At some point today, likely this morning in Tampa, Dellin Betances was scheduled to throw a simulated game. It is his second time facing hitters since being shut down with shoulder inflammation on March 19th, and, if all went well, it is reasonable to think he could begin a minor league rehab stint shortly. “We feel like he is making progress,” Aaron Boone said earlier this week.
The bullpen without Betances has yet to live up to its Super Bullpen billing. Adam Ottavino has been excellent, and Luis Cessa as been quietly solid in low-leverage mop-up innings, otherwise the bullpen owns a collective 3.97 ERA (3.28 FIP) through 12 games. The group’s 24.6% strikeout rate is a good five or six (or more) percentage points below the expectation coming into the season.
Through 12 games, there is a Betances-sized hole in the Yankees bullpen. The Yankees feel short one high-leverage reliever, someone who can face the other team’s best hitters with the game on the line. Right now, Ottavino seems to be the only guy qualified to do that. Consider:
- Zack Britton is laboring. More baserunners (12) than swings and misses (10) is impressively bad.
- Chad Green has a 55.6% hard-hit rate and has struck out one of the last 19 batters he’s faced.
- Aroldis Chapman is missing velocity and has been quite hittable in the early going.
- Tommy Kahnle has regained some velocity but he’s not back to his 2017 form.
- Ottavino is on pace to appear in 81 games and warm up in 14 others.
The starting pitchers haven’t helped matters and the Yankees definitely need those guys to start pitching more effectively and pitching more in general. The four non-Masahiro Tanaka starters are averaging 4.1 innings per start in the early going. That can’t continue. The relievers can’t pick up that many innings each game.
Anyway, getting Betances back would not help Britton throw strikes or Green miss barrels. It would lessen the team’s reliance on them, however, at least to some degree. Dellin reclaiming the eighth inning frees up Ottavino for higher leverage work earlier in the game, and remember, the Yankees just lost two games in Houston because seventh inning leads were blown with Not Ottavino on the mound.
There are two questions with Betances. One, when is he coming back? It’s impossible to say right now. Even if today’s simulated game went well — today’s an off-day, so we won’t get a Dellin update until tomorrow — returning for next week’s Red Sox series is unlikely. Could he be back for the start of the West Coast trip on April 22nd? That would seem to give him enough time for three minor league rehab appearances. Maybe four.
And two, how effective will Betances be once he returns? Sometimes shoulder inflammation is truly nothing and the guy comes back with no ill-effects. And sometimes it lingers all season and the pitcher is never quite right. Betances coming back as something less than the high-leverage monster he’s been throughout his career would be bad news for the Yankees. Real bad news given the state of some of the other relievers in the bullpen.
Knowing the Yankees, they’ll ease Betances into things once he returns. Two or three lower leverage spots just to get his feet wet before thrusting him into big situations. I have no problem with that. A healthy and effective Betances allows the Yankees to use Ottavino earlier in the game, and also shelter Britton and Green until they turn things around. Of course, they might’ve already turned things around by time Dellin returns, but I digress.
The Yankees lost ten games when leading after five innings last season. They’ve already lost three such games this year, and their relievers have taken four losses overall. Here are some bullpen win probability numbers through 12 games:
- WPA: -0.79 (+7.83 last year)
- Shutdowns: 10 (153 last year)
- Meltdowns: 11 (72 last year)
(Shutdowns are relief appearances that increase win probability at least 6%. Meltdowns are the opposite. They’re relief appearances that decrease win probability at least 6%.)
The bullpen has not only not performed as expected thus far, it is actively hurting the Yankees. Betances is one man and he alone can not fix things. The Yankees need Britton and Green to right the ship as well, but a healthy Dellin would have helped these last 12 games, and there’s an obvious need for him going forward. Clearly, there is no such thing as too many good relievers. The sooner Betances comes back and is effective, the better the Yankees will be.