Wednesday, November 7, 2012

2012 AB4AR Season Review: The Bullpen

(It's OK, D-Rob.  You're still MY closer of the future.  Courtesy of Getty Images)

Like the lineup, the 2012 Yankee bullpen was made up of mostly familiar faces.  Unlike the lineup, those familiar faces didn't experience nearly the regression in performance that their bat-wielding teammates did.  That's not to say that the bullpen wasn't without its own problems this season.  They certainly weren't spared the wrath of the injury bug, losing the 2 most important members of the group for different stretches of time early in the season.  But that was alleviated by the return of others from previous injuries later in the season, a big-time comeback season from 2011's biggest disappointment, and another instance of Cash finding diamonds in the rough that contributed their fair share of above-average middle innings work.

The bullpen group wasn't as otherworldly dominant as they could have been, which is to be expected when the best relief pitcher on the planet misses almost the entire season.  But as anticipated they maintained their status as one of the best groups in baseball.  Their 3.62 FIP in 444.0 innings of work ranked 6th in MLB, 3rd in the American League, as did their 8.92 K/9.  Despite Joe still remaining too married to the idea of set roles for certain guys, the Yankee bullpen managed to step up and overcome the biggest obstacle they've faced in some time to once again be the backbone of this team.

The biggest reason they were able to overcome the loss of Mo was Rafael Soriano's rebound season.  He came into 2012 on a lot of people's shit lists after signing his big contract and then spending most of 2011 either injured or pitching only marginally well, but he made up for it in a big way in 2012.  Soriano assumed the closer role after Mo went down and D-Rob spit the bit in his short audition, and he pitched like the guy he was in 2010 when Yankee ownership fell in love with him.  Soriano recorded 42 saves in 46 opportunities, pitched to a 2.26/3.32/3.75 slash in 67.2 IP, and was downright unhittable at times.  He seemed to tire a bit down the stretch, a common theme for most of the late-inning relievers, but there's no denying that Soriano was the most valuable reliever in the 'pen this year.  He parlayed that great season into another opportunity for a big contract, and chances are he won't be back in pinstripes next season, but for this season at least, Soriano lived up to his contract.

Failing to lock down the closer role after Mo's injury was just a small part of the tale that was David Robertson's season.  It started off on a sour note when he hurt his foot in ST and then spent some time on the DL with a strained oblique right after Mo went down in May.  It took a few outings to get back to normal, but once he did Robertson was the same dominant D-Rob we've come to know over the past few seasons.  The argument could be made that Robertson was better than Soriano this year, and his 2.67/2.48/2.67 slash in 60.2 IP supports that argument.  Most impressive was D-Rob's ability to cut down on his walks this year, getting his BB/9 below 3.00 for the first time in his career.  He also developed a very useful version of a cutter, even if he did fall in love with it a little too much towards the end of the regular season.  With Soriano on his way out, Robertson should hold down his spot as the setup man and first in line to replace Mo in 2013.

Boone Logan, for the gross amount of overwork he got early in the season and the constant battles he fought with his evil twin, still turned in another productive year as the team's primary LOOGY.  When you're striking out 11.06 batters per 9, that's pretty damn good, although I think we'd all like to see him make fewer than 80 appearances next season.  His backup, Clay Rapada, proved to be a smart pickup by Cash and was very effective against lefties all year, and combined with David Phelps and Cody Eppley to pitch 126.2 innings of above-average middle relief that helped ease the impact of Cory Wade's implosion and Joba Chamberlain's lost season.  They aren't sexy names, but the contributions from these unexpected sources was invaluable.

Despite all the positives contributed by the members of the 'pen who were able to play in 2012, the biggest story was obviously Mariano Rivera's injury.  In the freakiest of freak occurrences, Mo blew out his knee shagging flies in early May, limiting him to just 9 appearances and 8.1 IP and causing a near panic before Soriano stepped in and steadied the ship.  There was some uncertainty surrounding Mo's future, as he initially declared he would return in 2013, then wasn't so sure.  But he confirmed to Cash this past weekend that he intends to come back, and all signs point to a new deal being worked out in the near future.  It's unknown how the injury and subsequent rehab to come back will affect Mo next year, but at least he'll have the chance to go out on his terms.

For once, the bullpen didn't have to carry too much of the load to make up for the rotation's weaknesses.  There was actually a good balance between starters holding up their end of the bargain and each relief pitcher filling their defined role, and I think that's part of why this year's bullpen unit was able to overcome the loss of Mo.  Even without Soriano, this should be a strong group in 2013 with Mo, D-Rob, and Logan coming back, Joba and David Aardsma returning for what are hopefully full, healthy seasons, and the Logans and Eppleys of the world being around to cover the back end.  It didn't go exactly as planned, but 2012 was another strong season for the Yankee 'pen, and 2013 should be more of the same.

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