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.

Layne may be pitching his way on to the 2017 Yankees, but roster space will be tight

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For much of the first four months of the season, the Yankees had two of the three best left-handed relievers in baseball in their bullpen in Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. Those two plus Zach Britton are the holy trinity of end-game southpaws. They’re not lefty specialists. They dominate batters on both sides of the plate.

After wisely trading away Chapman and Miller at the deadline, the Yankees picked up lefty Tommy Layne as soon as the Red Sox cut him loose. Boston acquired Fernando Abad at the trade deadline and didn’t need Layne anymore, so they flat out released him. Abad’s been pretty terrible, so that hasn’t worked out for them. Such is life. The Yankees wound up with a decent southpaw and gave up nothing to get him.

The 31-year-old Layne has done a fine job for the Yankees since being picked up, pitching to a 3.00 ERA (4.01 FIP) in 15 innings overall while holding lefties to a .161/.257/.161 (.205 wOBA) batting line. His finest moment in pinstripes came Monday night, when he was brought in to face the middle of the Blue Jays’ lineup — all righties, of course — with the bases loaded and no outs. He closed out the win thanks in part to his own great play at the plate:

Layne had a rough outing last night, including giving up a home run to the right-handed hitting Aaron Hill, though that’s not a big deal. It was the second of back-to-back days after a stressful game Monday night — Layne threw 24 pitches Monday after throwing 24 pitches total in his previous five outings — so I’m sure the tank was far from full. Such is the life of a left-handed specialist.

At the moment the Yankees are not particularly deep in lefty relievers. Chasen Shreve seems to have fallen out of favor, Jacob Lindgren will be out until 2018 following Tommy John surgery, and others like Richard Bleier and James Pazos probably aren’t the guys you want to count on in big spots. I suppose Tyler Webb and/or Dietrich Enns could be options starting next season should the Yankees protect them from the Rule 5 Draft.

That last part is pretty important. Space on the 40-man roster will be tight this offseason, so Webb or Enns or both might not be protected. The Yankees are going to have to free up several spots soon after the end of the World Series, and while much of that can be accomplished by cutting loose players like Anthony Swarzak and Kirby Yates, it won’t be enough. In most cases a scrap heap lefty specialist like Layne would be on the chopping block too.

Therein lies the question: how confident are the Yankees in Layne performing this way going forward? The Red Sox didn’t release him out of the kindness of their hearts. Lefties hit .255/.355/.333 (.312 wOBA) against Layne when he was with Boston earlier this year, and that’s no good. Success can be very fleeting for relievers like him, the funky finesse guys who rely on deception. Remember Clay Rapada? He was nails in 2012 but couldn’t even get through Spring Training in 2013.

If nothing else, I think Layne has moved to the back of the line of players who could lose their 40-man roster spot this offseason. There are others in front of him who figure to go first, including Swarzak and Yates, and maybe even guys like Johnny Barbato and Conor Mullee. Unless you have a Miller or Chapman, the best approach with lefty relievers seems to be stockpile as many as possible, and hope someone emerges. Layne went from scrap heap pick up to potential part of the 2017 roster in a hurry, but his spot may not be secure.

Fixing Dellin Betances is a process that should start now, not next season

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

After five excellent months, Dellin Betances has hit a wall in September and hit it hard. He’s allowed 13 runs in 8.1 innings this month while also putting 19 guys on base. Two nights ago Dellin faced three batters and didn’t retire any of them before giving way to Tommy Layne. Opponents have hit .282/.404/.385 against Betances in September. Bad. Bad bad bad.

The biggest problem with Betances, as it often is, are the walks and an overall lack of control. He’s walked eight in 8.1 innings this month after walking 20 batters in his first 63.2 innings of the season. The other night Dellin threw three strikes out of eleven total pitches, and he wasn’t exactly missing just off the plate. It wasn’t a bunch of borderline calls going against him. From Brooks Baseball:

Dellin Betances Blue Jays

“Honestly, right now I just feel like my mechanics are off,” said Betances to Chad Jennings following’s Monday game. “I’m yanking a lot of pitches and falling behind; that’s what’s hurting me. I’ve said it all along. Earlier in the year, I wasn’t walking guys. Later part of this year, I’ve been walking a lot of guys and that’s what’s been hurting me.”

