The New York Yankees’ bullpen has been all-around fantastic this season, including expectedly strong performances from Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Boone Logan, and even Rafael Soriano. But with Rivera and Robertson out with injuries, the Yankees needed their under-the-rader relievers to step up. Luckily, they have caught lightning in a bottle with Cory Wade, who has arguably been the best reliever of the bunch. Despite a strong year in 2011, where he pitched 40 innings with a 2.04 ERA, I think it’s fair to say that most people expected significant regression to the mean from Wade in 2012. But he has exceeded all expectations, second in innings pitched only to long-man David Phelps, and leading all Yankees relievers (min. 10 IP) with a beautiful 2.18 ERA.
Wade was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 10th round of the 2004 draft. He made about 20 starts in the lower levels of the Dodgers’ minor league system in 2006, but he struggled as a starter and quickly transitioned into a full-time reliever. He excelled in his new role, putting up a 2.09 ERA in 99 innings pitched between A+ and AA in 2007. The Dodgers clearly liked what they saw in Wade, because after a short stint in AA in 2008, Wade made his major league debut in late April. He ended up being on of the Dodger’s most valuable relievers that year, pitching 71 innings with a 2.27 ERA and acting as the Dodgers’ top setup man in the 2008 postseason.
However, Wade’s success took a sharp turn for the worse in 2009. After 27 extremely ineffective innings in which he put up a 5.53 ERA, struck out few, and walked far too many, Wade was sent down to AAA, where he continued to pitch poorly for the remainder of the season. His sudden ineffectiveness was likely largely due to injury, however, as Wade underwent shoulder surgery before the 2010 season and pitched only 30 innings in the minors that year. He was signed to a minor-league deal by the Rays in 2011, but never pitched for the team, despite pitching very well for their AAA team (1.23 ERA, 40IP), and was released from the team in June.
The Yankees must have seen something in Wade that the Rays didn’t, because soon after his release from the Rays, the Yankees signed Wade and added him to the 40-man roster. A day later, he made his first appearance for the Yanks, pitching a perfect inning against the Rangers. Wade stuck in the bullpen for the remainder of the season, and he put up a fantastic 2.04 ERA.
This brings me to 2012, where Wade has quietly been one of the best, if not the best, pieces of the bullpen in New York. But although his ERA is just slightly higher than last year’s, the underlying numbers show a huge improvement for Wade, indicating that he may very well maintain this strong performance.
Wade’s effectiveness with the Dodgers in 2008 and the Yankees last year largely came from his superb control (1.82 and 1.89 BB/9 respectively) and low WHIP (0.93 and 1.03). This year, he has increased those skills even more with a 1.31 BB/9 and a 0.92 WHIP, but most remarkable has been his dramatically increased strikeout rate. Wade sat around a 5-6 K/9 for his career before this year, but this year, he has struck out 10 batters per 9 innings, a HUGE jump from years past. Not only that, but he is allowing more ground balls and less fly balls, leading to less homeruns and extra-base hits.
I suspect that Wade’s strikeout rate will drop closer to his career numbers as the season goes on, but even if it does, Wade ‘s superb control, hit prevention, and home run prevention will allow him to be a very effective pitcher moving forward. Wade’s career looked like it was going nowhere a year ago, but the Yankees scouts clearly know what they’re doing, as they found a diamond in the rough with Wade. With the Yanks’ bullpen riddled with injury, Wade’s performance has been crucial for the Yankees so far, and the numbers show that the trend should continue as the season wears on.
All stats taken from FanGraphs.com.