The front-end of the Yankees’ bullpen, with the notable exception of David Robertson, has been one of the few parts of the team unaffected by injury. The lineup has missed Mark Teixeira, the bench has lost Brendan Ryan and Francisco Cervelli and now the rotation is short Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda. Someone has had to pick up the slack and that has fallen to the bullpen. The bullpen has responded in a big way and have shown that they are the key to the Yankees winning and losing. In games in which the Yankees have won this season, the bullpen ERA is under two; in games in which they have lost, the ERA is over eight.
While the front end of the bullpen has been a solid, consistent staple of success, the back-end has been through turmoil in the wake of Nova’s season ending surgery and Pineda’s suspension followed by injury. The long men that began the season in the ‘pen, David Phelps and Vidal Nuno, are now the fourth and fifth starters. This has resulted in a revolving door of relievers attempting to fill the void that includes Preston Claiborne, Bryan Mitchell, Matt Daley, Bruce Billings and Chris Leroux. None of them have done even an adequate job. The Yankees have even resorted to having a position player take the mound in Dean Anna. All told, the Yankees used nineteen pitchers in the first month of the season, tops in the majors.
Bullpen management is one area where Joe Girardi is leaps and bounds better than his Hall of Famer predecessor, Joe Torre. Torre had a bad habit of using, some would say abusing, his relief staff. The great Mariano Rivera was the only relief pitcher to survive having Torre as his manager. The careers of several relievers such as Paul Quantrill, Tanyon Sturtze, Steve Karsay, Scott Proctor among others were cut short as a result of the heavy workloads imposed by Torre. Girardi is known for giving his pitchers longer breaks and having them work less innings. This will be crucial in the coming weeks as the temptation increases to overuse those middle relievers and setup men who are consistently getting the job done. Where Torre might have run Dellin Betances, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, and Adam Warren out there everyday, Girardi will be more judicious in his use. This is especially important in the cases of the young guns, Betances and Warren. They could be a cornerstones of the Yankees’ bullpen for the next half decade, or they could be used up and have their promising future thrown away.
As the bullpen innings increase due to having your sixth (Nuno) and seventh (Phelps) starters taking the ball every five days, it will be increasingly important to manage the workload of the Yankees’ most important relievers. The bullpen has already been taxed before the injuries thanks to the sudden change of CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda to five inning pitchers. Now it will only be worse. The Yankees will need to keep that revolving door between the back-end of the bullpen in the Bronx and Triple-A Scranton open to keep fresh arms in the ‘pen and avoid overusing the others. The bottom line will remain the same. If the bullpen pitches well, the Yankees will win. If they don’t pitch well, they won’t.