Control problems — extreme control problems at that — are nothing new for Betances, who flamed out as a starter in the minors because he couldn’t throw strikes. I don’t mean paint the corners. Basic get the ball over the plate stuff. Dellin walked 69 batters in 74.2 innings as Triple-A starter in 2012, then another 16 in 24 innings in 2013 before being moved to the bullpen full-time.

Why have Betances’ mechanics fallen out of whack? There are a million possible reasons. It could be fatigue. Maybe it’s because he’s 6-foot-8 with long limbs and isn’t the most athletic guy in the world. Or maybe he’s a mental wreck because the pressure of closing for the New York Yankees is just too much to take. I highly doubt it that’s last one, Dellin’s been getting huge outs for the Yankees for three years now, but you never know.

Whatever it is — my guess is it’s a combination of fatigue and being prone to mechanical lapses — this is something the Yankees and Betances have to figure out, and that process should start right now. Not next year. I understand wanting to shut him down for the season, I totally get it, but as long as he’s healthy, he should pitch and work on getting himself right. There are five games left this season. There’s no reason he can’t pitch in two or three of them.

“No, I don’t think (shutting him down is) a good thing to do. I think he needs to get out on some good notes,” said Joe Girardi to Brendan Kuty following Monday’s game. “I think he’s a little frustrated. But we’ll get that ironed out. He’s been through this before. I know I’ve said that, but he’s been through this. We’ll get it ironed out. We’ll give him a day off and we’ll get him back out there. ”

Now, if Betances goes to the Yankees and says he’s running on fumes, then yeah, shut him down. Pitching is inherently risky. Pitching while fatigued is even riskier. The Yankees want to get Betances right but they’re not going to risk injury in the process. If he’s dealing with nothing more than normal late-September fatigue, then fine, let him pitch. Learning to be effective when less than 100% is part of being a big leaguer.

Either way, Betances is a total mess right now, and to me it seems to be mechanical more than anything. He’s just out of sorts and needs to get himself back on track. It’s not the first time he’s gone through this — it’s the first time he’s done at the MLB level, but not in his life — and chances are it won’t be the last. He’s worked his way out of it before. Betances knows how this works.

I don’t see shutting down a struggling player as a way to deal with the problem. That’s avoiding the problem. As long as Dellin is healthy, get him out there on the mound and use these last five game as an opportunity to work on things and hopefully get him back on track.

On Dellin Betances and his recent struggles

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Last night the Yankees suffered what was maybe their most heartbreaking regular season loss of the Joe Girardi era. I can’t remember another one that bad. The Yankees took a three-run lead into the ninth inning, and a little while later, the Red Sox walked off with a 7-5 win on Hanley Ramirez’s three-run home run. Brutal. It gets no worse than that.

On the mound for that ninth inning meltdown was, of course, Dellin Betances. He’s the closer and the guy Girardi wants pitching in a big spot. It was Dellin’s third straight day of work — Girardi tried to stay away from him by going to Tommy Layne and Blake Parker in the ninth, but nope — and he was clearly out of whack, which has been the case for much of September. I have some thoughts on all of this.

1. Yes, he has what it takes to be a closer. This is as predictable as it gets. Betances has struggled the last few times out which of course leads to folks saying he doesn’t have what it takes to be a closer. Doesn’t have the mental fortitude. Can’t handle the pressure. Blah blah blah. Nevermind that he’s been throwing high-stakes innings for nearly three full seasons now and has been one of the two or three best relievers on the planet.

