Rays Bullpen Struggling
You have to think sometimes that the new item out in the Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen has to be an hourglass. You know that simple time measuring device that is simply turned over the minute you want to restart the clock and readjust time. And with the recent problems in the Rays Bullpen, who do you even attempt to point the blame at when the ERA is bouncing up and down like a EKG chart.
I mean how can the most improved part of the Rays defensive alignment go so north and south in such a short time. To begin with, in April you knew that this was not the same unit that dominated the American League in 2008. You saw that in the type of spring a few of the guys who held it together for the Rays had coming into the season. Grant Balfour, one of the most improved Rays in 2008 went through the spring with an uncharacteristic 5.63 ERA in only 9 appearances.
In a total of only 8 innings he gave up 12 hits and 6 runs , but he did get 9 strikeouts. Can it really be true that in this 2009 season it might be feast or fathom for the Aussie? So far in 2009, he has not always looked like his old self, but he has shown improvements recently before his recent outing again put his name in the whispers of the fans.
On Saturday, Balfour gave up his first homer to a left-hander when Mark Teixeira took him yard during his one inning of work. He also set-up the run scored by Jorge Posada before he left after a pitching change. But then on May 30th, against the Minnesota Twins, Balfour was on fire as he threw 2.2 innings and dominated his 7 hitters he faced in that appearance.
It was the longest he has been on the mound since July 20, 2004 when he faced 3 innings of work against the Detroit Tigers when he was with the Twins. Balfour is also currently tied for 4th in the AL with only 15.4 percent of his inherited runners scoring on him. But is this the same Balfour this season that lead all MLB relievers last season with a 12.65 strikeouts per 9 innings ratio, which also ranked 9th best all-time among AL relievers. I mean last year he struck out 36.6 percent of the batter he faced, and his .143 opponents batting average was the best in the game.
Could a pitcher change that much in such a short period of time? Well, if you have watched the radar gun in the Trop. during his 2009 appearances, this question might be easy to answer. He has consistently been a few clicks below his former self, but was this done as a camouflage for his high and hard fastball by throwing some a bit under his usual blazing speed, or is there something else going on here.
It is understandable that a pitcher, especially a reliever can impose some tricky maneuvers to try and disguise either a flaw in his arsenal, or even try to hide a change in his delivery. Could Balfour be toying with some new angles and pitch placements and just be getting beat right now? Both could be happening, but they are beginning to happen at the wrong time for the Rays and their Bullpen.
Right now as the team is close to the .500 mark and about to reel in a few of the big fish in front of them in the A L East division, they need all hands on deck to eliminate any chance of defeat in the late innings. So far in 2009, the Bullpen has been a bit inconsistent at the wrong times.
And Balfour is not the only culprit that has been manhandled so far in 2009. One of the brightest emerging stars and most surprising pitchers in the Rays Bullpen last season was J P Howell. He was trying to make that difficult transition from being a starting pitcher to a reliever, and in essence fell right into a perfect flow in the transformation.
And his last 7 appearances this season made you think more and more of his 2008 glory. He has gone 7.1 innings with only 2-hits, 2-walks and 12 strikeouts to post a 0.00 ERA. He was beginning to show the same promise in 2009 that he used to dominate and establish himself in 2008. I mean the guy has been a iron man for the Rays this year appearing in 29 game so far this season. Is this number deceiving in that he has pitched great, but been the victim on the mound too much in 2009? Or could it be hiding another fact that his inherited runners are scoring on him.
Howell is also currently second in the AL in strikeouts by a reliever with 36 this season. So why is it that I picked these two guys to chat about if their numbers are so consistent for the Rays. Well, mainly it has seemed in the last two years, as these two guys go, so does the team. So when during Sunday’s game both of them suffered a bit of a one-game meltdown defensively, it brought about a certain element of worry.
Balfour threw only 19 pitches in the game on Sunday, but he also let the Yankees bully him for 2-hits and a walk to basically take the Rays out if the game. I am not going to throw him totally under the bus here, but he did have the steering wheel at the time of the accident. And that sort of pitching brainfart can not happen against a divisional foe who we are chasing to secure another divisional title.
This is the one team you do not want to give scoring chances to in the AL right now. I mean they are only a few runs behind the Rays as a run producing machine right now, and to give them any daylight is almost suicide right now.
