Kelley’s shakiness, bullpen workload could push Yankees into reliever market

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

I was only partially paying attention, but did hear Michael Kay mention last night that the Yankees lead the league in relief appearances of more than four outs this season. They have 80 such relief appearances, seven more than the White Sox. That’s basically one relief appearance of 4+ outs per game at this point of the year. Last season they only had 101 such outings, for comparison.

On an individual level, Dellin Betances leads baseball with 22 relief appearances of at least four outs while Adam Warren is tied for fourth with 15 such appearances. (Ex-Yankees property Tommy Kahnle and Dan Otero rank second and third, coincidentally.) Betances and Warren are on pace for 96 and 86.2 innings this season, respectively, at a time when only 12 relievers have thrown 86+ innings in a season since 2009.

Joe Girardi has been very good at keeping his relievers fresh and controlling their workload in recent years, but it does seem both Betances and Warren may be starting to wear down a bit these last few days. Warren struggled in back-to-back outings last week (and last night, but he escaped the jam) and Betances just hasn’t looked as sharp. This could just be a case of two relievers going through rough stretches at the same time, obviously.

“I know when I have to give them days off, and I understand that,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings following last night’s game. “Betances has been a starter in his career and has logged a lot of innings, and so has Warren. But there’s times where you just say, ‘You know what? I have to give them two days and get them back recharged.'”

Shawn Kelley‘s return from the disabled list early last month was supposed to make life easier on Betances and Warren, though he has put 14 men on base and allowed five runs in seven innings of work since returning. He loaded the bases with one out on two singles and a hit batsman in last night’s game before escaping with two strikeouts. Yeah, the end result was a zero on the scoreboard, but again Kelley was shaky. He hasn’t been able to move back into a late-inning role just yet.

Between the general bullpen workload and Kelley’s recent ineffectiveness, not to mention the season-long inability to find a decent sixth reliever and long man, the Yankees could find themselves in the market for a relief pitcher or two at the trade deadline. In fact, Ken Rosenthal reported yesterday that New York will “seek to add another reliever to increase their depth and reduce the burdens on Betances and Warren,” so this isn’t just my crazy idea.

Now, obviously, bullpen help is a secondary concern at this point. The Yankees need rotation and lineup help much more desperately than they do another reliever, especially considering their internal options. Even with Preston Claiborne on the Triple-A Scranton DL they still have interesting hard-throwers like Danny Burawa and Diego Moreno in the minors. Matt Daley is still around as well, plus acquiring a starter could push someone like Chase Whitley into a relief role.

The Yankees received some fine bullpen relief work in May (3.53 ERA and 2.85), but the relievers worked hard and had to throw 94.1 innings. (They threw 79.1 innings in April and 80 in May, for comparison.) The bullpen’s overall performance suffered last month (4.28 ERA and 4.18 FIP), possibly as a result of that workload. Getting rotation help and more length from the starters will lighten the load on the relievers, but at this point the Yankees could also wind up having to add another bullpen arm before the deadline.

Bullpen workload a big concern due to banged up rotation

Dellin's awesome, but we need to start seeing a little less of him. (Presswire)
Dellin’s awesome, but we need to start seeing a little less of him. (Presswire)

For the first time in his three big league starts, Chase Whitley completed five full innings of work yesterday afternoon. Usually five innings isn’t anything to celebrate, but for a recently converted reliever who had thrown 4.2 and 4.1 innings in his first two starts, five full innings was definitely nice to see. Whitley started the sixth inning as well, though he failed to record an out and the bullpen was pressed into action.

The bullpen has been pressed into action quite a bit of late, especially on the road trip. The Yankees have played three extra innings games on this trip through Chicago and St. Louis, totaling nine additional innings. They’ve played an extra game on the trip, basically. The Yankees did win all three of those extra innings games thanks to some strong relief work, so there’s no complaints there, but all that extra work is starting to tax the bullpen.

Through the first 50 games of the season, the late-inning duo of Adam Warren and Dellin Betances are on pace to throw 94 and 98 innings this year, respectively. Nine of Warren’s last 13 appearances have been for multiple innings while Betances has been asked to get more than three outs six times in his last seven appearances. In fact, of his 21 appearances this year, Betances has thrown one inning or less only seven times.

