About last night: Aroldis Chapman’s tough ninth inning

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Last night’s win over the Red Sox, as satisfying as it was, did not come easily in the ninth inning. Aroldis Chapman needed 33 pitches to get the final three outs and gosh, did he labor. Two walks, one booming double, one long foul ball, one run, and only two swings and misses. It was hardly vintage Chapman, but it was enough to close out the win.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Chapman’s velocity graph for the game. This is the velocity of each pitch as the outing progressed:

aroldis-chapman-velocity

For the first 25 pitches or so, Chapman’s fastball was consistently 98-100 mph. It wasn’t until the very end of the outing, as his pitch count approached 30 — his previous season high was 22 pitches — that his fastball dipped all the way down to 96. Trackman clocked his average fastball — he threw 25 of them — at 98.9 mph for the night.

“I feel fine. Thank God, I feel fine,” said Chapman through Marlon Abreu, the Yankees’ interpreter, to Brendan Kuty following the game. “I would not blame not throwing for a couple of days, or blame the weather at all. It’s just sometimes you’re not as sharp. That’s it.”

Given who he is (a closer in year one of a five-year, $86M contract) and what he’s known for (historic fastball velocity), seeing Chapman finish the outing at 96-98 mph rather than his usual 100-102 mph was at best unnerving and at worst panic-inducing. The fact it was the Red Sox and Fenway Park and the tying run was on base didn’t help matters.

That all said, Chapman’s outing to me looked more like a guy who simply didn’t have it and was struggling with the weather than someone who was hurt. I’ve seen plenty of pitchers pitch hurt over the years, and they didn’t look like that. I know Aroldis said not to blame the weather, but that strikes me more as a closer not making excuses than anything. It was cold and it was wet, and we’ve seen Chapman struggle in those conditions before. He did last year in Game Seven of the World Series. Remember the rain game against the Rangers last year?

Here is another velocity graph, again via Brooks Baseball. This is Chapman’s average velocity by month throughout his MLB career. Like most pitchers, Chapman doesn’t really hit his stride and start airing it out until the weather heats up:

aroldis-chapman-velocity-by-month

Keep in mind Chapman did not pitch for the Yankees last April due to his suspension. That first dot last season, the low one, that’s his final Spring Training outing against the Marlins at Marlins Park. Chapman spent April pitching in Extended Spring Training games before rejoining the Yankees in May, when he was essentially in midseason form.

Anyway, as you can see in the graph, April is traditionally Chapman’s worst month in terms of velocity. And again, that applies to nearly every pitcher. It applies to Dellin Betances. His average 98.9 mph fastball last night was down for midseason Chapman. It was right in line with his past Aprils, if not better, however.

This is what I saw last night. One, a pitcher who came out of the bullpen without good command. It happens. Two, a pitcher who had a hard time with the less than ideal weather conditions. And three, a pitcher who was running out of gas by the end of his outing. Chapman’s usual April velocity was there for the first 25 pitches or so. It wasn’t until later in the outing, after 30-ish high-stress pitches, that he dipped down to 96-98 mph.

Because he’s an important part of the team and because he’s very early in his massive contract, of course we’re all going to keep an key on Chapman in his next few outings, including the Yankees. Every pitcher loses velocity as their career progresses and Chapman will be no different. At some point sitting 100-102 mph will become sitting 98-100 mph, then sitting 95-97 mph. It’ll happen at some point. Father Time remains undefeated.

I think last night’s outing was just one of those games, however. One of those games where Chapman didn’t have it and needed to grind. Those outings happen to everyone, even pitchers as good as him. It was his first game like that this year. If this becomes a pattern, it’ll be a red flag. For now, I consider it to be just one of those days.

Warren’s versatility adds necessary element to Yankees’ pen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After Monday’s win, the Yankees’ top two relievers — Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman — are each on pace to throw 66.5 innings this season.

That total is still pretty high (47 pitchers threw more innings last year without making a start). However, it would hardly be a career-high for either and would mark a fourth straight season with a decrease in innings for Betances.

A big reason why neither pitcher should end up breaking a career-high in total innings is the presence of Adam Warren. The versatile right-hander has the best numbers of any Yankee reliever so far this year despite giving up his first three hits and a run on Monday. In nine innings, he’s allowed just the single run, walked only one batter and struck out nine. And he’s absorbed those nine innings in just five appearances.

