A reader asked me to write a little bit about how the Yankees develop relief pitchers. This is a pretty cool topic, because the Yankees are on the cutting edge of the field.
The problem with developing minor league relieves into major league relievers is that teams don’t know how to do it. Most players that become major league relievers are either finished projects coming out of college, or more often failed starting prospects who were converted to the bullpen shortly before being promoted to the majors. Mariano Rivera was the latter, Huston Street the former.
It takes time to learn how to play major league quality baseball. While hitters certainly need more time to adjust, pitchers need it too. Relief pitchers have significantly less playing time, and thus less time to lear, than starting pitchers. For this reason, a lot of relief pitchers stall out as they climb the minor league ladder. They take years to ascend from one level to the next, even though they have the skills to conquer the lower levels of the minor leagues.
The result is that only the absolute best pitchers rise to the top. Starting pitchers have the opportunity to learn a new pitch or fix a mechanical issue while rising through the ranks. Relief pitchers don’t. Some of this issue is caused by starters being naturally better than relief pitchers, but some is caused by circumstance.
The Colorado Rockies drafted right-handed closer Casey Weathers with the 8th overall pick of the 2007 draft. Casey Weathers was the top college relief prospect at the time. He was sent to Double-A to start the 2008 season, and pitched with mixed results. His 11.0 K/9 was great. but he also walked 5.7 BB/9, which is unacceptable. He threw only 44 innings not because of injury but because of a mistake by the Rockies. Weathers pitched only 1 inning at a time, usually in the 9th inning.
How does a pitcher work out his control problems in 1 inning appearances a few times a week? It is very hard. They can do work on the side, but amid bus trips and the long minor league season that rarely happens. They generally make their adjustments before the season starts, and ride the wave whereever it takes them.
The Yankees are trying something different. They have decided to treat their relief prospects like starting prospects: throwing them for a lot of innings on a set schedule. Every third day, each major relief prospect throws at least 2 innings. This is how Mark Melancon managed to throw 94 innings (2.14 per game) immediately after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2008. David Robertson, Edwar Ramirez, J.B Cox, Anthony Claggett, Scott Patterson, Wilkins De La Rosa, and Kevin Whelan. For De La Rosa and Whelan, the Yankees even converted them to starting in order to work some more development out of them.
This has allowed the Yankees to push their relief pitchers across multiple levels per season. Melancon’s meteoric rise was neither irresponsible nor accidental. In just two months, he faced more batters at Double-A than Casey Weathers faced all season. The jury is out on whether or not the tactic works long term, but I think it will. The Yankees are pumping out young relief pitchers very quickly, and we’re seeing that at the major league level.
Relievers raised the traditional way are taught to turn it loose for one inning or even just one or two batters at the major league level, and then wait for the next guy to come along. One great side effect of the Yankee’s method (and it should be noted, other teams do this too, just not many) may be a return to the 70s style multi-inning relief pitching. If Mark Melancon takes over as the Yankees closer one day, he’ll be much more like Mariano Rivera than Trevor Hoffman or K-Rod – coming in in the 8th if need be.