Managing a bullpen isn’t easy, but sometimes it can get needlessly complicated

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two nights ago Nathan Eovaldi was removed from a start after only six innings despite retiring 18 straight batters (!) and throwing only 85 pitches. He held the Diamondbacks to one run on one hit and no walks. They hit two balls out of the infield. It was the kind of start the Yankees have been getting far too infrequently this season. Eovaldi was cruising and he looked as good as he’s looked at any point since coming to New York.

Rather than send Eovaldi back out for the seventh inning, Joe Girardi pulled the plug and went to Dellin Betances, opting to turn the game over to his dynamic bullpen. Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman handled the eighth and ninth innings. Giving the ball to Betances is never a bad move — he did walk the first two batters, which was pretty unnerving — but it seemed like Eovaldi had earned another inning.

“I thought I was going to go out there, but I wasn’t disappointed with those three guys coming in,” said Eovaldi to George King after the game. Girardi added, “If I got them set up and they are rested, I am going to go to them. I could have (sent Eovaldi back out), but I am going to take my chances 99% of the time with Betances, Miller and Chapman.”

The Yankees had a two-run lead at the time and Eovaldi was preparing to face the 2-3-4 hitters for the third time, so with the team in need of a win, Girardi played it safe. Again, it’s hard to blame him given the bullpen he has at his disposal. The move was first guessed as much as any pitching change can be first guessed, and the second guessing was rampant as soon as Betances walked the first two batters.

Then, last night, Girardi did it again. Ivan Nova held to Athletics to one run in six innings and he had thrown only 62 pitches. 62 pitches! Rather than stick with his starter, Girardi again went to his big three relievers, who did the job and closed out the eventual 4-1 win. “There’s a reason we put them together down there and it’s for games like today and yesterday,” said Girardi to Billy Witz afterward.

I wanted to write something about the bullpen and bullpen management in general, but I couldn’t come up with a coherent format. I’m just going to list some thoughts using Wednesday’s and Thursday’s game as jumping off points. Got it? Good.

1. Betances needs regular work. Betances is rather unique for many reasons. He’s physically huge, he has unbelievable stuff, the results are historically great, yadda yadda yadda. Dellin has also had well-documented trouble keeping his mechanics in check, which is why it never worked out as a starter. The bullpen agrees with him because, as Betances has said, the regular work allows him to keep his mechanics tight. Yes, he throws fewer innings as a reliever, but he works more often, and that helps.

Betances had two days off prior to Wednesday and giving him three days off between appearances is when it starts to get tricky. He’s a guy who needs regular work to remain effective. It’s a tough thing for Girardi to balance, the need to get Dellin work and keep him rested for the long season. Is it really a surprise Betances came out and walked the first two batters — he had walked three batters all season going in Wednesday’s game, and two of the three walks were on Opening Day — after having two days off? Not really. The man has to pitch.

2. Assigned innings can complicate things. Girardi loves loves loves to assign his relievers set innings. It makes bullpen management simple and it allows players to settle into a routine. Ask relievers and they’ll tell you they like knowing exactly when they’ll be used. They like having a set innings. Players are creatures of habit, and when they have an unpredictable schedule, it’s tough to have a set routine.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Betances has settled in as the seventh inning guy and Miller the eighth inning guy since Chapman returned. Girardi simply bumped everyone back an inning. Most nights this is no big deal, but we’ve already seen some instances in which Dellin warmed up in the seventh, did not pitch, then Miller came in for the eighth. That’s the formula. Eighth inning guys pitch the eighth inning.

Girardi had Betances warming in the sixth inning Wednesday even while Eovaldi cruised, and since he was warming up, chances are he was going to pitch. The Yankees would have had to really break the game open for Dellin to sit down. So, in that case, why not let Eovaldi go out for the seventh, and if he gets through it clean, use Betances in the eighth rather than Miller just because it’s his inning? There should be wiggle room with those assigned innings.

(Betances was not warming up during the sixth inning Thursday, probably because he had thrown 31 pitches Wednesday. Girardi had to back off a little bit.)