This is hardly a revelation for Warren. He’s been giving the Yankees multiple-inning relief appearances since 2013, minus a four-month stint with the Cubs last summer and a little time in the Yankees rotation. Beyond the multi-inning appearances, he also has experience in taking high-leverage innings. At certain points in the last three seasons, he’s fulfilled late-inning roles for the Yankees, even taking the 8th inning of close games at times.

But this season, he’s entered in a complete hodgepodge of situations.

Apr. 2: 4th inning, two outs, two men on, Yankees down five
Apr. 5: 5th inning, two outs, one man on, down three
Apr. 8: 6th inning, no outs, up one
Apr. 15: 8th inning, one out, up two
Apr. 17: 7th inning, no outs, up four

If anyone can find a trend or consistent part in any of that, let me know. To me, the point is that Warren can take on literally anything for Joe Girardi. Yankees need someone to soak up 2-3 innings and keep the game within striking distance? Warren time. The starter only goes five and someone needs to get the ball to the top three relievers? Warren time.

Despite being clearly fourth in the bullpen pecking order behind Chapman, Betances and Tyler Clippard, Warren’s role is highly synergistic with those guys and the rest of the bullpen. He can take on enough innings to keep their innings down for late in the season. After Warren threw 2 1/3 solid innings on Monday, Girardi discussed everything Warren brings to the table.

“He’s a bridge. He’s a fill-in, in a sense, in the 7th, 8th or 9th inning, whatever I need,” Girardi said. “He just gives me a lot of versatility to our bullpen. And I think that piece is really important to have a really good bullpen, a guy that can do that and handle a number of different roles.”

A lot of relievers have trouble not knowing their role. It’s incredibly tough for a pitcher to be ready to go every inning from the 5th through the 9th, especially when they may warm up multiple times in that span. It can be exhausting and it’s the main reason why we don’t see pitchers in the regular season do what Andrew Miller did last postseason. That’s not to say it’s easy to do what Chapman or Betances do — not all innings are created equal and they pitch almost exclusively in high leverage spots — but they do have the added luxury of knowing the basic parameters of their appearances.

Warren doesn’t have that, but has done fine. Looking back to 2014, his last full season in the Yankees’ bullpen, he entered in the 6th inning 12 times, the 7th 25 times, the 8th 23 times and the 9th or later nine times. While that often meant soaking up innings with the Yankees behind, it more closely resembles the way Miller was used by the Indians last postseason than how Betances or Chapman are used right now.

Warren’s background as a starter and having recently thrown 100 innings (131 1/3 in 2015) shows that he can do this without completely breaking down. He did decline a bit towards the end of 2014, but he still had a 3.26 ERA after the break, which is nothing to sneeze at. The 29-year-old pitcher did come into the spring as a starter, yet even he realizes where he provides the most value right now.

“Being in the bullpen, you get a chance to pitch every day,” Warren told Bryan Hoch. “The way our starters are throwing right now, for sure, I feel my value is in the bullpen. I do enjoy being that flexible guy that you can throw around everywhere. For me, that’s where a lot of my value comes from.”

So Girardi’s right. It is really important to have that guy in your pen. You look around the league and a lot of teams don’t have a similar arm who can both go multiple quality innings yet also has high leverage experience. Houston seems to have the prototype for this player in Chris Devenski, but there are few beyond him. A pitcher like Warren or Devenski can really complete a team’s bullpen.

Even though his ERA will be much higher than 1.00 for the full season, a healthy Warren gives Girardi a chance to rest his top three relievers without biting his nails or worry that a lead will implode. Or it gives him a chance to use just 1-2 relievers after only getting five innings out of a starter. Or whatever conceivable need comes up. While coming in with a four-run lead in the 7th inning as he did on Monday isn’t glamorous, it gives us a sneak peek at how Warren can be used optimally in 2017.

The bullpen has been lights out, and a thin rotation means the Yankees need it to continue

So much bullpen. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
So much bullpen. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

Isn’t it funny how one thing can happen in Spring Training, then the exact opposite happens once the regular season begins? Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird tore the cover off the ball this spring, so of course they’re off to a combined 2-for-26 (.077) start during the regular season. Masahiro Tanaka was lights out in camp, then he couldn’t get out of the third inning on Opening Day. Chase Headley was invisible in March, and he’s been a one-man wrecking crew in April.

