09 August 2003

Mythological Figures...

Myth: (n) A popular belief or story that has become associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal

There is a myth in the baseball world. Actually there are many of them, including the notions that “defense and pitching win championships”, “never make the last out at third base” and “Joe Morgan doesn't know what he's talking about". Well, maybe that last one has something to it.

The Yankees traded RHP Armando "Most Homers Allowed In Postseason Play By A Reliever In History" Benitez to the Seattle Mariners for RHP Jeff Nelson. The myth goes that you need solid middle relief (the Yankees already have a solid closer in Mariano Rivera, his recent penchant for allowing runs int he ninth inning notwithstanding) to win in the postseason, or maybe even to get into the postseason. The myth is probably right, in this case, but there's really no reason to believe that Benitez would have been any worse off in that role than Nelson will. The only real difference is that Nelson's done this job for years, while it's supposedly a relatively recent reaquisition for Benitez.

The myth has it that the Yankees relief corps just hasn't been right since Jeff Nelson departed for Seattle after the 2000 season. And in a move that would have made my freshman psychology professor cringe, they note that the Yanks haven't won a World Series since he left. But, as they say in France, "correlation never implies causality", and so I looked it up:

Yankees Right-Handed Relievers, Regular Season Performance

Year Saves Holds Innings HR/9 K/9 WHIP ERA
2003* 41 24 249 0.759 7.23 1.45 4.08
2002 47 29 288 0.719 6.66 1.30 3.59
2001 57 25 330 0.846 8.02 1.23 3.55
2000 40 22 333.3 0.729 6.26 1.40 3.94

*projected over 162 games

So we can see that the Yankees righty relievers actually got better after Nelson left. In 2001 and 2002 the right handed half of the Yankees Bullpen Monster had more saves, more holds, a lower ERA, allowed fewer baserunners, and struck out more batters than the team had in 2000, with Jeff Nelson. So there goes that theory.

So I thought to myself, "Self, I wonder if it was the POST-season that they were talking about..."

Yankees Right-Handed Relievers, Post-Season Performance

Year Saves Holds Innings HR/9 K/9 WHIP ERA
2002 1 0 14.0 2.57 5.79 1.50 5.14
2001 5 2 34.0 0.79 8.21 1.32 4.50
2000 6 3 29.7 1.21 6.67 1.11 3.94

This makes things a little tougher to evaluate, largely due to the small sample size. Clearly the Yankees relievers have nt been nearly as effective in the post season as they have in the regular season, and this is true for almost every year. But you can hardly blame the Yankees lack of post season success in recent years on the relievers.

In 2002, the Yankees' starters had a combined ERA of almost 11.00!, so the fact that the relievers didn't do so well seems hardly relevant. It's not as though there were many leads for them to protect.

In 2001 the starters were not so bad as all of that, but Andy Pettitte managed to lose three games in the postseason all by himself, which constituted half of the losses attributed to the Yankees starters in that post season. Mariano Rivera was the only reliever who was credited with a loss that year in the playoffs. So again, it's hardly for a lack of middle relief that the Yankees didn't win that World Series either.

And in 2000, the last year the commisioner's trophy did end up in the Bronx? Jeff Nelson did get three "Holds" that year in postseason play, but his ERA was 7.04, so I'd say that they were sucessful in spite of him.

Joe Sheehan has an article in Baseball Prospectus' Premium area in which he says it's a win-win trade. That the Mariners are better off having a righty who can get both lefties and righties out, and that the Yankees are better off having a situational pitcher with whom Joe Torre is comfortable, especially for the postseason. I don't disagree, necessarily, but the Yankees may end up with egg on their collective faces if Benitez comes in to close out games against them and succeeds, or if Nelson is asked to pretect a lead against the Mariners in the ALCS and fails. I guess we'll see.

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