3. The batter to batter strategy. By far, my least favorite Girardi move is going batter to batter with a starter. You know what I’m talking about. When the starter appears to be nearing the end of the line, he goes back out to start the next inning anyway, then is lifted after allowing a leadoff base-runner. It happens all the time — how many times do you think a starter got through an inning clean when his leash was one base-runner? — and all around the league.

Sending Eovaldi and Nova back out for the seventh and hating the whole batter to batter approach seem like conflicting ideas. There should never be a blanket one size fits all strategy though, right? It’s one thing to send Eovaldi back out when he’s retired 18 straight — or Nova when he’s getting ground ball after ground ball and had thrown only 62 pitches — and another to send, say, CC Sabathia back out when he’s already allowed three runs and a bunch of right-handed hitters are due up. There’s a certain feel to each game that has to be considered.

4. What happened to only using two of the big three per games? This sort of relates to point No. 2 and the answer is simple: the Yankees need every win they can get right now. They don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing relievers each game with an eye on tomorrow. If they have a lead in the late innings, they have to nail it down, and the best way to do that is with Betances, Miller, and Chapman. Perhaps the Yankees can climb back into the race in a few weeks, allowing Girardi to use only two of the three each night. Until then, it’s all hands on deck.

* * *

I would have sent Eovaldi and Nova back out for the seventh inning. I was actually really surprised when Betances came running out of the bullpen last night. I didn’t think Girardi would pull Nova with his pitch count so low. Girardi spent most of April talking about the need to get more length from his starters, and here he was gifted back-to-back very good outings, and he pulled the plug early each time.

It worked these last two days. I don’t think this is something that can continue all season though. When you’ve got a starter on a roll like Eovaldi and Nova last night, sometimes you have to let them handle that seventh (and eighth) inning to preserve the bullpen. Betances, Miller, and Chapman can’t pitch in every single win. They’ll be toast by August. Using the big three is mighty tempting. There also has to be some sense of bullpen preservation, and starts like the ones turned in Eovaldi and Nova give Girardi an opportunity to take his foot off the gas.

Chapman is back, and now the Yankees have to figure out the middle innings

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The back-end of the bullpen is an undeniable strength for the Yankees. A case can be made Aroldis Chapman is the best reliever in baseball. The same is true of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. All three are Yankees, so when it comes to the late innings of close games, Joe Girardi‘s collection of power arms is unmatched. They’re playing six-inning ballgames.

And yet, despite that obvious bullpen strength, the game got away from the Yankees last night because other members of the bullpen let things get out of hand. The Royals took a quick 4-0 lead in the first inning, the Yankees battled back to cut the deficit to 4-3 by the fifth inning, then Nick Goody and Phil Coke turned that 4-3 deficit into a 7-3 deficit in the span of four batters.

“The bridge to those (late innings) guys is extremely important,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings after the game. “Goody has pitched extremely well up to that point. He did not tonight. Cokey kind of saved our bullpen a little bit tonight. With the three one-inning guys that you want to use when the games are really close, those other guys need to step up and bridge the gap. Tonight we weren’t able to do it.”

A few weeks ago that middle innings bridge looked very strong. Chasen Shreve had a dominant Spring Training and came out of the gate with six scoreless innings to start the regular season. Johnny Barbato won a job in camp and started his big league career by striking out nine of the first 23 batters he faced (39.1%). Heck, even scrap heap pickup Kirby Yates opened the season pitching well.

Adding Chapman to Miller and Betances was not only going to improve the late innings, it was also supposed to improve the middle innings by pushing Shreve and Barbato down the pecking order, so to speak. Instead, Barbato struggled so much he had to be sent to Triple-A a few days ago, and Shreve has managed to allow seven runs (five homers!) in his last 6.2 innings. Shreve and Barbato went from weapons to liabilities real quick.

Yates has probably been the team’s best non-big three reliever this year — Kirby (+0.3) is actually sandwiched between Miller (+0.8) and Betances (+0.1) in WAR, for what it’s worth — which was not part of the plan. Not at all. Shreve was supposed to be that guy coming into the season, which is why Girardi used him as his seventh inning man early on. The hope was Barbato would grow into that role too. It hasn’t happened.