Through three games this season the offense has been at best inconsistent and at worst flat-out bad. Sanchez and Bird (and Matt Holliday) doing nothing in particular is the biggest culprit. No doubt about that. The rotation has been mostly poor too. Even in Tuesday’s win, CC Sabathia could only go five innings. None of this is surprising, of course. Young hitters have their ups and down, and the rotation looked questionable all offseason.

The only constant for the Yankees so far this season has been the bullpen. They’re carrying eight relievers and all eight have appeared in a game already, and they’re all tossing up zeroes. Here is the game-by-game bullpen work so far:

IP H R ER BB K GB/FB
Game One 5.1 5 0 0 1 7 8/6
Game Two 4 2 0 0 1 6 6/2
Game Three 4.1 0 0 0 2 4 5/4
Total 13.2 7 0 0 4 17 19/12

The bullpen has been phenomenal through three games, protecting the one lead they’ve been given and keeping the score close in the two games they were trailing. Adam Warren has been the super early pitching MVP so far. He’s faced 14 batters total in his two appearances, retired them all, and allowed only three balls out of the infield. Warren really should be in the rotation, but I digress.

The bullpen won’t be perfect all year, we know that, but the Yankees do figure to continue to rely on their relief crew heavily. Tanaka’s short start Sunday was an outlier. That was only the fourth time in his 76 starts with the Yankees that he failed to complete five innings. Sabathia might be a five-and-fly pitcher at this point of his career though. And who knows with Michael Pineda? Same with Luis Severino tomorrow and whoever ends up being the fifth starter.

“That has to change. You knew early on that you weren’t going to get a ton out of them, but you can’t live like that,” said Joe Girardi to Mike Mazzeo following last night’s game, referring to the two short starts within the first three games of the season. The problem is there’s no real reason to expect it to change. Last season the Yankees didn’t get many innings from their non-Tanaka starters — Tanaka averaged 6.44 innings per start in 2016 while all other Yankees starters averaged 5.47 innings per start — and the personnel is the same.

The Yankees are prepared for these short starts, at least early in the season, because they’re carrying two long men in Warren and Bryan Mitchell in the bullpen. Three off-days within the first ten days of the regular season will help too. As rough as Tanaka’s and Pineda’s short starts were this week, they pitching staff is fine. The Yankees are not in a “crap our bullpen is shot for the next few days” situation. They have eight relievers and the off-days.

For now, the Yankees can survive these short starts. Their bullpen has been dynamite, and while the result is one win in three games, you can’t blame the relievers. They’ve held up their end of the bargain. I expect the offense to come around at some point, sooner rather than later. I don’t expect the non-Tanaka starters to provide much length though. The bullpen has been great and the Yankees will need it to continue being great to stay in the race this season.

A fifth bench player, not an eighth reliever, may be best use of the extra roster spot until the fifth starter is needed

So many pitching changes. (Presswire)
So many pitching changes. (Presswire)

Once again, the Yankees failed to pick up a win on a first day of the season this year. Yesterday’s loss to the Rays was not only their sixth straight Opening Day loss, it was their eighth loss in the last nine Opening Days. Yikes. Good thing it’s just another game, eh? The Yankees have not won on Opening Day since beating the Tigers back in 2011. Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano set up Mariano Rivera for the save that day.

The Yankees used four relievers in yesterday’s game, leaving four others in the bullpen unused even though Masahiro Tanaka didn’t make it out of the third inning. Today is an off-day, so those guys will get a day to rest before going back to the park for Game Two tomorrow night. They’ll be fresh, if nothing else, and they figure to be very fresh for the first few weeks of the season. The Yankees have three off-days within the first ten days of the season, which they’re using to skip the fifth starter’s spot twice. Smart move.

Rather than carry a fifth starter, the Yankees have opted to carry eight relievers to start the season, which in no way surprises me. They seem to carry an extra reliever whenever they get a chance. Like every other team, the Yankees are terrified of overworking guys early in the season and running out of pitchers in extra innings. I get it. I do. I also think the eighth reliever is wasted roster spot because those scheduled off-days ensure the bullpen won’t be overworked early.

