I love the way that Yankees manager Joe Girardi has used reliever Alfredo Aceves this season. On a team with three great bullpen options already, Girardi showed a great deal of faith in Aceves and was rewarded handsomely for doing so.
Aceves made only 42 relief appearances in 2009, yet pitched over 80 innings in relief. In 15 of those appearances, Aceves recorded seven or more outs (pitching 2.1 innings or more). Such usage is practically unheard of in modern baseball, which stacks bullpens with specialists and role players who are rarely asked to earn more than three outs at a time.
Why is this a big deal? First and foremost, Aceves was effective. He won 10 games and finished with a 1.024 WHIP - a wildly successful year for a relief pitcher. What Aceves's usage suggests, however, may be far more important than the results during the 2009 regular season. It is a reminder that relievers can be effective in longer stints, given the proper rest between appearances.
Instead of handing the sixth, seventh and eighth innings of a game to three different pitchers with varying degrees of effectiveness, a reliever like Aceves can bridge the mythical gap to the closer all by himself. A team that features a traditional closer and multiple relievers with the ability to pitch two or three innings in a single appearance can concentrate the majority of relief innings pitched in its best options. This would reduce a manager's reliance not only on specialists, but also on the fifth and sixth-best options in the bullpen.
It's simple, really - the more you use your best relievers, the better your team will be.
There is another perspective to consider, of course. Why was the fourth-best reliever in the Yankees' bullpen used like the best relief aces from the 1970s, and each of the better options Girardi had were used in more traditional roles?
Mariano Rivera is unquestionably a better reliever than Aceves, although considering his age and the mileage on his arm, I understand why Girardi would be reluctant to use him over extended periods of time. Phil Coke is a lefthander whose splits suggest that he would be exposed over longer appearances. (He held southpaws to a .195/.218/.366 line, while righties posted a more successful .227/.346/.432 line.)
There's no excuse, however, for not using Philip Hughes in a similar fashion as Aceves. Hughes has been a starter for most of his professional career, so there's no reason to believe that he could not handle an extended workload in a single appearance. Instead of annointing Hughes the "set-up man," the Yankees would've been better served by using Aceves and Highes in the same fashion. Anytime from the sixth inning on in a close game, Girardi could've called on either man to pitch multiple innings in the hopes that Rivera could be used to shut the door.
For his part, Hughes could've made fewer appearances, but pitched more innings. The back of the bullpen - guys like David Robertson and Brian Bruney - could've made fewer appearances and pitched in less important situations.
The Yankees won 103 games this season, so there's not too much to quibble with, but the margin of error is much smaller in the playoffs. If the Angels win the ALCS because of successful at-bats against the likes of Robertson and Bruney, Girardi will have the entire off-season to wonder if traditional thinking did his team in.