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Lefties Don't Kill Teams, Teams Use Lefties to Kill (Themselves)

Mariano Rivera: He can do neither all, nor enough. (AP)

Last week, Brian Cashman spoke of wanting to add a second lefty to the bullpen to complement Boone Logan. The Yankees now know that Damaso Marte won’t be available until after the All-Star break, so he effectively needs to be replaced. This seems like a good idea; with only one left-handed reliever in the pen, Joe Girardi’s hands were tied once he had spent his one bullet in Logan. Yet, whether this hypothetical second lefty is an asset or not depends on what kind of pitcher he is and how his role is shaped.

At the risk of over-generalizing, there are two kinds of lefty relievers in the world, spot relievers, popularly known as LOOGYs, and every day relievers. The former is fairly common and can have some extreme usage patterns. Take Joe Thatcher of the Padres. He appeared in 65 games but pitched only 35 innings; in two-thirds of his appearances, he was not asked to record even three outs. Girardi was just a bit more liberal, using Logan for less than three outs 60 percent of the time.

Contrast the way these pitchers were used with the way Bobby Cox utilized his last gift to the Braves, Jonny Venters. Venters was a middling starting prospect who was shifted to the bullpen this year. Venters had solid stuff as a starter, but it was inconsistent. Giving him a pen assignment was the best of both worlds for the Braves—he was able to air out his fastball, giving him more consistent velocity, and he was also used for lengthier outings since he had had a history as a starter. In 79 games, he threw 83 innings. He pitched more than one inning 18 times, while his spot appearances were limited to just 24 percent of his games.

Thatcher of the Padres was very effective in his way, just as Venters was very effective in his. Perhaps, had their roles been reversed, neither would have done as well; to a large extent, talent will dictate usage. The rest, though, is choice. This is especially true when a team is going shopping like the Yankees are now. They’re not locked into a Thatcher or even Logan pattern until they sign a contract. Ideally, they never will be.

Even if a team has a useful spot lefty, there is a displacement effect with innings. Over the last three years, Yankees relievers have averaged about 515 innings per season. If you have a seven-man bullpen, that works out to expecting each pitcher to throw 74 innings per season. That doesn’t seem like much, but keep in mind that no Yankees reliever pitched more than Joba Chamberlain’s 71.2 innings this year. Add in declining expectations for Mariano Rivera’s workload—he threw 60 innings in 2010 and hasn’t reached 75 since 2006. If we project Mo at 60 innings, however good they are, the remaining six relievers have to throw 76 innings to pick up the slack. Logan wasn’t on the roster all year, but figure he is next year, and picks up another 20 games, but only 12 more innings pitched. That brings him to 52 innings. Now the remaining five relievers have to average 81 innings per person.

This is how a pitcher like Chad Gaudin can pile up innings even for a good team. Relievers used to routinely throw 90-100 innings, but now their usage is far more restricted. We haven’t seen a hundred-inning reliever since 1999. This year, just five pitchers got to 80 or more innings—Matt Beslisle, Tyler Clippard, Venters, Tony Pena, and Evan Meek. Innings have to be soaked up by someone, and there are only so many options a team has to absorb them: push your starters harder, expand your bullpen, put more innings on your worst arms. All of these have negative consequences.

Now we come to the second lefty. Venters types are unusual. Lefty spot guys are what they are because managers (often correctly) fear letting them face right-handed hitters. There are some decent free agents in this category, so maybe they won’t add a pitcher who works 80 games and only 40 innings, but for argument’s sake, let’s say they do. We’ve now accounted for Rivera, Logan, and Spot Guy. Now there are four relievers. Each of them has to throw 91 innings. They’re not going to. You could add a 13th reliever. The number dives back down to 73 innings, which is more manageable, though again, no Yankee reliever pitched that many innings in 2010. The problem is, now you have no bench players.

If the Yankees add this flavor of second lefty, they could pick up many high-leverage outs against dangerous left-handed batters, but at the cost of having at least an equal number of outs thrown off onto other pitchers, some, inevitably, the Gaudins and Mitres and Chan Ho Parks of the world. That they could use another lefty is not in doubt. That the lefty has to be a long man is also not in doubt.