Bullpen roles becoming clear just three weeks into 2015

Unofficially officially the closer. (Presswire)
Unofficially officially the closer. (Presswire)

It’s really fun when something goes exactly according to plan in baseball. Almost nothing goes as planned in this game, so on those rare occasions when things work out as intended, it’s cause for celebration. And so far this year, the Yankees’ bullpen is worth celebrating. The relief crew has been every bit as good as advertised coming into the new season.

With David Robertson leaving as a free agent and the Yankees not having a Proven Closer™ on the roster heading into Spring Training, we really had no idea how the bullpen would shake out. We had a pretty good idea who the team’s seven relievers would be — well, we had a good idea who four would be (five before Adam Warren was needed in the rotation) and who was in the running for the other three — we just didn’t know who would slot into what role. Three weeks into 2015, those roles are becoming clear.

Closer: Andrew Miller

For a number of reasons, the co-closers experiment never did get off the ground. It sounded great in theory, but Dellin Betances‘ sudden (and thankfully temporary) reversion to pre-2014 Dellin in Spring Training threw a wrench into things. For the first week, week and a half of the regular season, Betances had no idea where the ball was going and wasn’t exactly trustworthy in big spots.

That opened the door to the full-time ninth inning work for Miller. He got his first save in the second game of the season thanks to what appeared to be a matchup situation — Joe Girardi went to Betances to face the right-handed meat of the Blue Jays lineup (Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson) in the eighth inning and Miller got the final three outs against lesser hitters in the ninth. That’s all it took. His foot was in the door.

Closer is maybe the most unique job in baseball. Once a player has some success closing out games in the ninth inning, managers tend to stick with that guy going forward. Miller nailed down that first save, did it again five days later, and again four days after that, and boom. He is now very clearly the closer, recording eight of New York’s nine saves on the young season. Miller is the closer even if Girardi won’t admit it just yet.

“I still believe they both can do the job,” said the manager to Chad Jennings following Monday’s game. “It gives me a lot of options. It’s working the way we’re doing it. … (The plan is) just to stick with what we’re doing. I’m sure at some point one of them may be down and the other guy may have to do something else. Maybe they pitch a couple days in a row and I want to give one of them a day off. I still believe they’re really interchangeable.”

1996 Mariano/2014 Dellin: Dellin Betances

Boy this guy is some kind of luxury, isn’t he? Things got a little dicey for Betances at the end of Spring Training and the start of the regular season, but he’s turned it around and is back to being a multi-inning force at the end of games. It’s one thing to have a really great setup man like, say, Wade Davis or what the Yankees had with Robertson all those years. It’s another to have a guy who can do it for four or five outs fairly regularly.

Now, I don’t think we’ll Betances throw 90 innings again this season, that’s just not something a reliever can do year after year after year these days, but I definitely think we’ll see him get four or five outs on occasion. Heck, we’ve seen it already. Girardi used Betances to get five outs against the Rays eleven days ago then again to get four outs against the Tigers last week. It’s not necessarily something he should do every single time out, but Dellin gives Girardi the flexibility to pitch multiple innings if necessary.

With Miller locked into the closer’s job for the time being, Betances will remain in basically the same role he had last year, as Girardi’s go-to setup weapon. He’s settled into that role the last two weeks or so. The co-closers idea was fun. This works too. Dellin’s role is high-leverage outs-getter. That’s the most important thing.

Stop with the Coldplay jokes. (Presswire)
Stop with the Coldplay jokes. (Presswire)

Reliever Girardi Likes More Than We Realized: Chris Martin

So, Chris Martin. He had just an okay Spring Training, but Girardi and Brian Cashman and everyone else kept talking about how much they liked him, and now here he is at the end of April leading the Yankees with 12 relief appearances. I guess they weren’t joking around.

Martin started the year as the designated “only when losing” reliever — his first six appearances came with the Yankees trailing — but he’s gradually worked his way up the pecking order. Girardi used him for five outs in a two-run game Sunday night and then in a save situation when Miller was unavailable Tuesday. Considering the results (11 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 13 K), it’s hard to blame Girardi for giving Martin some more responsibility.

