OK Orlando, here comes a fastball. Ready? Strike three. Photo courtesy of daylife.com
Back in July the Yankees and the Rays both acquired bullpen arms to prepare for the stretch run. At the time, I was torn between which team got the better reliever. In my piece Wood vs. Qualls, I discussed the differences between the two pickups: Wood had higher upside but health concerns, while Qualls was a groundball machine who had seemingly run into horrific luck on balls in play but possessed less strikeout ability. At the time I concluded that I preferred the Yankees’ haul:
The Yankees now have a potentially-dominant reliever able to take the reins on the 8th inning and combine with Robertson and Marte [note: whoops!] in the playoffs to give Girardi a potent arsenal. The Rays have a stabilizer, the type of pitcher that can generate ground balls and limit the free passes, a guy that they hope can fill the role that Balfour played before going on the DL after hurting himself rough-housing in the clubhouse.
All things considered, I would probably prefer Wood to Qualls. The Yankees only realistically need 30-40 solid innings out of their reliever, and while I tend to expect Qualls to rebound by the end of the year I am enticed by Wood’s potential dominance. Hopefully the Yankees can catch lightning in a bottle. Regardless, both clubs did well to take on relievers with good track records and decent upside for minimal cost. The moves were savvy, the types with potential to pay big dividends in October.
In August and September, Chad Qualls saw action in 27 games, pitching 21 innings. He struck out 15 and walked 6, and allowed 15 runs, 13 of them earned. This amounts to an ERA of 5.57 and a FIP of 3.89. Qualls saw an improvement in his BABIP, as it dropped over a hundred points from his .434 mark in Arizona to .332 with Tampa. Meanwhile in New York, Kerry Wood gradually grew into the role of eighth inning setup man. In the regular season he pitched 26 innings, striking out 31 and walking 18. He allowed only 2 earned runs, and held batters to a .161/.311/.195 line against. His ERA was a microscopic 0.69 and his FIP was 3.39. The closeness in their respective FIPs aside, the regular season was a clear win for Wood.
In the postseason both Wood and Qualls have seen action in both games. On Wednesday, Qualls relieved David Price and pitched a scoreless inning and a third. The game was already pretty much out of reach by then. The Rangers were winning 5-0 and Lee was large and in charge. Yesterday, Qualls relieved James “Big Mouth” Shields with runners on first and second and one out and Michael Young at the plate. After running the count to 2-2, Young tried to check his swing on a slider down in the zone. The umpire said he held up but the Rays players were apoplectic, several of them screaming at the umpire from the dugout. On the next pitch, Young golfed a 94 mph sinker over the center field wall to give the Rangers a 5-0 lead, and they never looked back. Checked swing aside, this was a big moment for Qualls and he couldn’t get the job done.
Kerry Wood has also pitched in both playoff games, each time as the eighth inning option. In Game 1 he entered the eighth with a two run lead to face Michael Cuddyer, and promptly struck him out. He followed that up by walking Jason Kubel, and then allowed a single to Danny Valencia, meaning that the Twins had runners on first and second with one out. Girardi left him in to face Hardy, and Wood got him to ground out to Cano. The runners advanced to second and third, and Girardi brought in Rivera to face the lefty Span with two outs. All in all, it was a decent enough outing, but not his best. Apparently he was saving his best for last night.
As the Twins and Yankees headed to the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees led 5-2 and brought in Wood to face the J.J. Hardy. Wood simply embarrassed him. After missing with a first pitch fastball, a 95 mph heater down in the zone, Wood threw Hardy two straight sliders. The first one was taken for a strike, and Hardy swung and missed on the second one. These were excellent sliders with great horizontal action. They broke away from the right-hander Hardy like a cutter, darting away from him at the last second. Now with the count 1-2, Wood didn’t return to the slider or the fastball. Instead, he dropped a 78 mph curveball on the inside part of the plate for strike three. You can see the knee-buckling curveball in this video clip on MLB.com. It was hardly fair. In terms of the sequence and the quality of pitches it was one of the best at-bats I’ve seen from a Yankee reliever this season.
After Hardy, Wood took on Denard Span. Wood went to the fastball first and got a called strike on a 95 mph heater on the outside corner. He then threw Span a slider that cut in his hands, and Span could only foul it off. In a way, it was a lot like the way Rivera’s cutter treats lefties. He followed that slider with another one, this one over the middle of the plate, and Span flied out to center. In the last at-bat against Hudson, Wood went exclusively with the fastball, daring Hudson to hit it. He threw him three straight heaters around 95 mph, and Hudson struck out on three pitches. Inning over. Enter Sandman. Exit light, enter night.
If you had asked me to describe my absolute best-case scenario when the Yankees acquired Wood two months ago, I would have said something like this: “Gradually earn the manager’s trust in low-leverage positions as he gets fully healthy, then emerge as a late-inning shutdown option as the season moves into September”. Yet, as optimistic as I was, I didn’t actually expect it to happen. Kerry Wood still walks way too many batters, and there’s always the looming specter of a blowup or a shoulder blowout. But here we are in October, and there was Kerry Wood standing on the mound in the eighth inning putting the proverbial ether rag over the Twins’ faces last night. Realistically, the Yankees only need 5 to 8 more innings out of Kerry Wood this year. If he can pitch the way he did last night, the games will effectively be over in the seventh inning. The Wood vs. Qualls battle is practically over. This one was a clear win for the Yankees.