Here’s a quick leaderboard showing WPA/LI. That’s win probability added over leverage index, which essentially tells us who is most helping their team win in the most crucial situations. Here’s the WPA/LI leaderboard for relievers over the last three seasons:

  1. Zach Britton: +6.00
  2. Dellin Betances: +5.89
  3. Wade Davis: +5.39
  4. Andrew Miller: +5.34
  5. Mark Melancon: +5.08

Basically the five best relievers in baseball, right? Or five of the seven best with Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Point is, getting huge outs is nothing new to Betances. He’s gotten big outs in extremely high-leverage spots before. Struggling these last few times out doesn’t suddenly mean Betances is not fit to be closer. He dominated in the ninth inning last month, and when he filled in for the injured Andrew Miller last year.

2. Yes, his inability to hold runners is a real problem. Although they were scored defensive indifference, the Red Sox stole three bases against Betances last night. Instantly, too. He came in and Chris Young immediately stole second. Then after Betances walked Dustin Pedroia, Pedroia and Young immediately pulled off a double steal. Wednesday afternoon Corey Seager stole second immediately after reaching on an error.

Runners are now 19-for-19 in steal attempts against Dellin this season, and that doesn’t include those three defensive indifferences last night. This is a real problem. Every single and every walk can’t turn into an uncontested double, especially since Betances is always pitching in close games where one run is so meaningful. This is a very real weakness. A fatal one? No. Batters have a .273 OBP against Dellin this season, so there aren’t many guys on base to start with. But it is a problem.

This is clearly something the Yankees and Betances will have to work on in Spring Training next year. It can’t be open season on stolen bases when he’s on the mound, even with Gary Sanchez and his rocket arm behind the plate. Those extra 90-feet are too valuable in the late innings. I don’t know the best way to solve this (varied timing, slide step, etc.) but it can’t go unaddressed. Betances has to at least give the catcher a chance back there.

3. His problems throwing to bases are being overblown a bit. Wednesday afternoon Betances allowed the Dodgers to score an insurance run because he fielded a weak tapper back to the mound and shot-putted it to the backstop. It was ugly. Look at this:

Dellin Betances

Yikes. That has taken on a life of its own in the last 48 hours and become a big “Betances can’t throw to the bases” storyline. Last night YES showed a montage of his throwing failures this year and it was three plays. One play on Opening Day, one where he nearly threw away a 1-6-3 double play ball (but didn’t), and that play against the Dodgers. When you have to go all the way back to Opening Day to find the last time his throwing caused a problem, it’s probably not as big of an issue as its made out to be.

Now, that said, I understand the concern hitters may try to bunt and force him to field the ball, but Betances is not exactly the easiest guy to bunt against. I’ll take my chances with hitters squaring around. Trying to bunt against Dellin is going to lead to a lot of foul balls and easy strikes. Like the stolen base problem, this is something Betances and the Yankees should work on, but this story seems to have taken on a life of its own. The real problem isn’t as great as the perceived problem.

4. Once again, fatigue seems to be an issue. This is the second straight season in which Betances looks visibly fatigued in September. The high-end velocity might be there — Betances topped out at 100.6 mph last night — but he can’t locate anything and his breaking ball lacks its usual bite. Working back-to-back-to-back days three times in the last five weeks after doing it once from Opening Day 2014 through July 2016 probably has something to do it.

The greater issue is the cumulative effect of all the innings Betances has thrown the last few years. He’s thrown 70 innings this season and is on pace for 77.2 innings. That’s down from 84 last year and 90 the year before that. The single-season workload only matters so much though. There is wear-and-tear on his arm from those 90 innings in 2014 and 84 innings in 2015. Betances has thrown 244 innings the last three years, 20.1 more than any other reliever.

It’s not just the raw innings totals either. Girardi can be a bit panicky at times and get Betances up at the slightly hint of danger. Four-run lead in the eighth or ninth? Dellin gets up. We’ve seen it countless times the last few years. Those warm-up pitchers count. They’re pitches being thrown. Add in all the warm-ups and the fact those 244 innings from 2014-16 were almost all high-leverage innings, and it’s no wonder he’s getting worn down despite being 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds.