Previous members of the “Reliever Girardi Likes More Than We Realized” club include David Huff, Cody Eppley, Cory Wade, Luis Ayala, Sergio Mitre, and Brian Bruney. Martin was a scrap heap pickup — the Yankees got him in a cash trade with the Rockies after he’d been designated for assignment — who has already justified the minimal investment. He’s already worked his way into some important innings.

Reliever Girardi Doesn’t Seem To Trust: David Carpenter

Doesn’t it seem like Girardi still doesn’t fully trust Carpenter? He went to Martin for the save on Tuesday night instead of the more experienced Carpenter, then gave a weird answer when asked why he went Martin over Carpenter after the game. He basically said he was saving Carpenter for extra innings. Trust him in extra innings but not a save situation? Okay then.

Anyway, Girardi used Carpenter to get the final out of the seventh inning with a two-run lead Sunday night, then for a full inning in a tie game yesterday, but three of his four appearances prior to that came with the Yankees up by at least six runs. Two of them were with the Yankees up by nine runs. (Aside: Hooray for talking about the Yankees being up nine runs on occasion!)

Of those four appearances, the one Carpenter made with the score closer than six runs was the meltdown in Baltimore. Girardi brought him into the the sixth inning of a game the Yankees were leading by one, then Carpenter allowed three runs on two hits and a walk in one-third of an inning. Perhaps that blowup knocked the righty out of the Circle of Trust™ for the time being. That sure appears to be the case.

Lefty Specialist: Justin Wilson

One of the reasons Wilson was so interesting when he came over from the Pirates was his lack of a platoon split — from 2013-14 he held right-handed and left-handed batters to identical .268 wOBAs. And yet, Girardi has used Wilson as a left-on-left matchup reliever exclusively for nearly two weeks now. Here’s a real quick rundown of his recent appearances:

  • April 17th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Kevin Kiermaier. (strikeout looking)
  • April 19th: Brought in to face one batter, the lefty hitting David DeJesus, who was replaced by pinch-hitter Logan Forsythe. (fly out)
  • April 22nd: Faced five batters (two lefties, three righties) with the Yankees up six runs and then nine runs. Girardi was just counting down outs.
  • April 23rd: Brought in to face one batter, the lefty hitting Alex Avila, who was replaced by pinch-hitter James McCann. (ground out)
  • April 26th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Curtis Granderson. (pop-up)
  • April 27th: Faced three batters, two lefties (James Loney and Kiermaier) sandwiched around one righty (Brandon Guyer).
  • April 29th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Kiermaier. (line out)
(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So Girardi hasn’t been completely opposed to using Wilson against right-handers lately, but more often than not he’s been brought in for pure matchup work and not to throw a full inning. It could be that he has fallen out of the Circle of Trust™ — Wilson was charged with two runs in that Baltimore meltdown — and is now working his way back into favor.

Of course, Wilson’s strike-throwing issues are likely playing a role here as well. He’s always had a below-average walk rate — Wilson walked three of the first five and four of the first 13 batters he faced this year, and he’s walked five of 18 righties faced with only two strikeouts — and his early-season control issues may have scared Girardi off a bit. I can’t blame him. For now, Wilson is the middle innings lefty specialist and not someone we figure to see in real high-leverage spots anytime soon.

Long Man: Esmil Rogers

Coming into the regular season, this was the only bullpen role we could easily predict. We all knew Rogers was going to be the long man — he got stretched out as a starter in camp but Warren beat him out for the fifth starter’s job convincingly — and by and large he’s done a nice job. He’s got a 2.35 ERA (3.53 FIP) with 16 strikeouts and three walks in 15.1 innings. What more do you want from a long man? Rogers is a necessary evil — everyone seems to hate him but a veteran long man Girardi can run into the ground to spare the more important arms is a nice thing to have. Not all innings are pretty. Esmil’s hear to pick up the ugly ones.