Keep in mind what happened last year. An Opening Day rainout meant the Yankees couldn’t skip their fifth starter, but they still had three off-days within the first 14 days of the season. Because of that, last guy in the bullpen Luis Cessa made just one appearance in the first eleven days of the season. The Yankees eventually decided to send him down to Triple-A Scranton because sitting unused in the big league bullpen was doing him no good.

This year the Yankees have an extra reliever and three off-days within the first ten days of the season, not the first 14 days like last year. More relievers, more off-days early. It sure seems like we’re heading for a “this reliever(s) has to get in a game soon because he needs the work” situation next week, doesn’t it? Joe Girardi is going to lean on his top relievers early thanks to those off-days — which he absolutely should do! — meaning the other relievers will be left idle.

Perhaps the Yankees will run into some extra innings games or get a few more short starts these next two weeks and need the extra relievers. That’s what they’re worried about, right? But, keep in mind both Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell were stretched out to start during Spring Training, so they can give the Yankees some serious distance these next few weeks. And the Yankees aren’t shy about shuttling relievers in and out either.

Anyway, my point is there may be a better way to use the roster spot vacated by the fifth starter, who won’t be needed until April 16th. The Yankees could carry a fifth bench player instead, which would allow Girardi to do two things a little more often:

  1. Pinch-run in the late innings. The Yankees are getting younger but they’re still on the slow side. If they’re down a run or two in the ninth inning and either Gary Sanchez or Greg Bird reaches base, pinch-running would be a wise move. Right now Aaron Hicks, the only backup outfielder on the roster, is the best pinch-runner option.
  2. Pinch-hit for Torreyes. Inevitably, some big moments are going to find Ronald Torreyes, the fill-in shortstop while Didi Gregorius is sidelined. It happened yesterday and Girardi went to Hicks to pinch-hit against a righty. Chris Carter is available to pinch-hit against a lefty. Pete Kozma then has to take over at short, so they’re burning two players in one move.

The Yankees almost ran out of bench players yesterday. Hicks pinch-hit for Torreyes in the seventh inning, Kozma took over at shortstop, then Carter pinch-hit for Kozma in the ninth. The Yankees were going to be short a middle infielder had they tied the game. Bird told Anthony Rieber he volunteered to play third so Chase Headley could play second, allowing Starlin Castro to slide to short. Austin Romine at second was another option. No. Just … no. Playing dudes out of position on Opening Day would not be fun.

As with the eighth reliever, how often would this fifth bench player be used? That’s the question and the answer could very well be never. Maybe the Yankees keep socking dingers like they did in Spring Training and won’t need pinch-runners, and Torreyes goes all BABIP crazy for a few weeks and there’s no reason to pinch-hit for him. Baseball can be weird like that.

There’s also this: who would be the fifth bench player? Rob Refsnyder is at the front of the call-up line, and he would give the Yankees an extra middle infielder given his ability to play second base. That said, if you’re going to lift anyone for a right-handed pinch-hitter, Carter will get the nod before Refsnyder because that dude hits fungo bat pop-ups that carry over the fence.

The only left-handed hitter on the 40-man roster and not in the big leagues is Mason Williams, and while he’s not someone Girardi figures to use as a pinch-hitter for Torreyes, Hicks sure is. He did it yesterday. Hicks hits for Torreyes, Kozma takes over at short, and the Yankees would still have a capable outfielder on the bench in Williams should, say, Carter pinch-hit for Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury against a lefty the next inning. That’s not really doable right now.

Either way, eighth reliever or fifth bench player, we are talking about literally the 25th player on the 25-man roster. No team uses the last player on the roster all that often. It just seems like, with all those early season off-days, carrying an extra reliever is a waste. Heck, the Yankees might be able to get away with only six relievers thanks to those off-days. Instead, they’re carrying eight. The extra bench player could be the better use of that roster spot, even if he only plays two or three times before the Yankees need a fifth starter.

Bryan Mitchell: Starter or reliever?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

There are rarely real battles for important rosters spots in Yankees Spring Training. Sure, there’s usually a race for the utility infielder spot or the last spot in the bullpen, but we don’t often see a significant role up for grabs. However, from the outside looking in, it appears that the competition for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation is an honest-to-goodness competition.

