08 July 2009

Joe Girardi's Mismanagement of the Yankees Bullpen

Just when I thought I knew what was wrong with Chien-Ming Wang, suddenly it no longer matters. Whether the problem before was is slider failing to slide or his sinker failing to sink, the real problem now is his anything doing anything, or rather the lack thereof.

Wang was put on the DL this past weekend after leaving a start early with tightness in his shoulder, which turned out to be a shoulder strain and bursitis, keeping him out for at least two weeks, maybe longer. The really bad news here, for those of you who may not know, is that Wang is no stranger to shoulder problems. According to Baseball Prospectus, he had, "...shoulder surgery in 2001, and recurring shoulder problems in 2003 and 2005." Here's hoping that this is not a recurrence of the same, but I'm fearing the worst.

Of course, even before Wang was hurt, he was lousy. Granted, his ERA had dropped by over 60% since coming off the DL (with a hip injury) in May, but when you can allow four runs in 5.1 innings of work and your ERA drops by almost half a run, well, I'd say you've been pretty awful.

But in spite of that, there was reason to be hopeful, as Wang had thrown more pitches and more innings, was getting "stretched out" and looking like he might be back to his normal self some time soon. And then the other cleat dropped.

So now the Yankees are left with a conundrum: Who starts Thursday?

The answer, it turns out, is a strange one: Alfredo Aceves.

Aceves has been a crucial part of the Yankees' bullpen this season, vulturing five wins and posting a 2.02 ERA in 40 innings of work, with impressive K/W rates. Most recently he pitched four innings of near-perfect ball against the Blue Jays, who would probably be a first place team id they played anywhere but here.

That outing, however, was only 43 pitches, which is about as many as he's thrown in any outing in the last two months, though he's capable of more. In AAA in April he threw 80+ pitches four times, topping out at 91. But he's thrown more than 50 pitches only once since getting called up in early May, and that was in his first game. Accordingly, the Yankees have set a 65-pitch count limit for him today, which, if we're lucky, will get us into the 4th inning.

This, of course, severely taxes the bullpen, which will inevitably be called upon to pitch at least four or five innings tonight, maybe more if Aceves gets knocked around. It makes you wonder why, when they put Wang on the DL last week, they called up Jonathan Albaladejo, a reliever (and one of the Spelling Bee All-Stars!) instead of another starter.

It's not as though they don't have any other starters at AAA. Take a look at the three-year record of this guy, for example:

 W   L   ERA   IP   H   HR  BB   SO
26 13 3.56 316 299 39 83 255

A solid winning record, decent hit, strikeout and walk rates, allows a homer only once per eight innings...not bad right? And consistency, too. His ERAs over the last three seasons: 3.69, 3.45, 3.65, all at AAA. So why isn't he getting the shot today? Is he hurt? Is he old? Has he been lousy of late?

Nope. It's worse than that: He's Kei Igawa.

Yep, he of the $26 million posting fee and $20 million contract, the Yankees' answer to Daisuke Matsuzaka, with a 2-4 record in MLB and a 6.66 ERA.

Igawa probably could be a decent #4 starter in the majors if they'd give him a chance, but his signing and subsequent career have been a public relations disaster. So much so, that the Yankees seem to feel it's better to leave him in the International League during what will probably turn out to be his best years, effectively paying nine million dollars a year for a player in AAA, than to bring him up. Why chance another meltdown, another 4-inning, 6-run outing, another chorus of boos and round of newspaper stories about what an awful idea it was to sign him? I don't agree with that, but the facts seem to speak for themselves.

Ian Kennedy is hurt. So is George Kontos. Josh Towers is 32 and his fastball wouldn't impress Jamie Moyer. Sergio Mitre has done well as a starter in Scranton and has some major league experience, but his major league record (10-23, 5.36) is fairly unimpressive. Jason Johnson is 35 and continues to be, well, Jason Johnson. Nobody else particularly stands out.


What about Phil Hughes? Shouldn't Hughes be the obvious choice to replace Wang in the rotation? He's supposed to be the Yankees' best prospect, their blue-chip young pitcher, the reason they didn't trade for Johan Santana two winters ago, right? So why is he still in the bullpen while a free agent they picked up from the Mexican League starts tonight?

Because Joe Girardi screwed up. That's why.

Hughes had started the year in AAA and did well enough to get called up at the end of April, when Wang went on the DL the first time. His results at the major league level were mixed, only lasting more than five innings twice in seven starts and compiling a 5.45 ERA. So, even though he'd been better of late, he was the logical choice to return to the bullpen when Wang returned from the DL.

At the time, most of us assumed that Hughes would pitch long relief, keeping himself ready for a potential return to the rotation in case Wang or another starter faltered. It's not like the Yankees' rotation is a bastion of health and consistency.

Joba Chamberlain was on the DL last August. A.J. Burnett has never pitched two consecutive, healthy seasons in his entire career. Andy Pettitte, despite being the very picture of health for the last four years, is 37 years old and it wouldn't be such a surprise if he broke down. Wang was just on the DL a month ago and looked like he may have needed to be replaced at any minute.

Prudence and preparedness dictated that the Yankees needed to keep someone waiting in the wings like this in case of just such a scenario. You know the old saying: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of not having to explain why an obscure nobody is starting instead of your best prospect." Or something like that.

