(Courtesy of Anthony Gruppuso/US Presswire)
There wasn't much hype when the Yankees signed Cory Wade to a MiL deal last June. He had already been let go by the Dodgers and Rays in less than a year and hadn't pitched all that well the last time he found himself in a Major League bullpen (5.53/4.40/5.03 slash for the Dodgers in '09). He was basically a low-risk, scrap heap pickup for the Yankees during a time when they needed bullpen depth; a guy who could hopefully eat innings while they waited for Rafael Soriano to get healthy.
Once he put on the pinstripes, though, Wade did more than just eat innings. He posted a solid 2.04/3.76/3.80 line in 39.2 IP for the Yankees and became a reliable piece down the stretch to cover the middle innings, earning himself a new contract for 2012 in the process. It was only natural to assume that Wade's performance would regress this season thanks to his unsustainably high strand rate from 2011 (91.2%) and his low strikeout numbers, but here we are 5 weeks into the 2012 season and Wade finds himself as arguably the best pitcher in the bullpen.
In 17.0 innings pitched over 15 appearances, Wade has allowed just 3 earned runs and 16 total unintentional baserunners, good for a 1.59/1.14/2.18 slash line and a 0.88 WHIP. He ranks at or near the top of almost every statistical category amongst Yankee relievers and has been the most consistent member of the bullpen. The 17.0 IP are the 2nd highest amongst Yankee relievers behind David Phelps' 18.2, and they point to Joe's growing confidence in Wade as he has been apt to use Wade in a variety of different situations this season. After this past Sunday's outing, Wade has only allowed an earned run in 2 of his 15 appearances, and both of those were instances in which he was stretched beyond 1.1 innings and 25 pitches thrown, a situation that typically puts many short relievers at risk of getting dinged. In only a fraction of the innings he pitched last season, Wade has already accumulated more WAR than he did in 2011.
What makes Wade's performance even better is the transition he seems to have made from flyball contact pitcher with "good but not great" stuff and plus command to strikeout pitcher with plus stuff, even better command, and the ability to generate lots of groundballs. Wade's current 10.59% K rate and 1.06% BB rate would both be career bests, as would his 52.3% GB rate. All of these seismic statistical shifts (admittedly accumulated in a small sample size) help explain how Wade's performance has been better this year despite some of his key stat outliers from 2011, specifically strand rate (75.05%) and BABIP against (.295), regressing as expected.
The drastic change in peripherals for Wade hasn't been an accident either. He has changed up the way he pitches and it's been working for him. Wade was primarily a 4-seamer,curveball, changeup guy during his time with the Dodgers and last year with the Yanks. According to PITCHf/x, those 3 offerings made up 95.1% of all pitches he threw in 2011. This season, Wade has cut back on all 3 of those pitches (74.2%) and instead is using more 2-seamers (12.7%), sliders (9.2%), and cutters (3.9%) to keep hitters off balance. The increase in 2-seamers and cutters could certainly help explain the big jump in groundballs, and the mixing of all these pitches could certainly explain the spike in strikeouts. When Wade is throwing all of these pitches for strikes and commanding them down in the zone, that's a lot for hitters to have to take into account when they step in the box. So far, they haven't been able to keep up.
There are a few areas of concern, particularly the decrease in swinging strikes (just 5.4%) and 0.0% HR rate. For a pitcher like Wade who has traditionally been more of a flyball pitcher, it's unlikely that we will see him go through the entire season without allowing at least one long ball, and at some point opposing teams are going to adjust to his new approach and start putting better swings on his pitches. It's also fair to point out that Wade hasn't exactly been doing the heaviest of lifting in his relief work. According to FanGraphs, only 2.2 of his total innings pitcher have qualified as high-leverage innings. But Wade has performed at his best in those high-leverage innings and his overall body of work certainly warrants him getting more of those innings moving forward.
Everybody knew it was going to have to be a group effort to make up for the loss of Mo at the back end of the bullpen. Cory Wade has certainly held up his end of the bargain thus far, and looks very capable of handling a bigger role. He was a luxury as a reliable middle-inning guy at the start of this season, but has become much more important with Mo on the shelf. If he can continue to perform at or close to the level of his early dominance, Wade can help the Yankee bullpen stay just as deep and dangerous as it was with Mo.