January 19, 2011

Managing Rafael Soriano and the Yankees’ bullpen

Bullpen use has changed drastically in its relatively short history. Here are some telling figures.

But one thing hasn’t changed: a team’s best reliever finishes games. The latest theory, however, is a team’s best reliever should pitch in the highest leverage situations, which is not always the last inning.

Yesterday, two big Yankees blogs posted why Joe Girardi should use Soriano like a “fireman” rather than an “eighth inning man.” This would drag him into more high leverage situations, which can occur as early as the fifth inning. I can’t say I agree.

My three concerns regarding the strategy:

  1. Soriano is a one-inning pitcher these days, which doesn’t offer a lot of flexibility for a fireman. In Soriano’s last two seasons as a closer for the Braves and Rays, he’s thrown three less innings than games pitched. I rarely expect Girardi to throw Soriano out there for two innings.
  2. Hypothetically, let’s say Soriano gets out of a big jam against the meat of the order in the sixth with the Yankees clinging to a lead. Yes, he’s saved the starter from taking a loss, but this leaves less reliable relievers in a position to face the top of the order again in the eighth. This leads into my next concern.
  3. How is Girardi supposed to know the high leverage situation in the fifth or sixth inning will be higher than the seventh or eighth? We all saw the Yankees’ bullpen blow games before getting to Mo last season, especially in the ALCS. However, we also saw the importance of a lockdown bullpen in 1996, and even more so in 2004-05 with Tom Gordon. Of Rivera’s 96 saves those two seasons, Gordon pitched in the eighth 73.5 percent of his total innings and collected 69 holds.

Girardi’s Likely Strategy:
For the final six outs, the Yankees won’t let their opponent breathe for one pitch. Knowing this, Yankees’ starters feel less pressure and opposing teams feel more intimidated.

I think the “fireman” strategy could work with an old school type reliever who is capable of pitching two or more innings, but those are hard to find in setup man quality these days.

I can see Soriano pitching a few games in the seventh here and there, but mark my words, he will finish 2011 with either zero or one out recorded in the sixth inning or earlier.

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