Despite entering the bottom of the 7th inning with a 3 run lead, the Yankees lost 9-3 Thursday night to the Cleveland Indians as the bullpen imploded. The result was obviously bad, but the process was disappointing. David Phelps had danced around putting runners on base (5 hits, 2 walks) without missing many bats (5 strikeouts) through 6 innings of work. Joe Girardi should have been pleased with 6 shutout innings and gone to the bullpen to record the final 9 outs. Except Phelps was left in to allow back to back singles to Chris Dickerson and Roberto Perez. It wasn’t a great decision to leave Phelps in irrespective of the outcome.
Mitchel Lichtman (MGL) has done a lot of work on the times through the order penalty. A pitcher’s effectiveness diminishes greatly each time the lineup turns over likely due to fatigue and the opposing hitters gaining a better understanding of release point, pitch sequence, etc. A just above replacement level starter (Phelps) is not expected to be a very good pitcher as he approaches his fourth time through the order no matter how many pitches he has thrown (96) to that point or how effective he has been (6 innings, 0 runs). Dickerson and Perez represented the very end of the 3rd time through the order for Phelps. This sequence has happened before. Back-end starter pitches 5 or 6 good innings while the Yankees gain a lead. Girardi lets them allow 1 or 2 runners to reach base in his last inning before going to the bullpen. It is too late at that point as the whole complexion of the inning changes with men on base. The leadoff hitter for each inning is a hidden clutch situation that can greatly increase run expectancy should he reach base. Getting that first guy out is huge and righty Phelps in close to his 4th time through the order against lefty Dickerson is not the most effective option.
Girardi brought in lefty Matt Thornton to face left-handed hitting Jason Kipnis This was the correct move at this time despite being two batters too late. Kipnis hit an infield single (good process, bad result), but Girardi left Thornton in to face the switch hitting Asdrubal Cabrera hitting from the right side. Cabrera immediately roped a bases clearing triple to right field on the first pitch. Thornton is a LOOGY at this point in his career and shouldn’t ever face a righty in a high leverage situation. His strikeout minus walk rates since 2010 against lefties read 36.5%, 24.6%, 21.4%, 19.1%, and 11.3%. Against righties it’s 17.0%, 9.4%, 5.9%, -2.0%, and 10.2%. This isn’t the bullpen version of Drew Smyly that Jim Leyland underutilized in last year’s postseason. He should only see lefties.
Admittedly, Girardi was definitely in a tough situation: Dellin Betances, Shawn Kelley, Adam Warren, and David Robertson all pitched the previous night and were probably unavailable. This year, only Tanaka (now on DL) and Kuroda have given the team any kind of length and the bullpen has been worn out to this point. This causes Girardi to push guys into the 6th and 7th innings who don’t project to be effective at that point in the game. The Yankees need another starting pitcher (like Brandon McCarthy) who can go deep into games especially with Tanaka on the DL. Looking more at times through the order and less at pitch count and how a pitcher has done so far, as well as capitalizing on platoon splits would also help maximize the chances of winning games.