Can’t Get No Relief

For today’s installment of “Pair Up in Threes,” I examine a trio of American League contenders whose bullpens have been extraordinarily awful thus far, the Yankees, the Indians and the Angels. For each team, I ran down their stats and rankings in two key BP metrics, Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) and Fair Run Average (FRA). I also discussed their recent histories coming into the year (“The Setup”), their troubles thus far (“The Fall”) and outlined some potential solutions which may or may not be in progress (“The Fix?”). Here’s some of what I had to say abuot the Yanks:

The Fall: The Yankees’ staff as a whole is allowing an MLB-worst 6.23 runs per game, and while the rotation has had its problems — particularly with Chien-Ming Wang — the bullpen has been even worse. Injuries have been a major problem, as [Brian] Bruney and [Damaso] Marte, expected to be Rivera’s top set-up men, are both on the DL, the former with a strained flexor mass, the latter with shoulder tendonitis. Worse, Rivera has been battling arm-strength issues and experiencing discomfort in his surgically repaired shoulder. While his 18/1 K/BB ratio is impeccable, he’s yielded four homers in his past six outings, as many as he allowed in 2007 or 2008, and more than he yielded in eight other seasons; last week he surrendered back-to-back shots for the first time in 863 career games.

Indeed, homers have been the staff’s downfall; their 2.0 HR/9 rate is dead stinking last in the majors. The new Yankee Stadium, where an MLB-high 3.62 homers per game are flying out of the park, is a particularly poor match for a corps whose holdovers aside from Rivera are decidedly fly ball-oriented:

Pitcher                  IP     WXRL    FRA      GB%
Jonathan Albaladejo 16.0 -0.046 5.62 53.7%
Edwar Ramirez 15.0 0.193 6.22 37.5%
Jose Veras 15.0 -0.209 6.24 34.1%
Phil Coke 13.2 -0.021 4.19 33.3%
Mariano Rivera 12.1 0.652 4.73 41.2%
Brian Bruney 8.0 0.611 1.88 40.0%
Damaso Marte 5.1 -0.099 17.17 35.0%
David Robertson 4.2 -0.044 7.42 36.4%

With their primary trio failing to fire on all cylinders, the less experienced members have been called upon to shoulder a larger workload, and in doing so, they’ve looked like small-sample flashes in the pan whose 2008 performances were flukes. Veras and Ramirez have combined to walk 21 hitters in 30 innings, and the latter has yielded five homers.

The Fix? Predictably, the bullpen’s disarray has renewed calls to move Chamberlain back to the set-up role in which he flourished in 2007 and early 2008, particularly given his early struggles as a starter and the recent return of Phil Hughes. But with Chamberlain heating up — 23/7 K/BB in 18 2/3 innings over his last three starts, as opposed to 11/10 in 16 innings over his first three — and Hughes getting cuffed in two of his three starts, the Yankees need for a Jobaful rotation is clear; he’s third on the team in SNLVAR, and tops among the starters in strikeout rate.

That still leaves the team muddling through without Bruney and Marte, neither of whom is likely to be back much before the end of the month, if then. Power arm Mark Melancon debuted a few weeks ago, and he showed good stuff in a couple of outings while failing to find the plate in two others; he was sent back down to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make room for the return of Alex Rodriguez, but he’ll likely be back soon. Mexican League refugee Alfredo Aceves, who made two relief appearances and four starts for the 2008 Yanks, has been recalled to fulfill a long-relief role; he could find a home in the later innings if Wang or Hughes or whomever can establish a habit of getting through five innings (those two are 1-for-6 in that category). Would the team consider moving the latter to a relief role assuming Wang returns close to full strength? If not, they may be left to twiddle their thumbs while shuffling through an assortment of Brett Tomkos and hoping the likes of Veras, Ramirez, and Albaladejo can find the strike zone sooner or later.

Seriously, I think I’m going to slap the next pundit who suggests Joba would pitch better in relief, particularly if they cite his win total as evidence.

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