The Last Spot: Chasen Shreve & Co.

As always, the last spot in the bullpen has been a revolving door early on in 2015. Shreve has held it down for the most part but he’s already been optioned once in favor of a fresh arm(s). Kyle Davies, Matt Tracy, Joel De La Cruz, and Branden Pinder have all seen big league time this year. Trust me, it won’t be the last time Shreve is sent down for a fresh arm this year.

Bullpens have to be flexible — what’s the point of having all those guys sitting and waiting in Triple-A if there’s no way to get them on the roster when they’re needed? — and this last spot gives the Yankees that flexibility. Shreve is good! But sometimes the furniture needs to be rearranged, and as the low man on the bullpen totem pole, he goes down to Triple-A when needed. If Shreve pitches well and Martin hits the skids at some point, it could be Martin who winds up in the minors whenever a fresh body is needed next. That’s just the way it goes.

* * *

For all the talk about the co-closers system coming into the season, Girardi has made it pretty clear over the years that he likes having relievers in set roles. He doesn’t need to say it, it shows in the way he uses his bullpen. Girardi has always had a set closer and preferred to have a set eighth inning guy as well. He’s even had a set seventh inning guy at times. The various relievers have settled into those various roles these last few weeks, and I’m sure that makes Girardi happy. It’s easier to manage when you already know who is going to pitch in what situation. At the beginning of the season, that wasn’t always clear. Now it is.

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How Betances became dominant Dellin again

I'm back and better than before. (Presswire)
I’m back and better than before. (Presswire)

One week into the season, and Dellin Betances was a mess. After three games, he had allowed only one run (unearned) but his lack of command was alarming. Betances issued two walks in each of his first three outings (six total) and struck out a combined three batters in those 3 1/3 innings. This was from a guy that in the final two months of last season faced 101 batters and walked four of them.

It was very small sample size, but following a spring where he also struggled with his mechanics and his control, he was facing questions about whether he’d be able to replicate his brilliant 2014 campaign and what had happened to his dominant stuff from one year ago. He had established himself as one of the league’s elite relievers in 2014, but at the start of 2015 he looked completely lost on the mound.

Fast-forward two weeks and the perception of Betances among the media and fans couldn’t be any different.

Dellin is dealing! Betances is back!

His last seven games, starting with an April 15 outing in Baltimore, look like this: eight innings, 28 batters faced, one walk, 14 strikeouts, two singles allowed. He has five straight appearances with no hits allowed and at least two strikeouts, the first Yankee pitcher in the last 100 years with a streak like that. Any questions?

Now that Betances appears to have put to rest any of those silly notions that last year’s incredible performance was a fluke, let’s take a deeper look at what exactly changed for the 27-year-old flamethrower in the past two weeks.

Location, location, location
Simply put, his biggest problem during that rocky start to the season was that he had no idea where the ball was going in those first three games. Only one out of every three pitches he threw was in the strike zone, a shockingly low rate compared to both the league average (47 percent) and last season’s number (52 percent). This is what that looks like in heat-map form, with last year on the left and his first three games from this year on the right:

betances last year vs first 3 location

You can sometimes get away with expanding the zone if you can also get hitters to chase those out-of-zone pitches. But that wasn’t the case with Betances during the first week.

His location was so bad — even in that small sample — that hitters had an easy plan when they came to the plate against Betances: don’t swing. In those first three games, batters swung at just 31 percent of his pitches, one of the lowest rates by any pitcher in the first week. As a result, he quickly dug himself into a hole in nearly every at-bat, throwing a first-pitch ball to 12 of the 18 batters he faced.

Behind in the count early and often during those first three outings, Betances was reluctant to unleash his devastating curveball, which allowed batters to sit on his fastball and wait for a hittable pitch or simply take a walk.

The key to his turnaround
Since bottoming out on April 13 against the Orioles when he allowed four baserunners and threw just 10 of his 24 pitches for strikes, Betances has done a complete 360-turnaround. He’s regained his command, throwing more than half of his pitches in the zone.