To make matters worse, all that bullpen depth the Yankees had has disappeared. Branden Pinder and Nick Rumbelow went down with Tommy John surgery. Bryan Mitchell broke his toe in Spring Training. Jacob Lindgren forgot how to throw strikes. The Yankees went from having plenty of bullpen options to signing Coke out of an independent league and sticking him in their bullpen in the span of six weeks. Baseball, man.

The end of the game is set with Chapman, Miller, and Betances. It’s the other bullpen innings where it gets dicey. Let’s look at some numbers really quick:

IP ERA FIP K% BB%
Chapman, Miller, Betances 28.2 1.88 1.73 47.7% 4.5%
All Other Relievers 64.2 4.59 4.39 21.9% 7.5%

Yeah, that’s not so good. To be fair, there are a bunch of mop-up innings in there for the other relievers, which skews the numbers a bit. But still, that’s a pretty drastic difference. The three guys at the end of the game are great! Every else? Eh, not so much, especially of late.

The Yankees have to find someone — and by find someone I mean hope someone (or, preferably, multiple someones) emerges from the current in-house options — to pitch all those other bullpen innings. Goody was given an opportunity to show he can be counted on in tight situations last night, and the result was a hit batsman and a two-run single in two batters faced. Shreve is back to giving up dingers, meaning the job is Yates’ by default for the time being.

The Triple-A options are not all that appealing right now. The Yankees didn’t sign Coke because had nothing better to do. They needed the depth after all the injuries. Luis Cessa and Tyler Olson are on the 40-man roster, ditto James Pazos. Others like Anthony Swarzak, Mark Montgomery, Conor Mullee, Tyler Webb, and Matt Wotherspoon could get a chance at some point. The Yankees hope it doesn’t come to that.

When the Yankees have a lead, or even when the game is tied, they’re in pretty excellent shape in the late innings. No team in baseball can match the Chapman-Miller-Betances trio. Games like last night are where the bullpen can be a problem, when Girardi has to dip into the B-relievers to keep a game close, especially when Yates isn’t available. The bullpen is great overall, but it is definitely top heavy. They need to create a little more balance.

Aroldis Chapman and the changing dynamic of the bullpen

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Later today, the Yankees’ prized offseason addition will finally join the active roster. Aroldis Chapman‘s 30-game suspension is up — he only served 29 games thanks to a rainout — and he’ll be in the bullpen tonight ready to close. Joe Girardi has already confirmed Chapman will take over the ninth inning. He’s the closer.

The Yankees are not exactly one reliever away from turning things around, but Chapman will no doubt help. He is arguably the best reliever in the world and adding an elite player like that instantly makes the team better. Chapman’s return — is it really a return if he’s never been here before? no, right? — has a trickle down effect on the rest of the bullpen and the pitching staff in general. Let’s run it all down.

The Roster Move

Might as well start here. Chapman did not count against the 40-man roster during his suspension, so the Yankees had an open spot for much of the first five weeks of the season. That open spot went to Phil Coke the other day, however, so the Yankees have to clear a 40-man spot for Chapman today.

That’s not a problem though. The Yankees have four 60-day DL candidates: Greg Bird (shoulder), Mason Williams (shoulder), Bryan Mitchell (toe), and Branden Pinder (Tommy John surgery). My guess is Pinder gets transferred to the 60-day DL because the Yankees know for certain he’ll miss the rest of the season, but it could be any of the four. Doesn’t matter who it is, really. Point is, the Yankees don’t have to designate anyone for assignment to make room for Chapman.

As for getting Aroldis on the active roster, Nick Goody seems like the obvious candidate to be shipped down to Triple-A. The Yankees could dump Coke, but with Ivan Nova in the rotation for the time being, they need a new long man, and Coke is stretched out after working as a starter in an independent league. Keeping Coke around and sending Goody down makes the most sense given the current roster situation.

New Roles

Girardi loves to assign his relievers set innings, so it stands to reason Andrew Miller will now take over as the eighth inning guy with Dellin Betances sliding back into the seventh inning. That pushes Chasen Shreve back into a lower leverage middle innings role with Johnny Barbato joining Kirby Yates, where he belongs at this point give his recent bout of longballitis.

The Yankees and Girardi have talked about using only two of the three big relievers per game to ensure one of them is always fresh the next day, which is sounds great, but it may be tough to pull off. Could you imagine losing a game because, say, Barbato is on the mound in the late innings while Miller is available in the bullpen and not being used? Wait, yes I can. Dammit to hell.

