When the Yankees won three consecutive World Championships at the end of the last decade, their bullpen was a big key to their success.
Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton(notes), Mariano Rivera(notes) and Jeff Nelson(notes) (clockwise) played pestilence, famine, war and death on the Yankees' opponents from 1998-2000.* Over those three title runs, the Yankees played 44 playoff games and those four relievers made 74 appearances and went 7-1 with a collective 1.94 ERA. They collected 13 holds, 19 saves, and zero blown saves. Rivera's brilliance has been justly heralded —he had a 0.65 ERA in 41 1/3 innings over those three years, and 18 of the 19 saves — but it has also overshadowed the work of his terrific setup men.
*Mendoza missed the 2000 playoffs due to injury.
As the Yankees prepare to get back into World Series form, it's worth wondering if the current group of Phil Hughes(notes), Phil Coke(notes), Joba Chamberlain(notes) and Rivera can match the performance of their fearsome predecessors.
The Yankees' 2009 bullpen certainly got off to a good start against the Twins and all but Coke pitched while recording a combined 2.25 ERA in eight innings with three holds, one save, and no decisions. This is Coke's first playoff trip, but Hughes, Chamberlain, and Rivera also pitched in the 2007 postseason and their combined postseason numbers were quite gaudy themselves — a 2.05 ERA in 22 innings, though Joba blew a save in "The Bug Game."
Digging deeper into the numbers, the new crew has recorded more strikeouts, though it also issues a few more free passes than the championship corps. The current Yankee top four have been striking out 11.5 men per nine innings in 2007 and 2009, versus just eight K/9 from 1998-2000. But they've also walked 2.5 men per nine innings of late, while they only gave up 1.5 BB/9 a decade ago. For this reason, the WHIP has risen from an absurd 0.95 to a merely terrific 1.14. The homer rates are identical and minuscule — 0.4 per 9 innings.
Of course, playoff numbers are the very definition of a small sample size, so it's worth digging into the regular season numbers of the two groups. As it turns out, Mendoza, Stanton, Nelson, and Rivera saved their best stuff for the playoffs. From 1998-2000, they combined for a 3.42 ERA, with a 1.27 WHIP and a 2.28 K/BB.
In contrast, the relief appearances by Coke, Hughes, Chamberlain and Rivera in 2007 and 2009 combined for a 2.53 ERA, a 0.97 WHIP, and a 4.68 K/BB. (Hughes and Coke didn't pitch out of the pen in 2007.) Much of that improvement has actually been the ageless Rivera, who in the last three seasons has posted three of the five highest K/BB of his career. But Hughes this year had one of the best seasons by a Yankee reliever not named Rivera and Joba's bullpen dominance in 2007 is still legendary.
Perhaps the regular season superiority of the new kids shouldn't be surprising. The Yankees got Jeff Nelson as a throw-in in the Tino Martinez deal and got Stanton from the Rangers for a player to be named later.
Hughes and Chamberlain, on the other hand, were deemed more valuable than Johan Santana(notes) when the Twins were shopping their ace. The duo has better arms and more talent than any of the setup men from the Yanks' World Championship teams. There's no guarantee they can match the sustained performance of Stanton, Mendoza and Nelson — still astonishing after all these years — but they have a good chance with their talent.