The Yankees have surged to first place in the American League standings, and currently have a two game advantage for the best record in the American League.
The names that are most responsible are not quite the first that would roll off of fans’ tongues when asked to highlight impact players.
High-priced free agent acquisitions Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett have provided exactly the spark New York had hoped for upon signing some of the largest checks in MLB history.
Some of the smallest contracts on the Yankee roster, however, are paving the road to consistent success.
Bullpen staples like Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, and the newly “armed” and dangerous Phil Hughes have transformed a lamb into a lion.
The Yankee bullpen has as low an ERA as any in the league since June 1, and their 2.52 ERA since the All-Star break has helped to preserve victories in nine of ten games played.
This stellar ERA is bloated by the first shaky outing of Aceves’ bullpen tenure on Saturday, and he and his mates have been otherwise dominant.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been under the microscope since missing the playoffs for the franchise’s first time in a full season since 1993, and has taken heat for any mistake worth criticizing.
Girardi also deserves credit where credit is due, and his handling of the bullpen’s innings and appearances has been fantastic.
Under the Joe Torre era, the Yankees would annually have three relievers in the top-5 or top-10 of MLB in appearances.
Pitchers like Scott Proctor, Tom Gordon, Luis Vizcaino, and Paul Quantrill were overused and abused—leading to dead-arm periods, injuries, and a downturn in performance over the stretch run.
The 2009 Yankees, however, do not have even one relief pitcher in the top-10 in appearances or innings pitched.
The first name found on the list is Phil Coke, who is tied for 14th with 47 trots out of the bullpen. There are 20 relievers with the same or more appearances than Coke, and he currently sits 24th out of the top-40 appearance leaders in innings pitched at 42.2.
Who is next on the Yankee list? One would have to scroll all the way down to a tie at 49th in MLB with Mariano Rivera’s 42 games. An amazing 60 relievers have the same or more IP than Rivera.
Injuries and inconsistencies have helped to force Girardi’s hand, as formerly reliable pitchers like Jose Veras, Damaso Marte, Edwar Ramirez, and Brian Bruney have been sent to Triple-A, the waiver wire, or a doctor multiple times in 2009.
Either way, Girardi’s Yankees have had a more consistent and rested bullpen than in previous years.
He has been known to leave veteran starters in games at times when everyone knows they have nothing left, but he has handled the bullpen very well considering the sweeping turnover in personnel.
New York is about to embark on a very difficult stretch of games in which it plays 19 of its next 26 on the road, as well as currently being in the midst of playing 33 games in 34 days.
The next month will be a true test of the bullpen’s freshness and durability, and Girardi will have to find a way to find enough arms to give quality innings in relief.
The easy road to this point should help to push them though, but it is up to Girardi to ensure that his bullpen does not suffer a September setback typical of the Torre years.
He will not be able to rest easy that his job is safe until the “Sandman” and his bullpen mates prove that the consistency will continue even in the face of extreme adversity.