As Mike wrote last Wednesday, how that battle shapes up could very well shape the Yankees’ bullpen. After all, you have more than two guys fighting for just two spots. That brings me to Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell very likely would have played a larger role — initially in the bullpen — for the 2016 Yankees if he didn’t injure his toe towards the end of the camp. He ultimately made just five appearances, all starts coming in September. Now he could see himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot to begin the year.

Mitchell in a lot of ways seems like an afterthought, but he’s a pitcher with some real talent. After all, pitchers with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and power curveball don’t grow on trees. (He has a third pitch but more on that later). While he has a 4.52 ERA in 65 2/3 big-league innings, he’s shown enough stuff and performance to make me believe he can be viable MLB pitcher. The question becomes: Is he a starter or a reliever?

Case for Mitchell the reliever

Mitchell, who will turn 26 on April 19, only really has one season with bullpen experience, that being his 2015 campaign, in which he split time between Triple A and the majors. In 29 2/3 innings, Mitchell struck out 29 batters but had an ugly 6.37 ERA. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Through Aug. 17, Mitchell had a 3.86 ERA over 21 innings (15 1/3 in relief) and had been effective, particularly in low-leverage multiple-inning outings.

His Aug. 11 game was his best. Coming into the 12th inning of a tied game on the road, Mitchell marched through the Indians order, struck out five, allowed two hits and two walks (one intentional) but worked himself out of trouble and kept Cleveland off the board. It was a gutsy performance by a rookie thrown into a tough situation.

And then it all fell apart his next appearance. Asked to make a spot start on Aug 17, Mitchell took a line drive from Eduardo Nunez off the face in the second inning. He somehow only missed 11 days, but his performance cratered afterward, allowing 12 runs in his last 10 appearances. He walked over a batter an inning and gave a glimpse of where his game can go wrong.

Still, though, Mitchell showed a lot before his broken nose. He can clearly give the team length, something they will need out of the bullpen with their current rotation, and he had cut down on his walks for the most part, something that has always been an issue for him. MLB.com gave his control a 40 grade prior to the 2015 season while ranking him 14th among Yankees prospects. However, they were pretty positive on his raw talent, saying he had “some of the best stuff” in the system and saying that he “should be able to carve up hitters” with his fastball and curveball.

That’s where the crux of the “Mitchell should be a reliever” argument lies. Both his fastball and curveball are plus pitches and he would be able to shorten his repertoire in the bullpen, cutting out his ineffective changeup. His fastball has hit 98 in the bullpen. If he can set hitters up with his fastball, his curveball can be a nice one-two punch as his out pitch.

It’s easy to make a lot of Adam Warren comparisons here, probably too easy. Warren is a definite success story for the Yankees while Mitchell hasn’t proven himself yet. For 2017, Mitchell would be more likely to emulate 2013 Warren than 2014-15 Warren. That means his value in relief is likely to be maximized by his ability to produce multiple quality innings rather than needing high leverage situations that Warren excelled in over the 2014-15 seasons. The Yankees seem to be taken care of at the moment in the backend of the ‘pen.

Case for Mitchell the starter

Why does Mitchell work in the rotation? Beyond a fastball that still sits in the mid-90s throughout his starts (dips to 94.6 third time through the order), Mitchell has developed his cutter as a more effective secondary pitch. He still uses his four-seamer 43 percent of the time, but he actually used his cutter more often than his curveball (24.7 to 21.4 percent) in 2016. His curveball was still his out-pitch, but Mitchell utilized his cutter as a swing-and-miss secondary pitch more often as the opposing lineup turned over.

The sample size is key to note: We have only 65 2/3 major league innings of data from Mitchell, about 55 percent as a starter and the rest as a reliever. His cutter, which was his best pitch by wRC+ against in 2016, showed improvement statistically from year over year in that sample, a sign that Mitchell might be more than just a two-pitch pitcher. However, it could easily be noise rather than a major breakthrough. We need to see a full season of him in the majors before you draw any real conclusions on his cutter.

If you tend to believe the 2016 number more than anything, Mitchell can be a viable back-end starter. He had two scoreless outings (with seven walks in 12 innings), two less than stellar starts and one quality start where he took the loss. The five games were against the Blue Jays (2x), Red Sox (2x) and Dodgers, so he had to face some stiff competition along the way.

Conclusion?