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

Anyway, the “only use two per day” plan only works if the starter gives enough length and the lead is big enough. You’re going to have a tough time convincing me Girardi should not use the three big relievers if the starter is out of the game after six innings and the Yankees are tied or nursing a small lead. The Yankees are not in any position to prioritize tomorrow over today at the moment.

I would like to see Betances and Miller match up in the seventh and eighth rather than be assigned a specific innings, though I’m not sure it really matters. Those two are great against batters on both sides of the plate. Still, if the other team is sending their best lefty hitters to the plate in the seventh, why not use Miller there instead of Betances simply because it’s his inning? I’m actually hopefully this will happen. We’ll see.

Either way, Chapman’s return means everyone in the bullpen gets knocked down a peg and that’s a good thing. Miller is an overqualified eighth inning guy. Betances is an extremely overqualified seventh inning guy. Shreve is now the No. 4 instead of the No. 3. The added depth is going to help a lot. The Yankees will automatically have an advantage on the mound in any close game in the late innings.

About The Ninth Inning

No, Andrew Miller does not deserve to lose the closer’s job. He’s been outstanding in that role since the start of last season. It is an undeserved demotion. No doubt about it. I also don’t it matters at all. Miller has been talking about doing whatever the team needs since the day he signed and it seems sincere. Here’s what Miller told Chad Jennings yesterday:

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “You want me to throw a fit? The goal here is to win. I think if you go around and ask, there’s 25 lockers in here and I think everyone is going to say that. We haven’t gotten off to the start that we want to. I think we’ve played well in the last couple of days, and the goal is to keep that going. Wins are what’s fun at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if you’re saving games for a last-place team.”

It’s refreshing to hear that. Drew Storen complained and sulked after the Nationals acquired Jonathan Papelbon last year. Kenley Jansen said he wanted to close after the Dodgers almost acquired Chapman over the winter. Closer is a prestigious job and every reliever wants it. Miller would have every right to be upset, but he truly seems okay with it.

I would be surprised if Miller’s performance suffered at all following the move into the setup role. Same with Betances, though he’s going from eighth inning setup man to seventh inning setup man. If one of those two — or Chapman, for that matter — blows a game at some point in the next few days, the new roles are going to be talked about a lot. It’s unavoidable. I’m not worried about this at all though. Chapman’s been closing for a long time and Miller and Betances seem perfectly happy with their roles.

Spread The Workload Around

The Yankees don’t seem to win blowout games anymore. Saturday was an outlier. Seven of the team’s eleven wins have been by three or fewer runs, meaning Miller and Betances have worked a lot. Through 29 games Miller has 12 appearances and 11.2 innings. Betances has 15 appearances (!) and 14 innings. The other day Miller was asked to get a four-out save and Betances recently pitched in three consecutive days. He was the first Yankees reliever to do that since David Robertson in September 2014, when he had one foot out the door as a free agent and the team wasn’t all that invested in his long-term future.

Girardi has had to lean on Miller and Betances and awful lot early on, and adding Chapman means the late-inning workload can be spread out a bit going forward. Like I said a bit earlier, this is easier said than done because it’s going to be tough to stay away from those guys in the late innings, but having that third high-end bullpener will lighten the load a bit. Whenever the starter gets through seven Girardi won’t have to use all three. The Yankees now have three guys soaking up high-leverage innings, not only two. That’s huge.

Trade Bait

Even if the Yankees completely turn things around and claw their way back into contention, trading Chapman is the best thing for the team long-term. The Yankees were able to get him at a very discounted rate because of the uncertainty surrounding his potential suspension, and now the suspension has been served. The mystery is gone. Chapman is back today and is a game-ready pitcher.

Chapman is a Grade-A piece of trade bait as a rental elite closer. Literally every team in the league could use someone like him — including the Yankees! — though obviously contenders figure to show the most interest. Any team with championship aspirations will check in, so the Yankees have an opportunity to create a bidding war to maximize their return. The Mets, Nationals, Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Tigers, Mariners, Rangers … they’ll all get involved.