Of course, both Warren and Betances were starters their entire careers up until last season, but throwing 150+ innings in a season while on a five-day routine is much different than throwing 90+ innings when you’re pitching every other day in relief or something like that. It’s fewer total innings, yes, but they’re pitching more frequently as relievers. Warren and Betances have shouldered most of the workload, but the bullpen as a whole has been worked hard this year. Check out the first 50 games of the last few years:

Starter IP Reliever IP Starter IP / Reliever IP
2014 289.1 165.1 1.75
2013 297.2 150.1 1.98
2012 298.2 143.2 2.08
2011 302.2 145.2 2.08

The bullpen has already thrown 15 more innings this year than last through 50 games, and roughly 20 innings more than 2011 and 2012. Fifteen innings doesn’t sound like much, but we’re talking about one extra inning every three games or so. That adds up in a hurry, especially since these Yankees tend to play close games (only 14 games decided by 5+ runs), which means more work for Joe Girardi‘s primary late-inning guys.

Obviously injuries have a lot to do with this. Shawn Kelley has been out for a while and he would have definitely taken some of those innings away from Betances and Warren. The same applies to David Robertson when he was on the disabled list last month. Losing CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova — two starters the Yankees were able to count on for 6+ innings every fifth day in the not too distant past — to significant injuries has trickled down and added pressure on the bullpen since guys like Whitley and Vidal Nuno aren’t innings eaters.

The Yankees will hopefully get Kelley back soon. He played catch yesterday and will do so again in the coming days, reportedly, plus Michael Pineda is on the mend and a few weeks away. (The Yankees were very careful with Pineda early on, but he is still a better bet to get you through five innings than some guys in the rotation right now.) Those two will help lighten the load on the current relievers, at least somewhat. Every little bit will help. It wouldn’t kill the offense to break a game open every now and then either.

Girardi’s strength has long been his bullpen management, and I can’t remember another time when he worked two relievers as hard as he has Warren and Betances these last few weeks. You know he doesn’t want to do it — ““We’re trying not to kill Betances,” said the manager to Chad Jennings yesterday, after Betances threw two more innings — but Kelley’s injury and the thinned-out rotation have forced his hand. The Yankees are really pushing the limits of their pitching depth right now.

Until some guys start getting healthy, Girardi will have to rely on Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley and yes, even Alfredo Aceves in higher leverage spots — at least higher leverage than they deserve — to avoid overworking his normal late-inning relievers. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere without Betances, Warren, Kelley, and Robertson dominating at the end of games, but at their current pace, Warren and Betances will burn out by August. The rest of the roster has to pick up some slack and give these guys more rest in the coming weeks.

The Marginalization of David Robertson

(Presswire)
Too much watching, not enough pitching. (Presswire)

Ever since Mariano Rivera first announced he was planning to retire last Spring Training, it was pretty much assumed David Robertson would take over as the team’s closer. Sure, these are the Yankees and there was always the chance they would sign a free agent closer, but Robertson was the obvious choice. He had proven all he needed to prove as a setup man, and if the Yankees weren’t going to give him the opportunity to close, another team would have when he became a free agent after the season.

Minus a little 15-day groin related hiatus, Robertson has been excellent in the ninth inning, just as he was excellent in the eighth. He’s gone 6-for-6 in save chances, struck out ten and walked two in nine innings, and allowed only two runs. Each run came with a multi-run lead and did no damage other than to Robertson’s individual stats. I know more than a few people were nervous about him in the ninth inning because … he blew a save after Rivera got hurt in May 2012? I think that’s what it was.

Robertson has inherited the closer’s gig from Mariano and he’s been dynamite these first few weeks. He’s also inherited something else: Rivera’s workload. The last few years, basically since Mo turned 40, the Yankees took it very easy on their all-world closer. From 2009-12, he recorded more than three outs just 18 times in 200 total games. Only five times did they ask him to get more than four outs. Joe Girardi did run Mo into the ground a bit last September (five games of 4+ outs) because they knew he was retiring. There was no long-term concern. Rivera also rarely appeared in back-to-back-back games or pitched three times in four days.

From 2010-13, when Robertson really emerged as a dominant late-inning force, the Yankees asked him to get at least four outs 34 times in 269 games. Joe Girardi was a little more liberal with his top setup man, often asking him to pitch out of a jam in the seventh inning before tacking on the eighth for good measure. It worked damn well and it gave the Yankees a big advantage in the late innings of close games. Girardi has not yet asked Robertson to throw more than one inning this year but that’s a function of it still being early in the season more than anything. He was ready to do it last night.

“I was going to use a four-out save with Robertson tonight,” said Girardi to Andrew Marchand after last night’s loss. That comes just a few days after he told Bryan Hoch he feels “more comfortable using [Robertson] for an inning right now … it’s just something I’m more comfortable doing.” Not having Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, and Shawn Kelley essentially forced Girardi to consider using Robertson for more than one inning last night. He really had no choice.

The Yankees have lost their last three games despite either having a lead or being tied in the seventh inning or later, situations that would have called for Robertson in the past. Meanwhile, Robertson has pitched only twice in the last ten days and three times in May. He’s appeared in six of 18 games since coming off the DL, a 54-appearance over 162 games pace after working on a 72-appearance pace per 162 healthy games from 2010-13. He’s been marginalized as the closer, especially of late.

Now, this isn’t to say Girardi should be more liberal with Robertson and use him in tight non-closing situations — that would be awesome, but every manager does the same thing these days, they’ve become slaves to save stat — but it goes to show just how much losing Rivera has hurt. Kelley, Warren, and Betances have been great, but they’re no Mo. They’re no Robertson either. The club replaced their closer just fine, but they lost an ultra-effective presence in the eighth and sometimes seventh innings.

Robertson used to be one of the Yankees’ greatest weapons because he and Rivera shortened the game. They were as good as any setup man/closer combination in baseball. Now that Robertson is married to very specific situations, the most important innings are often falling on the shoulders of lesser relievers, and it has hurt the Yankees these last three games in particular. Losing close games in the late innings with Robertson doing nothing more than warming up rarely happened from 2010-13. That’s where the Yankees most miss Rivera.

Aceves may be the missing bullpen piece

Three days ago, in his latest clunker of a start, CC Sabathia failed to get out of the fourth inning. Joe Girardi gave the ball to his long man du jour, which meant the start of Alfredo Aceves‘ second tour of duty in pinstripes. The team signed him at the end of Spring Training to provide Triple-A depth after Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren, and David Phelps all made the MLB bullpen.

Aceves, now 31, was outstanding in relief of Sabathia, holding the Rays to three singles in 5.1 scoreless innings, striking out five and getting five ground ball outs compared to two in the air. He threw 72 pitches in those 5.1 innings, five fewer than Sabathia threw in 3.2 innings. The circumstances were unfortunate, but Aceves gave the team a real shot in the arm by soaking up so many innings and sparing the key relievers.

That type of performance was something the Yankees were not getting out of their long relievers for the first five weeks of the season. Girardi’s top relievers — David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, Dellin Betances, Warren — have been truly outstanding so far this year (Kelley’s recent hiccup notwithstanding), but the other two bullpen spots have been both problematic and a revolving door. Preston Claiborne has been fine lately, but still. Look at this:

IP BF HR K% BB% ERA FIP
Top Five Relievers 64.1 260 1 27.7% 8.8% 1.96 2.15
Everyone Else 37.2 191 8 22.5% 12.6% 7.41 5.50

I get that just about every team has crappy pitchers filling out the final two bullpen spots at any given time, but man that is a huge difference. Girardi’s top five relievers have been dominant. The other guys, the Claibornes and Chris Lerouxes and Bruce Billingses and Shane Greenes have been just terrible. Those numbers include Aceves’ strong work too, so imagine how much worse they were before Sunday. (No need to imagine: 8.63 ERA.)

A good long reliever is usually a luxury — Warren was quite good by long man standards last season — except right now it’s much more of a necessity for the Yankees. Because Nuno and Phelps are not fully stretched out and both Sabathia and (until last night) Hiroki Kuroda have been shaky, the club has gotten fewer than five full innings from their starter five times of the last 12 games. That’s bad. The rotation is giving the team no length at all.

With the rotation being such a weakness and no help on the way for the foreseeable future, the Yankees have two options. Either lean heavily on their oh so excellent late-inning relievers and risk burning them out, or find a competent long man. In Aceves, they might actually have that competent long man. No, he can’t pitch every day, but he’s certainly capable of soaking up three or four innings twice a week if need by. Leroux couldn’t do that. Neither could Greene or Billings.

Of course, there’s also a chance Aceves will pitch his way into the rotation. All he has to do is be better than Nuno andor Phelps and, well, that’s not really a high bar. Girardi told Chad Jennings that “anytime someone pitches well over distance, it’s going to trigger a thought” when asked about making Aceves a starter. You don’t need to try real hard to see him pitching his way into the rotation. In that case Nuno or Phelps would move into the long man role, which is still an upgrade over the other guys.

We need to be careful not to make too much of Aceves’ outing the other day. It’s unlikely the 2009 Aceves just showed up to the park that morning and is here to stay. Remember, he was throwing low-leverage innings against a lineup that was put together to hit a lefty in Sabathia, not a righty. Aceves was pretty terrible the last two years (4.95 FIP in MLB and 5.44 FIP in Triple-A) and that doesn’t go away because he was awesome for the World Series team a few years ago. He’s got to prove himself a bit. If he can be an effective multi-inning guy, the rest of the bullpen would fall right into place.

The Education of Dellin Betances

Arms and legs. (Presswire)
Arms and legs. (Presswire)

The Yankees dismantled the Red Sox last night, and you could argue their two most exciting pitchers were on the mound for the win. Masahiro Tanaka navigated the first 7.1 innings before Dellin Betances mopped things up and recorded the final five outs. The duo combined for nine strikeouts and no walks, improving the team’s league-leading K/BB ratio to 3.44. The Red Sox are a distance second at 3.12.

Tanaka has been everything we could have possibly expected (and more!) this season while Betances is … still a middle reliever despite only allowing one run on three hits in 9.2 innings of work. He’s also struck out 16 of 38 batters faced and 56.3% of his balls in play are on the ground. Plus he can do this (via Pitcher GIFs):


That’s a pretty neat trick.

And yet, despite all of his early season success, Betances is no higher than sixth on Joe Girardi‘s bullpen pecking order. There are two reasons for that. One, he’s walked six guys in those 9.2 innings. Betances has a history of control problems and we’ve seen him come completely unhinged once or two already this season. He just loses the ability to throw strikes — I’m not even talking about painting the corners here, just basic strike-throwing ability — without warning and that can be scary.

Two, Betances is just a kid, at least in terms of experience. He did turn 26 a few weeks ago after spending eight years in the minors, but he has still only thrown 17.1 innings in the big leagues. That’s nothing. Girardi has used him as a low-leverage reliever and his 0.43 gmLI (Leverage Index when entering the game) bears that out. Only eleven out of 177 qualified relievers have a lower gmLI right now and they’re last guy out of the ‘pen types. There’s no doubt Girardi has been keeping Betances away from important situations if at all possible.

Is that wrong? I don’t think so. Not at all. There’s a level of trust that has to be built and it hasn’t yet. There hasn’t been enough time. David Robertson went through a similar situation early in his career — remember he had walk problems early on — sporting a 0.66 gmLI in his rookie year in 2008. Heck, it was a 0.77 gmLI in 2009. Robertson didn’t graduate from exciting young arm to bonafide high-leverage reliever until 2011, his fourth year in the show. Shawn Kelley went through the same thing last year (0.69 gmLI in April and May). So did Boone Logan a few years ago and Phil Hughes when he first moved into the bullpen in 2009.

As good as he was last year and in Spring Training and during these first few weeks, Betances still has a lot to learn about being a reliever in the Major Leagues. Girardi is very good with his bullpen and he’s shown he will be patient and not unnecessarily push new faces into primo bullpen roles (veteran free agents like Matt Thornton and Rafael Soriano are the obvious exceptions). With more experienced guys like Robertson, Kelley, Adam Warren, and David Phelps around to handle the important innings, the Yankees and Girardi have the luxury of breaking Betances in slowly. His opportunity for high-leverage work will come, but he has to put in some time in a lesser role first.