Saturday, January 30, 2016

Yankees pitching cannot rely on Betances, Miller and Chapman alone

ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote Friday about the trend around Major League Baseball in which teams seem to be concentrating on more than just fortifying the backend of their bullpen, but rather creating dominating groups. The New York Yankees certainly fit that bill after adding Aroldis Chapman this offseason to an already potent combination of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.

What’s interesting about the situation is that the front offices do not necessarily want this to be the case. Take this quote from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

"It has always been easier to build great bullpens than great rotations ... Believe me, I'd rather have five guys who can give you nine innings every day and give you 250 innings a year, and have an ERA under 2.00, and compete for Cy Youngs. But I don't have that."
This of course makes sense because one thing the Yankees did experience toward the end of the 2015 season was some of their relievers wearing down. It happened to Betances, who saw increased walk rates in the season’s final month, and it was disastrously evident for Chasen Shreve, who went from extremely competent to woefully disappointing. Adding Chapman might help curtail some of Betances’ use, but let’s face it Yankees manager Joe Girardi is not going to hold back on deploying the three-headed monster as often as possible.

And that means the Yankees have to get some length from at least two of their starters on a regular basis, AND they need to receive ample, and more importantly, quality assistance from the relievers who precede Betances, Miller and Chapman (B-M-C from here out when referenced together).

Here is the breakdown of the Yankees anticipated starters and their number of innings worked per start in 2015.

As you can see, just two starters averaged six innings or more per start, and the club sat at 5.7 innings per start, just below league average (5.8). Ideally for the Yankees (and any team that employs the method of beast-mode relief), getting two starters to average seven innings per start, or getting at least three of the starters to reach the mark Masahiro Tanaka established in 2015 is essential. I figure Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi are the best candidates for improvement in 2016.

Unfortunately, even if the Yankees’ staff averages six innings pitched per start (which would be less than I suggested, but still a marked improvement from last season) that leaves nine outs per game for the bullpen, assuming a nine-inning game. The desire to utilize B-M-C will be exceedingly strong when the Yankees have the lead, but physically impossible.

So, the Yankees must find a way to stabilize the pitchers who will bridge the gap, and more importantly be trusted to innings that B-M-C cannot handle because they require a rest day.

The Yankees’ Scranton/New York shuttle employed last season was useful in that it keep most of the bullpen fresh. Innings that were low leverage were split among many relievers and those arms were at least lively all season.

But, the Yankees needed more than that in 2015. The club used Shreve and now-departed Justin Wilson as the main setup men to Betances and Miller. The Yanks will have to figure out who the two relievers will be this season to handle the same roles.

Dellin Betances
Photo credit: Keith Allison via Flickr
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that since the Yankees have Chapman they only need one other trusted reliever for high-leverage situations. In order to keep B-M-C fresh all season, Girardi’s best bet is to alternate use of his top three relievers with two others who can handle seventh or eighth inning duties if needed. This would allow Girardi to spell any of the three relievers so that they do not have to work three successive days (a Girardi rule of thumb).

This theory works best if the starters are doing their part. But, if only one of them can push themselves to the seventh inning on a regular basis for example, the pressure remains squarely on the bullpen. So, beyond the five high-leverage options, the “mop-up” guys cannot pitch like mop-up guys.

If the assumed starting five is healthy, it is expected that Ivan Nova will be the swingman in the bullpen. His time on the mound will be critical to the success of the club. I’d argue that while there is not a specific number of innings being floated around about Luis Severino’s limit for the season (yet), I would suspect he will be hard-pressed to average more than six innings per start. I would venture to guess that there will be several starts in which he fails to reach the sixth inning. Nova is key here. I’d argue it might be wise to line him up to be ready during Severino starts as the first man out of the pen.

CC Sabathia
Photo credit: Keith Allison via Flickr
The same might be said of Sabathia. While Sabathia could log more total innings than the rest of the staff for the entire season, he might also be the pitcher most expected to throw clunkers. Now, the Yankees could just force CC to stick in games that he’s given up a slew of runs and “take one for the team,” or they could have Nova or one of the shuttle arms available on Sabathia start. Whether it is Nova or someone from Scranton, depends on how Severino and Sabathia line up in the rotation and whether Nova is available.

My point is that the final two bullpen spots (or maybe three slots if the Yankees sacrifice a bench role on Severino and Sabathia start days) need to be not only pitchers who can provide ample innings per appearance, but they must be pitchers who can work successful frames. Gone is the day where Chris Capuano comes into a game and just lets things get worse (thankfully).

The entire bullpen (seven or eight guys given the situation) must be able to provide quality innings. If the shuttle is going to work in 2016, the expanse of it needs to be diminished in quantity and increased in performance. There must be two or max three “good” arms coming back and forth. The roundabout cannot include four or five starters/relievers and hope that it will work out.

The issue here is the Yankees might not have relievers that fit the description I’ve provided; or at least they might not be able to expect it from many relievers currently at their disposal.

Assuming a healthy rotation, the Yankees have Nova and B-M-C inked into bullpen roles. The list of arms on the 40-man roster is full of upside, but little in the way of bankable and trustworthy experience.

There are southpaws Shreve, Jacob Lindgren and James Pazos along with right-handers Nick Goody, Branden Pinder and Nick Rumbelow. Each of the six worked at least a handful of innings for the Yankees in 2015. The Yankees also have Johnny Barbato, Luis Cessa and Kirby Yates on the 40-man, each of whom has at least Triple-A experience. Cessa is a starter, but could be used as one of the extras when the club needs length after an extra-inning game for example.

As I mentioned earlier Shreve was great until September of last year, and it can be argued he fell apart after being used too often through August. Lindgren is the former hyped prospect of the group, but Pazos and Pinder actually performed well in their stints with New York in 2015. Rumbelow had some nice moments with the big club and Barbato was exceptional at Triple-A last season.

Andrew Miller
Photo credit: Arturo Pardavilla III via Flickr
Again, this group looks fine from an upside perspective, but it wouldn’t shock me if one of the Yankees final moves of the offseason is to add a major league veteran reliever or two to the list of non-roster invitees. Of the multitude of names above, it might be just two or three who could perform to the level required to stick with the club throughout the season.

Once performances establish the pecking order, it becomes Girardi’s responsibility to try and stick with his starters a hair longer than he has in the past, AND become more trusting of his relievers not named Betances, Miller and Chapman. The number of revolving-door relievers cannot be as severe as last season, because Girardi will need to use the seventh and eighth man in line in tougher spots on occasion unless there is dramatic improvement in innings per start across the board.

So, while it’s fantastic that the Yankees will be in great shape with leads after the sixth inning is over, how those leads are handed over to B-M-C might be more important. It’s going to take better efforts up front, in the middle and from the manager in order to maximize the effectiveness of Betances, Miller and Chapman. If that doesn't happen, the club might not be any better off than they were in 2015.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance baseball writer. Besides his work here, Christopher is a featured Yankees writer for His baseball commentary has also been published on The Cauldron via Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.