When I began this exercise, I thought Mitchell was best suited for relief. Part of that is definitely the Cleveland game from 2015 sticking in my mind. I still lean that way, but I’m certainly curious as to what he would do at the end of the rotation. Is his cutter a real solid weapon or is that reading too much into too few data points? Remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: Mitchell isn’t a future ace. Yet in all but the best of rotations, the No. 4 and 5 pitchers are going to have some major warts. For Mitchell, it’s his control. If he sticks as a starter, he’ll have to conquer the ability to throw strikes more consistently. Even if that doesn’t happen, Mitchell has the makings of a strong reliever who can help make up for the Yankees’ lack of length from their starters.

The spring rotation competition could have a domino effect on the Opening Day bullpen

Luis and Luis. (Presswire)
Luis and Luis. (Presswire)

Over these next seven weeks or so, the Yankees are going to hold a massive rotation competition in Spring Training. They’ve held fake competitions in previous springs, we’ve seen plenty of those, but this one is legit. There are two spots open behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda, and no shortage of candidates. Here’s the approximate fourth and fifth starter pecking order:

  1. Luis Severino
  2. Luis Cessa
  3. Chad Green
  4. Bryan Mitchell
  5. Dietrich Enns
  6. Jordan Montgomery
  7. Chance Adams

The Yankees insist Adam Warren will compete for a rotation spot as well, though I have a hard time believing the soon-to-be 30-year-old Warren will be given a rotation spot over a kid in his mid-20s, especially since Warren is so valuable in relief. I suppose Ronald Herrera could be given the chance to win a rotation spot, though it seems unlikely. Generally speaking, that’s the pecking order.

This rotation competition comes with two questions. One, who wins the two spots? That’s the obvious question. And two, what happens to the guys who don’t win the rotation spots? In cases of Adams, Enns, and Montgomery (and Herrera), the answer is clear. They’ll go to Triple-A Scranton to bide their time. Warren, if he is truly involved in this rotation competition, will slide back in to the bullpen.

The top four guys is where it gets murky. It’s easy to assume the two competition losers will go to Triple-A — all four of them have options remaining (Mitchell has one, the other three have two) — and simply wait their turn. The Yankees aren’t going to get through the season using only five starters, so it’s only a matter of time until the two competition losers wind up in the rotation. That’s baseball.

That said, the answer is never that simple. The Yankees also have two open bullpen spots at the moment, and we can’t rule out the two rotation competition losers winding up in the Opening Day bullpen. They’ve done this before. The Yankees did it in 2014 with Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno, and they did it last year with Cessa. They would have done it with Mitchell too last year had he not suffered that fluke toe injury at the end of camp.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Severino and Cessa win the fourth and fifth starter’s spots. Severino has the most upside of the rotation candidates and Cessa had the most success as a starter last year. Sound good? Doesn’t matter, really, it’s only a hypothetical. In that case, the Opening Day pitching staff could shake out like so:

Rotation: Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Severino, Cessa
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, Warren, Green, Mitchell

If the Yankees believe Green and Mitchell give them a better chance to win than other bullpen candidates like, say, Jonathan Holder and Ben Heller, that very well could be the Opening Day pitching staff. I know I’m not alone in thinking the rotation competition losers could win up in the bullpen. Bryan Hoch suggested something similar recently as well.

Now, is this a good idea, using the sixth and seventh starters as relievers? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer. Montgomery, Enns, Adams, and Herrera give the Yankees some decent Triple-A pitching depth should they need an emergency spot starter. Also, as we saw with Cessa last year, the team could always send one of the starters they stick in the bullpen back down to Triple-A to get stretched out.

One thing to keep in mind: the Yankees are short on innings eaters. Last season AL starters averaged 5.69 innings per start. Tanaka averaged 6.43 innings per start, 12th highest in baseball. Sabathia was at 5.97 innings per start but noticeably lost effectiveness after 80-85 pitches or so. Pineda averaged 5.48 innings per start, third lowest among the 71 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Joe Girardi doesn’t trust him and had an increasingly short leash late in the season.

The two kids, whether it’s Severino and Cessa or Green and Mitchell, probably won’t be counted on to chew up innings and save the bullpen. We saw Girardi pull Cessa after five or six innings several times last season even though his pitch count was manageable, and there are reasons for that. He didn’t want him to go through the lineup a third time, because that’s usually when the opposing team does the most damage against the starter.