Betances’ days as a super-reliever who’d come in and get five or six high-leverage outs at a time may be over. Going forward, it may be best for the Yankees to consider him a true one-inning reliever, a guy who throws 65-ish innings a season rather than closer to 80. It sucks and it takes away from Dellin’s value a bit, but keeping him healthy and effective long-term has to be a priority.

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Betances is literally the last player on the roster I’m worried about. His recent slump sucks and is very poorly timed — did you expect the Yankees to be playing meaningful games in mid-September after the way they started the season? of course not — but I don’t see it as being anything more than “he’s running on fumes and is in a slump.” I trust him implicitly as the closer and just wish he’d start holding runners better.

If the Yankees miss the postseason, it won’t be because Betances blew some games this week. It’ll be because Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez completely no-showed this season, and because the rotation has been mostly crap behind Masahiro Tanaka. The Yankees are still in the race largely because Betances has been so awesome this season at protecting leads. The last week or so doesn’t change that.

September is a chance for Jonathan Holder and Ben Heller to carve out roles with the 2017 Yankees

Heller. (Presswire)
Heller. (Presswire)

Both Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder had their lives change quite a bit over the last six weeks. Holder got off relatively easy. He was promoted to Triple-A in late-July and called up to the big leagues in September. Heller? He went from Double-A to Triple-A, then was traded, then got called up to the show for the first time. That’s a lot to process in a short period of time.

Heller and Holder are with the Yankees right now and they didn’t receive courtesy call-ups. Both were added to the 40-man roster earlier than necessary — Holder was added a year prior to Rule 5 Draft eligibility, Heller only a few weeks early — and Joe Girardi has used both to get some pretty important outs in their early days as Yankees. Look at the situations they’ve been brought into so far:

Heller
Start the eighth up eleven (MLB debut)
Start the eighth down three against Manny Machado, Mark Trumbo, and Chris Davis
Start the tenth up one against Raul Mondesi, Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer
Start the 12th tied against Mondesi, Dyson, Cain
Inherit bases loaded with two outs against Edwin Encarnacion, up four

Holder
Start the sixth down eight (MLB debut)
Inherit man on first with one out against Devon Travis, Jose Bautista, and Josh Donaldson, up four

Both Heller and Holder were able to make their big league debuts in low-leverage spots. Ask any manager and I’m sure they’d tell they prefer to have a rookie reliever make his debut in a stress-free blowout. These days the late-innings have been so hyped up that they seem to have a mind of their own.

Since their debuts though, Holder and especially Heller have been thrown into the fire. Holder was asked to go through the top of the one of the best lineups in baseball with a man on base in a four-run game yesterday. Heller was given a save opportunity on the road against the defending World Series champs in his third career appearance. Yesterday he had to face Encarnacion with the bases loaded. I mean, geez. Talk about baptism by fire.

That stuff was all born out of necessity. The Yankees were essentially out of relievers when Heller came in for the save opportunity against the Royals. Yesterday the regular end-game relievers were a bit taxed. Girardi used Heller and Holder in those spots because he had no other choice, really. Going forward I’m sure he’d like to be able to pick his spots a little better and make life easy on the kids.

Regardless of their usage, this month represents a huge opportunity for both Heller and Holder, who have a chance to solidify spots in the 2017 bullpen. Well, maybe we shouldn’t go that far. No one is going to win a 2017 roster spot in September 2016. These two have a chance to move to the front of the line, I should say. That’s better. Holder and Heller want to make a positive impression on the coaching staff and front office this month.

Would it be easier to do that in lower leverage innings? Ostensibly yes. But pitching well in higher leverage spots would help even more. Neither has done that yet, though it’s still early. Also, the results don’t even have to be great. The Yankees are going to evaluate players based on their raw stuff, their composure, and their aggressiveness. A few singles falling in shouldn’t change any opinions.

The Yankees have had some major middle innings problems this season, and the Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman trades haven’t helped. On days Luis Severino isn’t available, Heller and Holder figure to be Girardi’s go-to bridge relievers, so they’re going to pitch. These two aren’t going to sit in the bullpen and throw, like, two innings in September. They were brought up to help, and if they do that, they’ll set themselves up for more prominent roles next year.