As I said last week, I think the Yankees should look to trade Chapman sooner rather than later. The sooner they trade him, the longer his new team gets him, meaning the Yankees can ask for more in return. There’s also the injury factor. Pitchers get hurt, and the longer the Yankees wait, the more risk they’ll assume. It takes two to tango, another team has to be willing to make a trade right now, but I think the Yankees should be shopping Chapman right now. Put him out here and start the process.

* * *

For now, the Yankees are adding another dominant reliever to their already dominant end-game bullpen. They’re a better team today than they were in the first 29 games of the season because Chapman is back. He can help them climb back into the playoff race in the short-term and accumulate young assets via trade in the long-term. Even though his time in pinstripes may be limited, it’s not a stretch to call Chapman one of the most important Yankees in 2016.

Girardi confirms Aroldis Chapman will take over as closer when he returns

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Bryan Hoch, manager Joe Girardi confirmed Aroldis Chapman will indeed take over as the Yankees’ closer as soon as he returns from his suspension next Monday. They’re not going to ease him back into things and Andrew Miller‘s otherworldly performance doesn’t mean he’ll remain in the ninth inning.

Chapman is scheduled to make tune-up appearances in Extended Spring Training today and Friday — today’s outing will likely be two innings, according to pitching coach Larry Rothschild — before joining the team Monday. He’s been throwing in Tampa since the end of Spring Training and has been gradually increasing the intensity of his prep work.

I thought maybe the Yankees would ease Chapman back into things at first, perhaps with a low to medium leverage outing or two before taking over the ninth. In a perfect world, I bet the Yankees would like to see Aroldis come into Monday’s game to face the 7-8-9 hitters with a three-run lead. Nice and easy for his first game, you know? Just to get those first game jitters out of the way.

Miller has been out of this world so far this season. He’s allowed three singles and one double in ten scoreless innings, with 16 strikeouts and zero walks. Only eight of the 33 batters he’s faced have hit the ball out of the infield. Insanity. Miller has said all along he’ll pitch in any role and he seems sincere about it, so I don’t expect giving up the closer’s job to Chapman to be a problem.

Now, if Chapman comes in and blows one of his first save opportunities, then there will be some second guessing. That’s inevitable. Hopefully that doesn’t happen. Girardi likes to assign relievers set innings, so in all likelihood Miller will take over the eighth inning and Dellin Betances the seventh. I suppose he could mix and match Miller and Betances as necessary, though they’re so good against all hitters it won’t make much of a difference.

“I just think it makes our bullpen longer,” said Girardi to Hoch when asked about the impact of adding Chapman to the bullpen. “You use guys maybe a little bit differently, which I think helps … Let’s just see what we get into. Worry about that when he gets here.”

Getting Chapman back is not going to cure all that ails the Yankees, not even close, but it’s not going to hurt either. Adding this kind of talent to the roster only helps. We’ll see what kind of shape the bullpen is in next week, though the smart money is one Nick Goody going to Triple-A to clear a roster spot for Chapman. Hopefully the Yankees start giving him some games to save.

Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are not only dominant, they’re efficient too

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As Yankees fans, we’ve been privileged to watch some stellar bullpen work in our lifetimes. Older fans (no offense!) can go back to Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage, and Dave Righetti. More recently you have Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, and, of course, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. In less than two weeks Aroldis Chapman will join that group.

Even with all those great bullpeners, I don’t think we’ve ever seen two relievers — either at the same time or in different years — as overwhelmingly dominant as Betances and Miller are right now. Their numbers are truly video game-like: one earned run on nine hits and two walks in 19 innings. They’ve struck out 38. Thirty-eight! That’s out of 67 base-runners, so 56.7% have stuck out. El oh el.

Betances and Miller have been unreal this season, and what has really impressed me is how efficient they’ve been while being so dominant. Miller has made nine appearances and only once has he thrown more than 13 pitches. Once! Betances, who is no stranger to long innings, has reached the 20-pitch mark just three times in ten outings. His last three appearances have checked in at 13 pitches or less.

Keep in mind these two are keeping their pitch counts low despite all those strikeouts. Last year Miller averaged 15.7 pitches per inning and he threw a strike 67% of the time. This year he’s at 11.4 pitches per inning (!) and 79% strikes. That’s bonkers. Betances has upped his strike rate slightly from 62% last year to 63% this year, though it’s 66% since his two-walk appearance on Opening Day.