Balfour came out to relieve Joe Nelson in the bottom of the eighth inning with a fresh slate, but he allowed 3 out of the 4 hitters to face him get on base. So Howell was brought on to clean up the mess with one out in the inning, and Balfour left Howell with Yankees on every base and a slim 2-run Rays lead. Howell did not make matters any better after he got a 1-1- count on Robinson Cano, he threw three straight balls to walk a run in and give the Yankees a chance by trimming the lead to 1-run.
It was at that moment that someone else actually committed the final blow to the Rays chances by not thinking quickly and clearly to prevent another run. Willy Aybar, who was again at third base as Evan Longoria rested his hamstring took a grounder at third base beyond the bag and sort of hesitated enough to lose the force out at home, and had to throw to first for the sure out in the inning.
It was only the second out, so Teixeira stepped on the plate to tie the game at 3-all. In review, it was shown that Aybar would have gotten Teixeira at home if he elected to go that direction instead of trying to get Posada at first base. He was also too far away from third base to even try and complete a double play to end the inning.
Hideki Matsui then hit another fielder’s choice to second base that got Posada for the second out if the inning, but it also scored Alex Rodriguez with the eventual game-winner. But the damage could have been worse as Howell walked Nick Swisher on 4 straight pitches to again put two men o
n for the Yankees. But he did get Melky Cabrera to strikeout for the last out if the inning and stem the bleeding.
But the damage was already done as the Yankees now had the lead 4-3. Howell threw 15 pitches in his 2/3rds of an inning, with only 6 going for strikes. Some people might say I am nitpicking right now into the recent loss to the Yankees, and I might agree with you. I am trying to find a reason for a loss to a divisional foe that might come back and kick us in the butt in September or October.
You bet your life I am trying to sort out if there is a problem with the match-up system right now that other teams might have finally figured out for the Rays. Matching up hitters to pitchers has been a new fangled invention for only, what 20 years or so and has seemed to work at times, but also blew up in a managers’ face too. Well, this one might have been more of an example of reading the charts more than you were trusting your pitchers.
Some one said to me on Twitter last night, “You go with your hot guys”, and the more I thought of that last night I began to agree with it. Nelson was looking good, and maybe the idea of using Randy Choate instead of Howell last night would have made a bit more sense. Not only because Choate has three saves this season and has only had to face 4 batters to earn them, but he has a bit of familiarity with the Yankees system having pitched here.
I might be important that he spent the first 7 years of his career in pinstripes, and even if some of the hitters were new to him, he did know the hitting styles of some of the Yankee long time guys, which is always a plus. So did the Rays match-up system doom them yesterday? I am not sure if I can give a definitive answer to that because the Balfour appearance might have been the only real question to the loss.
We can pint to Aybar’s mistake, but if Balfour had dominated the Yankee lineup, we would never have gotten to that situation in the game. The Rays have lived and died by Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s match-up system both this season and in 2008. But you have to agree that the system might have been flawed a bit last night in not using your hot reliever Choate or even extending Nelson a few more hitters into the eighth inning.
Of course this is truly speculation that either pitcher could have made a huge difference. But I guess I was in a New York frame of mind today. You know, the Yankee bloggers and newspaper reporters love to dish and bury the team at any moment based on their own observations during a contest. I might be guilty of the same today, but with a twist.
I hate to admit it, but I am seeing a trend in this year’s Bullpen that is going to spell more trouble in 2009. This is not the same unit as 2008 based on Balfour’s 5.68 ERA or Dan Wheeler’s 5.50 ERA. The Rays might be beginning to tread a bit of water right now with their late inning guys, but confidence and stamina will be the key right now.
The team got an unexpected rest during their last series at home, and it might have relaxed the guys a little too much this early in the season. The Rays Bullpen in 2009 has gone a combined 6-7, with 15 saves, but has a modest combined ERA of 3.89 this year over 171 innings. The Rays have surrendered 35 runs in the eighth inning this season, which is a great indicator of bad thing happening on the mound.
Combined with the 28 given up in the ninth inning, the Rays have surrendered 63 runs in only those two frames this year. That is not playoff quality Bullpen effort right now, but there is still ample time to fix the problem. Or maybe to consider just tossing the match-up idea away for a bit and letting your Bullpen gets its legs back under it and thrive again before it is too late……..just a thought.