Monday, May 5, 2014

Big Al Reintroduces Himself To Yankeeland

(Courtesy of the AP)

(Originally published at IIATMS/TYA)

The easy headlines from yesterday afternoon's stinker were CC's horrific performance and the offense's continued non-existence.  About the only positive one, which Kenny wisely covered in the IIATMS/TYA recap of the game, was the successful re-debut of Alfredo Aceves in the Yankee bullpen.  Called up after the bulk of the 'pen got worked hard in Friday night's 14-inning loss, Aceves got the call when CC failed to get out of the 4th.  Although initially brought in to be more of a sacrificial lamb to save the rest of the bullpen for the road trip, Aceves made Joe look doubly smart by tossing 5.1 shutout innings and keeping the Yankees in the game.

It was a pretty unexpected outcome if you've followed Aceves' career since he left the Yankees after 2010.  He joined the Red Sox in 2011 after being non-tendered and put up a season reminiscent of his career best 2009 season in pinstripes, pitching 114.0 innings of mostly relief work with a few spot starts and posting a 2.61 ERA.  His role and reputation among his teammates and the fans deteriorated over the last 2 seasons, to the point that he was a negative fWAR pitcher in 2013 with almost identical K and BB rates.

Aceves hooked on with the Orioles for Spring Training this year, but elected free agency when he found out he wasn't going to make the Opening Day roster.  The Yankees were in need of some organizational rotation depth in Triple-A after losing Nik Turley and Jose Ramirez to injuries and Vidal Nuno to the Major League bullpen, so they took another flier on Aceves and brought him back into the fold.  He struck out 14 and allowed only 3 ER in his 3 SWB appearances (13.2 IP) before getting called up, then put up the vintage "Ace" relief performance yesterday.

In doing so, Aceves may have just secured himself a spot in the bullpen for the foreseeable future.  The back end of the Yankee 'pen has been a rotating cast of Quad-A garbage since D-Rob first went out with his groin strain, and the bulk of the relief runs allowed by the Yankees has come from that group.  The Yankees have their 1-inning, higher-leverage roles basically set right now with D-Rob back.  What they're missing is another arm that can soak up some of those less important middle innings and a reliable long reliever.  Aceves can fill both of those roles.  That's mainly what he did in his first stint in New York and he had his full arsenal on display yesterday as he auditioned for the roles again.  Throwing the fastball for strikes, getting ahead in the count, mixing in the cutter and changeup to keep hitters guessing, and getting swings and misses with the slider.  That's the Aceves recipe and he followed it perfectly yesterday.

Actually the slider is the new part of the recipe, replacing the curveball that's traditionally been Aceves' go-to out pitch.  He's been plagued by command problems since leaving New York and has experimented with more 2-seamers, cutters, and curves at various points over the last 3 seasons.  Getting back to more fastballs and adding the slider has simplified his game and the early small sample results have been very good.  His velocity and strikeouts are up, his walks are down, and he's yet to give up a home run after giving up 18 in 85.2 total IP last year.

Some said the Yankees made a mistake letting Aceves walk after 2010 when they apparently misunderstood the severity of his back injury.  3 years later, they have a second chance to redeem that mistake and Aceves has a chance to redeem himself after being dumped by 2 AL East rivals.  The Yankees were left without a long reliever when they moved David Phelps into the rotation, and without checking too closely I think it's far to say they haven't had one as good as '09 Aceves in the last 4 years.  Aceves is not old at 31, he's fully healthy, he's made changes to his pitching approach, and he's got experience pitching and pitching well in Yankee Stadium.  Maybe he's got another year of '09 magic left in that arm.  If so, the Yanks may have just solved their biggest bullpen problem.

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