The quick outings are especially helpful right now because Joe Girardi has had to lean on Betances and Miller an awful lot so far this season. The Yankees have struggled to score consistently, so when they have had a lead, it’s typically been one or two (maybe three) runs. In fact, Betances and Miller have each appeared in seven of the team’s eight wins. The only one they avoided was the 16-6 blowout over the Astros.

Overall the Yankees have played 18 games; Betances has pitched in ten and Miller has pitched in nine. That’s a lot but it sounds worse than it is. The Yankees had all those off-days early on, remember. Those 18 games have been played 21 calendar days. They’ve had two scheduled off-days plus a rainout. Don’t get me wrong, Betances and Miller have pitched a lot, but not quite every other day.

Chapman will be back in two weeks and will inevitably help lighten the load on the back-end of the bullpen. Girardi has talked about using only two of his three big relievers per game in order to make sure one is always fresh and available the next day, which sounds great, though we’ll see how it works in practice. This strikes me as one of those ideas that is much easier said than done.

For now, Betances and Miller have endured heavy workloads through the first 18 games, but they’ve been able to mitigate that workload with quick innings. They’ve been able to cut down on their pitches per inning while maintaining an absurdly high strikeout rate because they’re simply throwing so many strikes. It’s good to have stuff so crisp that hitters still can’t touch it when you throw it over the plate.

Barbato looks like a keeper, not a shuttle candidate, so far this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Coming into Spring Training, Johnny Barbato was an afterthought in the competition for an Opening Day bullpen spot. At least I thought so. The Yankees had a ton of bullpen candidates in camp, many of them with big league experience, and I figured they would get first dibs. Instead, Barbato out-pitched them all in camp, and won a spot on the roster.

Seven games into the season, Barbato already looks like a power reliever with some staying power, not someone who will spend his summer tracking mileage between Scranton and the Bronx. (Expense reports are such a pain.) His regular season numbers (3.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K) are great, but they’re also still meaningless because the sample is so small. Barbato’s stuff and ability to locate is what makes him look so promising.

“First pitch was 95-96 mph. Second pitch was a buckler and I usually don’t buckle on breaking balls. Next pitch ground ball to first. Three pitches. Not a fun at-bat,” said Chris Colabello to George King when asked about facing Barbato following Wednesday’s game. Barbato allowed a two-out walk in an otherwise clean inning that night, and because the Yankees scored in the next half-inning, he picked up his first career win. That’s always cool.

New York acquired Barbato from the Padres for Shawn Kelley last offseason. He was a pretty big deal as a prospect back in the day — San Diego gave Barbato a $1.4M bonus as a sixth rounder in 2010 — because of his live arm, but he never did pick up a changeup, so he had to move to relief. Here is Baseball America’s scouting report (no subs. req’d) following the trade:

He pitches with mid-90s velocity and verve, attacking hitters with a live fastball that sinks and runs as it nears the plate. He throws a true curveball in the high 70s that features extreme break through the zone, and he locates and mixes his two pitches well enough to boast a career strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine innings.

That matches up with what we’ve seen from Barbato early this season and in Spring Training, right? The fastball is lively and his curveball has some very nice bend to it. (Here’s the GIF.) And he has verve. Verve is always good. The scouting report refers to Barbato as a two-pitch pitcher, however. There is no mention of his slider, a slider we’ve seen this year. To the action footage:

Johnny Barbato SL

I do enjoy the little bunny hop following the release. Nice touch. I guess that’s the verve the scouting report was talking about.

Anyway, that’s a slider. Fight me if you think otherwise. I guess maybe it could be a cutter, but it’s no mid-90s four-seamer and it for sure is not a 70-something mile an hour curveball. That’s a pitch that is unaccounted for in the scouting reports. (There’s no mention of the slider in Baseball America’s write-ups over the years.)