With Tanaka the only reliable source of innings, having multiple relievers who can throw multiple innings wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The Yankees don’t have to employ a true tandem starter system, though on the days the starter goes five and fly, it’ll be nice to have a reliever who can go three innings, if necessary. Putting the two rotation competition losers in the bullpen would give the team those multiple long men to help cover a rotation not known to pitch deep into games.

Opening Day is still nearly two months away (groan) and a lot can and will change between now and then. With any luck, everyone will get through camp healthy and the Yankees will be in position to decide whether to send their extraneous starters to Triple-A or use them in relief. That would be a nice problem to have. The rotation competition will be a big story this spring, and there’s a pretty good chance it will overlap with the bullpen competition as well.

Do the Yankees actually need another lefty reliever?

Layne. (Presswire)
Layne. (Presswire)

For much of the offseason, most Yankees-related rumors involved their search for a new designated hitter and their pursuit of Aroldis Chapman. Since the Matt Holliday and Chapman signings, most of the talk has focused on the team’s search for middle relief, particularly left-handers. They Yankees have been connected to Justin Wilson, Boone Logan, Mike Dunn, and Brett Cecil, among others.

Chapman gives the Yankees one of the top lefty relievers in baseball. Arguably the best and no worse than the third best behind Andrew Miller and Zach Britton, though he’s not someone Joe Girardi will bring in to face, say, Chris Davis in the sixth inning. Chapman’s the closer and the ninth inning is his domain. The innings before that are up to lesser relievers. Here is New York’s lefty reliever depth chart behind Chapman:

  1. Tommy Layne
  2. Chasen Shreve
  3. Richard Bleier
  4. Dietrich Enns
  5. Joe Mantiply (re-signed to minor league deal)
  6. Jason Gurka (signed to minor league deal)

Think Bleier belongs above Shreve? I won’t argue with you. Bleier did see some higher leverage work down the stretch in September while Shreve hasn’t been very good since July 2015. Either way, Layne is at the top and everyone else is behind him in whatever order. Jacob Lindgren (non-tender), James Pazos (trade), and Tyler Webb (Rule 5 Draft) are all gone.

Looking at that depth chart, it’s easy to understand why the Yankees would seek a better left-hander for the bullpen, and there are several available. Is it worth investing money and a roster spot in another southpaw though? Given the state of the roster, I don’t think another lefty is a necessity at all, for a few reasons.

1. Layne might actually be pretty good. Guys like Layne are very hit or miss. He’s 32-year-old journeyman who didn’t make his MLB debut until age 27, and he’s been in four organizations (Diamondbacks, Padres, Red Sox, Yankees) in the last five seasons. He’s been traded for cash, non-tendered, and released. Layne is the definition of freely available talent. You don’t give up anything of value to get players like him.

The thing is, Layne is above replacement level, at least when it comes to facing left-handed batters. We all saw him last year, he’s a quintessential funky lefty with an 80-something mile-an-hour fastball and a sweepy breaking ball, yet he makes his work. His numbers against lefties the last three seasons:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
2014 48 .159/.229/.182 .196 22.9% 8.3% 51.5% 0.00
2015 102 .144/.248/.170 .203 26.5% 10.8% 60.0% 0.00
2016 101 .214/.310/.261 .265 20.8% 9.9% 51.6% 0.36
Total 251 .175/.269/.209 .227 23.5% 10.0% 54.8% 0.14

Not a huge sample size, but that’s not Layne’s fault. That’s just the life of a left-on-left matchup guy. Overall though, he’s been pretty darn effective against same-side hitters. The walks are kinda annoying (you had one job!) but Layne has gotten enough strikeouts and grounders to compensate. If a free agent had those numbers, he’d have our attention.

The Yankees have flushed a lot of money down the toilet on proven veteran lefties like Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte and Matt Thornton over the years, and those guys serve as reminders that there is no such thing as a proven reliever. Even the most established veterans can go poof in an instant. Layne has been pretty damn effective in his limited MLB time against lefties and he costs basically nothing. Why sign a free agent who might not even be an upgrade?

2. The Yankees have righties who can get out lefties. For most of this past season, the Yankees didn’t have a true matchup lefty in the bullpen. Shreve was on the roster a bunch and so was Bleier, but, for the most part, they were lower leverage relievers. Whenever there was a lefty at the plate in a big spot in the late innings, Miller was on the mound. Or Dellin Betances.