Now that Betances has found the strike zone again, he’s consistently getting ahead and quickly gaining the advantage in the at-bat. Over the last seven games, he’s started 17 of the 28 batters with an 0-1 count and 12 of those 17 plate appearances ended in a strikeout. That’s much better!

A key change in his mechanics related to this improved control is that he’s tightened up the release point on both his curveball and fastball, as you can see in the GIF below (the more spread-out series of dots is the first three games; the more condensed series is the past seven games).

betances release v.3

With a more consistent throwing motion, he’s now able to command his pitches better and his curveball/fastball combo also looks nearly identical to batters when coming out of his hand, making it harder for hitters to distinguish between the two pitches. The results: batters are swinging at a higher rate overall (41 percent), and more importantly, he’s more than doubled his percentage of out-of-zone swings from 16 percent in the first week to 38 percent over the last two weeks.

In addition to the improved location, Betances’ stuff is now looking much more like what he threw last year. Not only has his average fastball velocity increased to 97-plus mph in his most recent outings, but the horizontal movement on his curve has risen more than inch in the last two weeks compared to the first week of the season.

It seems like Betances has finally put himself back together on the mound and is rounding into his 2014 All-Star form. He’s more confident, throwing better pitches and appears to be settling in as the dominant reliever that we saw on a nightly basis last year. If Betances can maintain his mechanics and command of the strike zone through the remainder of the season, he’ll once again be a late-inning weapon that Joe Girardi can use in high-leverage situations and help the Yankees bullpen keep its status as one of the best in the league.

Dellin Betances projected to fall short of Super Two cutoff, Didi Gregorius will qualify

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Ryan Galla at CAA Sports, the projected Super Two cutoff this coming season is two years and 140 days of service time, which is more commonly written as 2.140. Players who qualify as Super Twos go through arbitration four times instead of the usual three. The cutoff is set at the top 22% of players with 2-3 years of service time and won’t be officially set until after the season. Galla’s projections have pretty spot on over the years.

The projected cutoff means Dellin Betances will fall well short of Super Two status following the season. He came into the season with 1.078 years of service time and, assuming his spotty command doesn’t land him in Triple-A at some point this summer, he’ll finish the season at 2.078. He’s more than two months short of qualifying, so even if Galla’s projection is off considerably, Betances still figures to be a non-Super Two player.

Assuming Dellin finds his mojo and starts dominating again — not a guarantee but let’s roll with it — his arbitration salaries figure to be higher than David Robertson‘s because of the co-closer system. Saves pay, even just a few of them. Robertson earned $1.6M, $3.1M, and $5.125M in his three arbitration years as a setup man. Dellin’s arbitration salaries could instead be along the lines of on again, off again closer (and ex-Yank) Mark Melancon‘s, who made $2.595M in his first year of arbitration and $5.4M in his second. (Next year will be his third.)

Now, if Betances were to take over the closer’s job outright, his arbitration salaries would skyrocket. Kenley Jansen made $4.3M and $7.425M during his first two years of arbitration, for example. The Yankees could look into signing Dellin to a long-term contract extension, but I think the unexpected return of pre-2014 Betances this year is enough to scare everything into waiting a little while longer. He’s a major boom or bust guy — Dellin could dominate and make Craig Kimbrel money or flame out faster than Derrick Turnbow.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The projected Super Two cutoff also means Didi Gregorius will qualify as a Super Two by a handful of days — he came into the season with 1.159 years of service time and will finish at 2.159. He’ll qualify by less than three weeks. Gregorius won’t command huge arbitration salaries but being a defense first middle infielder pays more than you think. Similar players like Darwin Barney and Zack Cozart made $2.3M or so in their first years of arbitration, though they weren’t Super Twos. Gregorius might come in a bit under that this offseason.