That pitch also did not exist until this year according to PitchFX, albeit in limited looks. The Padres hold Spring Training in Arizona, and several Cactus League ballparks are outfitted with PitchFX. Barbato also pitched in the Arizona Fall League a few years back. Here is the very limited PitchFX data we have on Johnny Boombatz, via Brooks Baseball:

Johnny Barbato pitch selectionSee? The slider has come out of nowhere. It’s very possible Barbato was throwing it in the minors last year, but I can’t find any record of it. This appears to be a new pitch Barbato has added at some point since the trade, and that’s pretty cool. The Yankees are known to teach cutters — David Robertson is the best example, but others like Ian Clarkin and Manny Banuelos added the pitch as well — so it wouldn’t be unprecedented if Barbato added a similar pitch since the trade.

Right now Barbato is coming out of the bullpen with a mid-90s four-seamer, his trademark upper-70s curveball, and this new cutter/slider (slutter?) thing at 88-89 mph or so. He throws all three pitches regularly — he’s thrown 21.0% curves and 22.6% slutters so far — and his swing-and-miss rate is a healthy 15.7% in the super duper early going. Joe Girardi seems to trust Barbato too; he brought him into the sixth inning of a tie game against the Blue Jays on Wednesday. The first batter he faced was Troy Tulowitzki.

Last season the Yankees shuttled young relievers in and out of the bullpen every time a fresh arm was needed. And, for the most part, none of the shuttle relievers did anything to distinguish themselves. It’s a tough job, I get that, but no one came out throwing fire and left you wanting to see more. They came up, threw a few innings, then were sent back out and no one really cared. None of those guys did enough to impress the brain trust and stick around.

Barbato has already stood out in a way none of the shuttle relievers did last season. He took advantage of an opportunity in Spring Training and he’s carried that performance over into the regular season. He’s throwing strikes — it’s not uncommon for even the most polished minor leagues to lose the zone a bit early in their MLB careers — and missing bats. It’s early, but so far Barbato looks like someone who should stick around and not ride the shuttle.

Latest roster cuts leave four pitchers for final two bullpen spots

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Earlier this morning the Yankees announced they have optioned left-hander Tyler Olson and right-handers Branden Pinder and Nick Goody to Triple-A Scranton. Pinder is the only moderate surprise. Olson started camp well but scuffled of late, and Goody served up three homers in the span of 24 hours earlier this week, so yeah.

Today’s cuts leave four candidates for the Yankees’ final two bullpen spots: righties Johnny Barbato, Luis Cessa, Anthony Swarzak, and Kirby Yates. Two of them will join Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Chasen Shreve, Ivan Nova, and Bryan Mitchell in the Opening Day bullpen. (Mitchell was told he made the team yesterday.) Here’s a quick pros and cons list:

  • Barbato: Great camp (pro), out-pitch curveball (pro), zero MLB experience (con).
  • Cessa: Very good camp (pro), can go multiple innings (pro), zero MLB experience (con).
  • Swarzak: Mediocre camp (con), blah stuff (con), can go multiple innings (pro).
  • Yates: Very good camp (pro), big league experience (pro), historically homer prone (con).

That about covers it. Earlier this week I said I expected Barbato and Yates to get the final two bullpen spots and I’m sticking to that right now. I don’t think Swarzak has much of a chance to make the roster, though Cessa definitely does. The question is do the Yankees want him in their MLB bullpen, or stretched out in Triple-A ready to start?

Either way, these last two bullpen spots are shuttle spots, meaning fresh relievers will be cycled in and out as necessary all year. Barbato and Yates may start the season in the bullpen, but the odds of them sticking through the end of April are small, nevermind sticking through the end of the season. That’s the plan. That’s the way the roster has been built.

Yesterday afternoon Joe Girardi said he hopes all the final roster decisions are made by tomorrow, and at this point I have to think the Yankees know who they’re taking north in the bullpen. They have a game this afternoon and two split squad games tomorrow, but realistically, what could happen in those games to change their mind? Outside of injury, probably nothing. Not unless Swarzak shows up throwing 100 or something.

Following today’s moves, the Yankees are down to 34 players in big league camp. It’s really 31 players though because Mason Williams (shoulder), Greg Bird (shoulder), and Aroldis Chapman (suspension) aren’t Opening Day roster candidates. Earlier today Girardi announced Ronald Torreyes has won the final bench spot, so the backup catcher’s job — Austin Romine has that all but locked up — and the two bullpen spots are the only remaining unsettled roster spots.