation. Quite simply, as a starter Chamberlian can influence more innings and obtain more outs and with greater regularity over the course of a season than as a set-up reliever. (See below "Joba For Starter," April 13, 2008.) Indeed, sabermetricians' win-share statistics (WARP and VORP) reveals that even the league-average starter contributes more wins to his team than a premiere set-up man.

The benefits of Joba resuming the role in which he soared through the Yankees' farm system last year outweighs the loss his departure from the bullpen will entail. That isn't to say, the cost will be negligible; it won't be.

The Yankees' crushing loss to the Orioles in 11 innings on May 27 only dramatizes the void Joba leaves behind. It was exasperating enough when Ross Ohlendorf blew a 4-run lead in the 5th inning, surrendering 3 home-runs in a single inning. But then LaTroy Hawkins capped the ineptitude, repeating the feat in the 11th, squandering a 1-run lead and ultimately, losing the ball game.

Had Joba been available to pitch that night, the game certainly would have unfolded very differently. Whether it would have affected the outcome is another matter. (Keep in mind: Girardi likely would have deployed Joba in the innings Farnsworth and Ramirez pitched and hence not have had him in reserve for the 11th inning even were he available.)

Was last night an ill-fated harbinger or just a single vivid illustration? Only time will tell, but thus far, the post-Joba bullpen hardly has provided cause for optimism.

Of course, a bullpens' loss of its 2nd best reliever would exact a toll under any circumstance, whomever the player, whatever the team.

However, Joba's absence especially taxes the Yankees present bullpen because injuries have felled their two most potent and reliable relief pitchers through the season's first two months: Brian Bruney and Jonathan Albaladejo.

Bruney had posted a miniscule 1.59 ERA over 11 innings; and Albaladejo, a 3.95 ERA in 13.7 innings.

With the exception of Edward Ramirez, there isn't a single other reliever in the bullpen with under a 4.00 ERA. Even Farnsworth, who has improved this year, but is still hardly a paragon of consistency, has a 4.24 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP over 23.3 innings.

Compare this to the Yankees' AL East divisional rivals. Excluding their closers, I list below the number of relievers each possesses with under a 4.00 ERA while having thrown at least 16 innings. I include each bullpen's total ERA as well.
  • Red Sox- 3 - (Okajima, Aardsma, Lopez); Total Bullpen ERA = 4.33
  • Jays - 4- (Carslon, Downs, Tallet, Fraser); Total Bullpen ERA = 2.90
  • O's - 4- (Bradford, Sarfate, Johnson, Albers); Total Bullpen ERA = 3.17 ERA
  • Rays- 3- (Wheeler, Miller, Howell); Total Bullpen ERA = 3.59
  • Yankees w/o Joba - ZERO - (including Edwar's 14 IP, one)
  • Yankees Bullpen's Total ERA (w/o Joba) = 3.95 ERA

Superficially, then, the Yankees' prospects of overcoming Joba's absence look prety bleak.


To reiterate, the Yankees bullpen's preponderant deficiency is one of personnel. With Joba's transition to the rotation, Albaladejo out for another 2-6, and Bruney, perhaps, gone for the season, the Yankees, outside their closer, presently have a sum total of one relief pitcher, Edwar Ramirez, they can trust and another, in Farnsworth, who inspires something closer to equivocal faith or outright agnosticism.

Add to this a starting rotation averaging 5.26 IP per start and the Yankees have a prescription, at best, for mediocrity even if the lineup suddenly regains last year's proficiency.

Still, the Yankees' bullpen's shortcoming doesn't stem entirely from inadequate performance. Its manager's stewardship has contributed to it, or at the very least, it raises troubling questions. For all the vitriolic criticism heaped on Joe Torre for abusing certain relievers and ravaging others' arms-- the former a valid critcism; the latter, an exaggerated one-- Joe Girardi hasn't exactly demonstrated inimitable genius in utilizing his bullpen either. The injuries and lackluster personnel, notwithstanding.

Mussina's two outings against the Red Sox only consist of the most dramatic and obvious example. Indeed, Girardi's use of Ross Ohlendorf has ill-served the team as well. By appointing him the team's de facto long reliever, the manager is wasting an arm capable of throwing a 95 mph sinker best confined to single innings of work.

Instead, Ohlendorf has pitched more innings than any other Yankees reliever, 29.7 IPs, which may or may not account for his bloated 6.37 ERA and dismal 1.61 WHIP. But greater scrunity reveals how Girardi's deployment of Ohlendorf has diminished both his value and his efficacy.

Of Ohlendorf's 16 appearances, the Yankees have reserved him to one inning or less in only 7 appearances; in the remainder the Yankees have pitched him as few as two innings and as many as 3.3 innings. The disparity is telling. In his first full inning of work (15.1 inning of his total 29.7), Ohlendorf's ERA drops to 4.70 and his WHIP to 1.46. In fact, excluding that dreadful outing against the Mets where he surrendered 4 earned runs in 0.33 inning, Ohlendorf's ERA in his first inning of work is 2.35, with a WHIP of 1.17. Those are extraordinary numbers, rivalling even the Great Joba's 2.42 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.

Girardi has to be aware that after an inning of use Ohlendorf's proficiency plummets, so why does he continue to use him in long-relief. Can't someone from Scranton perform this role? Meanwhile, the Yankees squander a power arm and potential formidable reliever on mop-up duty.

Then there's the question of why it's taken Girardi so long to realize Edwar Ramirez's potential. Through 14 innings, Ramirez, astoundingly, has posted 0.00 ERA and has a 1.14 WHIP. Yet in Ramirez's 12 appearances, Girardi has used him only three times in critical situations, that is, where one run or less has separated the Yankees and the opposition. For some inexplicable reason, Girardi almost invariably calls on Kyle Farnsworth instead. I don't blame him; the bias for hard-throwing relievers is endemic. But wasn't the front-office's insistence that Girardi would excel Torre as a manager based principally on Girardi's supposed penchant for studying the stats. So what does he see that we don't?

Finally, there's the question of Jose Veras. Until Monday's debacle, Veras had posted a 3.12 ERA with an extraordinary 0.80 WHIP through 8 2/3 innings. True, the sample set is too small to draw any definitive conclusions. Nonetheless, Veras' performance certainly commended him over Hawkins both to start Monday's 8th inning and to pitch last night in the 11th. At the very least, Girardi has to start testing Veras in more close games and pressure situations to appraise his potential. At the moment, the verdict is still out.

Apart from re-considering Ohlendorf, Veras, and Ramirez's use and role, the organization may also summon an arm from their farm system-- Robertson or Cox from AAA and/or Melancon or Alfredo Acevedes in AA. But the Yankees shouldn't delude themselves into thinking every young arm, however great its potential, can duplicate the immediate impact Joba exerted last season.

The Yankees, accrodingly, face a forbidding task ahead. Finding someone to replace Joba in the bullpen-- whether in the 8th inning, or in the 6th and 7th innings if Farnsworth assumes the set-up role-- will not be easy. Arms like Joba's are rare; his poise and confidence, scarcer still. As such, no one can fill Chamberlain's shoes. Yet whether the Yankees can find someone to follow in his tracks may well determine their fate this season.

In the meantime, let the auditions begin.

No comments: