Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Adam Warren, Shutdown Reliever

Gas face... Courtesy of the AP)

(Originally published at IIATMS/TYA)

I guess that's what we get for being on the right side of the injury luck coin in Spring Training, huh?  After making it through March almost completely unscathed, the Yankees have now lost 2 key players as a result of last weekend's series in Toronto.  On Friday night, it was Mark Teixeira straining his hamstring and heading to the 15-day DL.  On Sunday night, David Robertson joined him when he strained his groin.  The team officially announced his DL trip yesterday afternoon, creating more stir in an already very new and unsettled bullpen and giving the Yanks another early-season obstacle to overcome.

With Robertson unavailable for the next few weeks, Joe will go with Shawn Kelley as his closer.  He was already working as D-Rob's primary 8th inning setup man, so it's the natural role progression when the closer goes down.  The bigger issue now may be who fills Kelley's spot in the 8th.  There is more than one viable option out there, albeit none that are proven options.  Joe gave a possible preview of things to come when he used Adam Warren in the 8th yesterday.  Warren, 26 and in his second full Major League season, has gotten off to a very strong start this season after being sneaky good in Spring Training.  Somebody from the trio of he, Phelps, and Nuno was going to have to make a transition to short relief to get regular work.  His early results, the way he handled himself on the mound yesterday, and D-Rob's temporary absence make Warren a prime candidate to make that transition.

When Warren entered yesterday's game, the Yanks had just gone down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 7th after giving up a run the half-inning before to trim their lead to 4-2.  The top of the Baltimore lineup was coming up and if any baserunner got on it meant another AB for Chris Davis.  Warren, possibly still a little fired up from entering the game, promptly walked leadoff man David Lough on 5 pitches to give Davis that AB.  Rather than get rattled, Warren quickly settled down and retired Nick Markakis on 2 pitches before striking out Adam Jones and Davis in succession to end the inning.  The rally was snuffed out, the 2-run cushion stayed intact, and the Yankees went on to win.

More impressive than the results yesterday was how Warren got them.  He came back from the leadoff walk to throw a 1st-pitch fastball strike to Markakis, then coaxed a weak flyball out of him on a next pitch changeup.  He worked Jones in reverse, starting him off with 2 straight sliders for foul ball strikes and eventually blowing him away with a fastball he dialed up to 95.  With Davis, he started him off with a changeup for a foul ball, a pair of fastballs for a ball and strike 2, and a called strike 3 slider.  3 hitters, 3 different first pitches and approaches, 3 outs.  Arguably the best power hitter in the American League and one of the most feared bats in the game today and Warren had him guessing and guessing wrong with 2 strikes.

That outcome yesterday was a continuation of what Warren has been doing since ST games started.  While he was never much of a true competitor for the 5th starter job, he more than held his own in the spring.  In 5 games, Warren allowed 2 ER in 10.2 IP (1.69 ERA) and struck out 10.  In 3 regular season appearances, he's yet to allow a run or a hit.  His only baserunner came on the walk to Lough and he's struck out 4.  Almost as if he anticipated he was going to end up in the 'pen, Warren has changed his whole pitching attack.  He's gone from 4-seamer/cutter/curveball/slider to primarily 4-seamer/slider/changeup (74.4% of his pitches thrown thus far), and he's ramped the average velocity on all his fastballs up from low 90s in 2012 to 93+ this season.

As with David Phelps and his early struggles, a handful of April appearances is not nearly enough to declare Warren the biggest and baddest dude on the bullpen block.  He could get bombed his next time out and his SSS numbers won't look nearly as sparkly as they do presently.  But there's a vacancy that's been created in the setup role and it's one that needs to be filled.  Warren has pitched better than any other reliever out of the 'pen, he's apparently adjusted his approach to better fit a short relief role, and he's shown the stones and the stuff to go out and get big outs.  If he's not the best option to step up and become a more important part of the Yankee 'pen, who is?

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