Betances, like fellow bullpen mates Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren, has actually been better against lefties than righties the last few years. Crazy, I know. A righty who can get out lefties. What a time to be alive. Here are their platoon splits over the last three seasons:

vs. RHB vs. LHB
Betances .160/.261/.264 (.242 wOBA) .173/.244/.243 (.221 wOBA)
Clippard .195/.287/.333 (.276 wOBA) .202/.277/.336 (.270 wOBA)
Warren .250/.320/.394 (.314 wOBA) .197/.275/.310 (.255 wOBA)

Betances overpowers everyone, Clippard has that dead fish changeup, and Warren still uses four pitches as a reliever. It’s not difficult to understand why all three of them have had success against lefties the last few years. Now, will they continue to have that level of success going forward? That’s the big question. I’m not all that confident in Clippard maintaining that level of production, but Dellin and Warren? Not too worried.

Point is, the Yankees shouldn’t be desperate for a left-on-left matchup reliever because they have several righties who can get lefties out too. I know Girardi loves his matchups, so much so that he overdoes it at times, but sometimes bringing in the lefty pitcher to face a lefty hitter just isn’t necessary. Betances, Clippard, and Warren can get the job done themselves.

3. How many great lefty hitters are in the AL East anyway? David Ortiz is retired. James F. Loney is gone. Carlos Delgado and Carlos Pena have been out of the game for years now. The days of the AL East housing the most fearsome left-handed hitters in baseball are pretty much over. Here are the projected left-handed hitting regulars among the four division rivals:

  • Blue Jays: Ezequiel Carrera
  • Orioles: Chris Davis, Hyun-Soo Kim
  • Rays: Corey Dickerson, Kevin Kiermaier, Brad Miller
  • Red Sox: Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mitch Moreland

Davis is the one dude who is legitimately terrifying because he can hit the ball a mile when he connects. Benintendi is going to be really good one day, I think, perhaps as soon as 2017, but otherwise we’re looking at players who are nuisances more than major threats. Maybe I’m selling Bradley short, but even if you include him in a group with Davis and Benintendi, there still aren’t many lefty hitters in the AL East you dread seeing at the plate in a big spot.

Yes, the Yankees do play games outside the division. Lots of them, in fact. But 75 of their 162 games next season will be against the Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays, and Red Sox. Nearly half the schedule. And aside from Davis and Benintendi (and Bradley), there aren’t many AL East left-handed hitters who make a shutdown left-on-left reliever a necessity.

4. Is there even room in the bullpen for a LOOGY? This, to me, is the biggest point in this post. Can the Yankees afford to dedicate a roster spot to a true matchup reliever? A guy who comes in, faces one or two batters, then bolts. Someone who finishes the season with 34 innings in 78 appearances. That kinda thing. I’m not so sure.

(Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)
A lefty who can throw multiple innings, like Enns, may be ideal. (Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)

Everything in baseball is trending towards using pitchers less and less. Part of that is trying to keep them healthy, and part of that is maximizing effectiveness. Teams have begun pulling their fourth and fifth starters after the second time through the lineup to avoiding giving hitters a third look at them. CC Sabathia‘s effectiveness waned noticeably when his pitch count climbed over 80-85 in 2016.

Thing is, teams still need guys to throw all those innings, and dedicating a bullpen spot to a one-batter matchup reliever means those innings fall on other relievers. The Yankees had 121 games in which the starter did not throw more than 100 pitches this year. That blows my mind. That was the eighth most in baseball and second most in the AL. Only the Angels got fewer 101+ pitch starts from their rotation. That puts a lot of responsibility on the bullpen.

As it stands right now, the Yankees have one bonafide ace in Masahiro Tanaka, who the team treats with kid gloves. Sabathia really should be limited to 85 pitches or so these days, and Michael Pineda had a hard time completing five innings by the end of 2016. Then you have a bunch of kids lined up for the fourth and fifth spots. Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green … we’re going to see all of them next year.

Chances are the Yankees are going to ask their bullpen to soak up a lot of inning next season, to the point where carrying two long relievers might not be such a bad idea. Having a left-on-left matchup guy might not be practical. The seven bullpen spots may need to go to pitchers who can throw full innings, not five (pitches) and fly.