Things are going well for the Yankees. Consider the fact that even though they just completed a 2-5 road trip, they still have the best record in baseball at 59-39. They're eight games ahead in the American League East, and that's just wonderful. It appears as though the path to the playoffs is under control.
However, this success does not mean that fans can totally disregard one of the biggest faults of the team this year. Manager Joe Girardi's bullpen management, which has been considered a team strength since he took over in 2008, has not been nearly as great in 2012. It hasn't been the easiest year for Girardi to manage the bullpen though, as the team had to deal with the unexpected loss of the greatest reliever of all time for the season back in April, and one of their other elite relievers has yet to pitch this year because he was auditioning for the circus. These losses are tough to handle, but the Yankees are fortunate that Rafael Soriano and Boone Logan, two of the team's most criticized relievers in 2011, stepped their games up with great seasons. The scrap-heap acquisitions of the two members of the "One-Handed C Boyz," Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada, have also turned out very well (Pro-tip: Maybe if their bodies are fused together, they can have a Pat Venditte-esque double threat on the major level. Science!).
The success of these four men as well as another solid season, albeit with some injury, from David Robertson has given the team one of the better bullpens in baseball despite the absence of Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain. There is some cause for concern with Girardi's in-game bullpen tactics though, as his tendency to play matchups and hesitate trusting young relievers has been frustrating at times.
Often, a starting pitcher has been cruising along without a problem, when, without warning, Girardi makes the decision to remove him. Sometimes, this decision is the right call, like when a starting pitcher is faltering in the previous inning by giving up some line drive hits. However, when a pitcher is doing very well and he only gives up a bloop single or a walk in the eighth or ninth inning, that is not the time to take him out. Girardi should show more faith in his starters, especially his younger ones like Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes. If they never learn to pitch out of jams late in the game, they never will. This skill is essential for when the team's bullpen is overtaxed and starters are needed to pitch deep into the games.
Sometimes, this situation does not even happen that late in the game. Girardi has needlessly gone to the bullpen in the sixth or seventh innings to play matchups. While well-intentioned, playing matchups so early can make managing the later parts of the game difficult. If one of the members of the "formula" (Robertson in the eighth, Soriano in the ninth) is unable to go that day, fans might get an unfortunate Chad Qualls sighting or someone of that ilk. Guys like Qualls should be the last pitcher out of the 'pen, and they should definitely not be pitching in the late innings of a close game. If they were meant to, they would not be the last man out of the bullpen.
On the topic of the "last man out of the bullpen," David Phelps must be discussed. The kid from Notre Dame has done nothing but impress in his rookie campaign, pitching 45.1 innings with a 2.78 ERA and a 3.83 FIP. He's retired all of the previous 16 batters he's faced and struck out nine of them. Yet it still seems as though Girardi is hesitant to use him much. When he was on the team earlier in the season, there was a stretch of nearly two weeks when he was not pitched, and he was subsequently swapped to the minors for the now-traded D.J. Mitchell because he needed innings. It was a tricky time to get him into games because the starters were doing well and Girardi still considered him a long reliever, but he had two of them (including Freddy Garcia) in the bullpen prior to Andy Pettitte's injury. That was when Phelps should have had an opportunity for short-relief roles just to keep him fresh. Now, he's back with the team and he appears to be used more efficiently because he's the one long reliever in the 'pen now. However, he could likely be utilized even more, certainly more than Qualls. Phelps has pitched better than how he's been handled, and his superb relief efforts should not be ignored.
Moving from underuse to overuse, what happened to Girardi's skills in that area? After previous manager Joe Torre turned finding a reliever to pound into the ground with overuse into a yearly tradition, he put a stop to that. Now, though, Logan is at the top of the AL in games pitched, with 48. His total innings are not actually bad at 33, but in every one of those 48 games, regardless of how long he pitched, he also warmed up in the bullpen at least once. There were more games when he warmed up that he did not actually appear in, either. It was a rough time when all of Rivera, Robertson, and Chamberlain were injured in May and Girardi had few relievers to trust out there, but Logan and the now-banished Cory Wade should have been treated more efficiently. Wade, in particular, had his arm destroyed. He pitched very well last year, coming out of nowhere to throw 39.2 effective innings of 2.04 ERA baseball, but somewhere along the line, it may have been forgotten that Torre Overuse Syndrome while with the Dodgers in '08 forced Wade to undergo major surgery in '09. Wade has pitched only once with the team since the end of June, but he still ranks among the team's leaders with 33.1 innings and 34 games. Wade's weariness was on display in June, when he pitched to a 13.97 ERA. Yikes. Let Wade serves as a lesson to not overtax guys like Logan.
This team has the potential to go deep into the playoffs this year. All the assets that could lead to a 28th World Series ring are there. Better bullpen management will help keep all the relievers fresh and ready for October baseball.