It's not many teams that can afford to keep six or seven starting pitchers on its major league roster, but if you've got them, you've got to use them, and Girardi didn't.

  • Hughes' first outing wasn't for over a week after his last start, and when he was used, he came in to pitch the seventh inning of a game that Andy Pettitte was winning 4-3, got three outs on 11 pitches, and was gone. Phil Coke pitched the 8th and Mariano Rivera got the Save in the 9th. Hughes presumably could have been left in for at least one more inning, and Mo still could have gotten his Save.
  • Two days later he tossed 3.2 innings against the Red Sox after Wang was chased in the third. he threw 63 pitches and allowed 2 runs in a game the Yankees lost, but it was a good, long outing, keeping his stamina up.
  • His next outing, four days later, was only one inning, 21 pitches, mop-up duty in the 9th inning of a 15-0 game against the Mets. He could have been brought in to pitch the 8th, instead of David Robertson, and finish the game if Girardi had been thinking ahead more. Another missed opportunity.
  • Three days after that, Wang started and was taken out after five innings, having allowed three runs and throwing 91 pitches, so Hughes started the sixth and allowed only one hit and no runs in two innings of work, using only 24 pitches. Phil Coke and Aceves got the last six outs, but again, Hughes could have gone longer.
  • Three days later, another single inning of work, with just 11 pitches this time, finishing the 8th inning in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins in Florida. If the Yankees had scored another run or two, Hughes might have gotten to pitch longer, but then if there was a game to save, Mariano would likely have been called upon anyway.
  • Another three days pass. Another losing effort. Another mediocre start by Wang, who allowed three runs in five innings but was lifted for a pinch hitter having thrown only 62 pitches. Hughes started the 6th and pitched two perfect innings, throwing 27 pitches, but was relieved by Robertson (not a pinch hitter) in the 8th. Another missed opportunity.
  • Five days later Hughes pitched again, this time for only 1.1 innings, but it was in a clse game against the Mets at Citi Field, and he was brought in during a double swith and taken out of the game for a pinch hitter, so it's hard to argue with his usage there. Still, he threw only 16 pitches, further reducing his stamina.
  • Two days after that, perhaps the best example of Hughes' misuse occurred at home against Seattle. Joba Chamberlain left after 5.1 innings with the score tied at 3 and Phil Coke got the last two outs in the 6th. Hughes then retired the three batters he faced in the 7th on nine pitches and stood to pick up the Win when Alex Rodriguez hit a 2-run jack in the bottom of the inning. For his effort, Hughes was rewarded with a trip to the showers, whereupon Brian Bruney was brought in, promptly blew the lead but held on long enough to get the win when the Yankees came back in the bottom of the 8th.
  • Three days later it was another short outing, two outs, 15 pitches in the 8th, and then getting out of the way for Mariano Rivera.
  • And the day after that, when Wang got hurt and left in the 6th, instead of bringing in Hughges in long relief, Girardi first used Robertson, then Bruney, then Hughes for only one inning (eight pitches?!) and then Mariano Rivera, this time in a tied game in the 9th inning.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for using your closer wherever it seems most prudent instead of at some predetermined time just to pick up a Save. But Hughes had been as good a relief pitcher as anybody in baseball for the past month, including Mariano Rivera, his light workload notwithstanding, and the Yankees could have easily justified leaving him in there for the 9th.

As it happened, that game went to the 12th inning and the Yankees eventually won it, but they needed to rely on Phil Coke for two innings (only the third time in 39 appearances he was asked to get six outs) and Brett Tomko and his 5.19 ERA to do it, as Girardi had already burned through the rest of the bullpen. The better choice might have been to let Hughes pitch two or three innings, knowing that Wang was hurt and that they might need someone to take his spot in the rotation very soon.

Instead, due to regular work of only an inning or two at a time instead of periodic work of three or four innings, Hughes is now unprepared for the role of starting, the role he's been groomed for, the role he's expected to eventually fill. Girardi's justification for leaving him in the bullpen sounds remarkably like the justification once used for keeping Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen instead of the rotation, that he's

A) "not stretched out"


2) too important a part of the bullpen to put him back in the rotation.

The first of those, as we've already seen, is nobody's fault but Girardi's, and the second...well, the second just doesn't make any sense. Unless you don't think that Hughes can't be an effective starter, and Girardi certainly has never said that, why would you sacrifice the possibility of him giving you six or seven innings every 5th day so that he can give you one inning every two or three days?

In short, the Yankees are in a pickle here, and it's Girardi's fault. I realize that Girardi has more to think about than how best to keep Phil Hughes "stretched out", that he's got to try to win games, too, but it seems to me that the two goals don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Girardi could have used Hughes more liberally, letting him pitch two or three innings or more several times, allowing him to throw 40 or 50 pitches and then have three days off. This, in turn, would have freed up the rest of the bullpen, Coke and Bruney and Robertson and Aceves and others, making them more available for times when Joba or Wang or another starter failed to give them six or seven innings.

Hughes might not have been able to go eight innings, but he could have made the jump from 50 to 80 pitches without much trouble, and would have been poised to fill that role indefinitely, should the need arrive. As it is, now the Yankees' best starting pitching prospect is still going to be throwing 10-15 pitches at a time out of the bullpen instead of building up his stamina as a starter.

And Girardi has nobody to blame but himself for it.

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