Middle Relief Issues

Can Joba Rule Again?

Monday’s loss in Chicago provided a glimpse of one of the Yankees glaring issues: the underbelly of the bullpen. Everything is just fine if a starter can go seven, but anything prior to that has been troublesome of late. Simply put, Joba Chamberlain, Cody Eppley, Clay Rapada, and Boone Logan haven’t been getting the job done as of late.

The organization had high hopes for Joba to come back and solidify the seventh inning. Reports out of his rehab appearances were excellent, with him touching 97 MPH. Since getting back to the big club, though, things have not worked out. In 6.2 innings, he’s allowed fifteen hits, four walks, seven runs, two homers, and one hit batter while striking out four. Pretty ugly, even if it’s a sample size. The BABIP in this sample is an astronomical .464, but batters do have a high 23.3% line drive rate, above his 18.5% norm. The good news is that he didn’t lose his stuff; PITCHf/x has his average fastball velocity at 94.2 MPH, with his highest reading at 97.4. The fastball has been the pitch getting him in the most trouble though, as opponents have a .713 wOBA against. In the chart below, you can see how frequent he’s been leaving that fastball (red squares) over the heart of the plate. The sliders (green diamonds) can also be seen too often down the middle. If this keeps up, Joba could be back in AAA.

Since the middle of July, Cody Eppley has thrown nine poor innings: allowing seventeen hits and seven runs (six earned). He has struck out nine and walked three, but it’s clear that he has not pitched well. His job is to get out righties, and over this stretch, they’re 10 for 29 off Eppley, good for a .344 batting average. If it wasn’t for the rosters expanding in September, he wouldn’t last much longer. Having a specialist of his type can also wear down a bullpen, as Chris wrote a few weeks ago.

Clay Rapada has been excellent this season doing his job as a LOOGY: lefties hit .193 off him with a mere .251 wOBA. This month, though, he hasn’t been quite as good. Lefties are 4/16 off him, which still isn’t too bad (.250), but they are also three for their last seven (.428). These are undoubtedly sample sizes, so I wouldn’t be too concerned. For his career, lefties are hitting just .168 off him with a .236 wOBA. If for some strange reason this poor trend continues, it looks like Pedro Feliciano could be waiting in the wings in September.

Boone Logan may be wearing down: he’s third in baseball in appearances with 59. In 13.2 innings since July 1st, he’s allowed 11 runs, good for a 7.24 ERA. He’s still striking out more than a batter per inning, with 16 punchouts overall, but his control has been awful: 9 walks during this period. Batters are clearly having an easier time putting the ball in play off him with good contact: up until June 30th, his whiff rate was 38.4% and line drive rate a mere 12.5%. Since, batters are swinging and missing 34.2% of the time and hitting liners at a 20% clip. He’s still getting whiffs more than his career 26.7% rate, but his line drive rate since July is only 1% higher than his career, so it’s not as if batters are getting lucky. Logan’s go to pitch has always been his slider, especially this season (45 wRC+). Lately though, it hasn’t been very good. Check out his location map since July. Way too many up and in the middle of the zone.

So, what are the options? Cory Wade will get some tread again in September, although he hasn’t been great in AAA. Don’t let his 2.70 ERA fool you; his BABIP is .210 and FIP 4.51. Pedro Feliciano could be an interesting option if he can stay on track with his rehab. He hasn’t pitched since 2010, but if he could get anywhere near his solid form as a LOOGY (.210 BAA and .265 wOBA for lefties career), he could give Rapada a run for his money in September.

One other pitcher to consider is David Phelps. Provided that CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte return and stay healthy, he’ll likely be ticketed back to the pen. He’s been very successful as a reliever this year: 2.54 ERA, 9.23 K/9, and 2.77 BB/9. Despite FIP and xFIP being higher at 3.71 and 3.48, those are still solid marks.

Finally, an x-factor could be Mark Montgomery, currently in AA Trenton. He’s drawn rave reviews from scouts and front office execs, and his numbers don’t disappoint. River Ave. Blues has a great scouting report on the relief prospect. This year in high-A Tampa, he had a 1.34 ERA and 1.59 FIP in 40.1 frames, with a 13.61 K/9. Since being promoted to Trenton, he’s continued his dominance over 17 innings: 2.65 ERA, 1.55 FIP, 14.82 K/9. His control is decent: 3.57 BB/9 in A and 2.65 in AA. The AA numbers, of course, are a sample size, and the limited experience above A ball could be concerning. But frankly, his minor league numbers are pretty similar to one of the Yanks current go-to relievers: David Robertson. Although D-Rob had more experience above A than Montgomery, he never posted a K/9 lower than 12.54 at any level. Additionally, Robertson’s walk rates were generally higher. He’s not on the 40-man, but perhaps he gets a look in September.

Now, if any of Wade, Feliciano, or Montgomery impress management enough in September, how will they get onto the playoff roster? With rules stating that a guy must either be on the DL on August 31 or current roster, these guys seem to not really matter no matter how well they may pitch in September. The fact of the matter is, however, the Yankees have exceptions. Anyone who is on the 60-day DL on August 31 and stays there through the playoffs can be replaced with anyone in the organization, even if not on the 40-man. So that means all three of these guys could make it.

While I would like to see Montgomery get a shot, hopefully the bullpen can straighten out and there won’t be a need to rely on a rookie. As mentioned, Joba’s stuff is still there, it’s just a matter of correcting his command in the zone. Rapada’s struggles are still a sample size, while Eppley probably isn’t going to be all that important or useful in the playoffs. While I doubt Logan’s roster spot is in jeopardy, he is my biggest concern given his struggles are over an extended period of time.

Regardless, Robertson and Soriano to shut down games is still better than most teams around the league. This whole thing would never even be an issue if Mariano was healthy, but nothing can be done about that now. Considering the fact that Joba’s stuff is still there, I think it’s a matter of shaking off the rust to correct his strike zone command. If he can resolve that, the Yanks should still be relatively comfortable with a lead after six. If not, Phelps could become the man for the seventh. More importantly, if Sabathia can stay healthy, Kuroda continues to pitch well (even at a slightly lesser level), and Pettitte comes back healthy, there may not even be too much need for the bullpen before the eighth.

By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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