It’s easy to say this now given his slow start to the season, but even if he was tearing the cover off the ball these last ten days, I still think the Yankees would be better off letting Gregorius play out his arbitration years rather than look to sign him to an extension. The Yankees will be able to afford to pay him whatever arbitration requires, and the risk that he doesn’t hit enough to keep a regular lineup spot is much greater than the risk of him breaking out offensively and commanding big bucks. Slow start or not, Didi’s a year-to-year guy for me.

Obviously the roster will change over the next few months, but right now the Yankees are looking at a decently sized arbitration class after the season. Gregorius, Adam Warren, and Justin Wilson will be eligible for the first time; David Carpenter, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi will be eligible for the second time; and Esmil Rogers and Ivan Nova will be eligible for the third time. Pineda and possibly Eovaldi are extension candidates and right now Rogers looks like the only non-tender candidate.

Dellin Betances’ struggles shouldn’t end the co-closer experiment

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

Although the 2015 season is barely more than a week old, it’s already clear Dellin Betances‘ rough Spring Training has carried over into the regular season. After pitching to a 5.40 ERA with six walks and nine strikeouts in 8.1 Grapefruit League innings, Dellin has walked six and allowed three hits against only three strikeouts in 3.1 innings across three appearances since the start of the season. Only 36 of his 81 pitches have been strikes (44%).

It appears Betances’ struggles are mechanical more than anything. His fastball is still humming in around the mid-90s and his breaking ball has its usual break, but he just has no idea where the ball is going. And considering Betances had no idea where the ball was going for most of his career prior to 2014, that’s sorta scary. Mechanical issues and a lack of command are hardly new for Dellin.

“Before (in the minor leagues) I was way off. Like, not even close. Now I feel a lot better. I’m right there. I’m missing right there, but you just have to have confidence in yourself. Keep going out there and battling,” said Betances to Chad Jennings after Monday’s game. “I’m right there. I know I’m right there. I just have to attack the hitters, be aggressive in the strike zone and keep making pitches.”

It’s good to hear Dellin feels he’s close to getting back to where he was — a positive attitude is underrated! — but Joe Girardi still had to make some mid-game adjustments Monday. Betances retired just two of six batters faced and Girardi had to go to Andrew Miller for the five-out save. After the game, the skipper told Jennings he was “trying to map it out (the late innings) but it never goes strictly according to plan. I had to rework it a little bit.”

We could take that as Girardi saying he’s lost at least some trust in Betances, and at this point I couldn’t blame him even though Dellin has only made three appearances. His spring issues have carried over into the regular season and these games count now. The Yankees can afford to give Betances more time to work through his issues, just not necessarily in high-leverage spots. Keeping him away from situations like Monday night — he inherited a two-on, one-out situation — wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.

Thankfully, the Yankees still have one elite reliever to lean on in Miller. He could step right in and serve as the closer now and no one would blame Girardi one bit. Me? I don’t think Betances’ struggles should put an end to the co-closer experiment. I like the idea of matchup based high-leverage work even if Dellin isn’t the man for the job right now. Bullpen plans have a way of not going, well, according to plan.

Rather than roll with Miller and Betances as co-closers, I’d like to see Girardi go with Miller and David Carpenter for the time being. Carpenter is a competent late-inning reliever with experience and is a righty to complement Miller. He steps into the late-innings, Betances slides back into a lower leverage role until he rights the ship, and the co-closers plan remains in place. The personnel changes, the plan stays the same.

Girardi has been very rigid with his bullpen usage during his time in pinstripes — in addition to a set closer, he’s had a set eighth inning guy and even a set seventh inning guy at times. He’s shown some willingness to be flexible this year with the co-closers setup — he was talking about this even before Spring Training, remember — and I hope Dellin’s rough start to the season doesn’t end things. Everyone seems to be on board, both the coaches and the players, so the Yankees should follow through on the plan while adjusting roles to accommodate Betances’ early-season issues.

Yankees finalize Opening Day roster with latest round of roster moves

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3:25pm: The Yankees have officially announced their Opening Day roster. It is exactly as presented below. No surprises.

10:00am: The Opening Day roster has been slowly coming together over the last several weeks, and yesterday afternoon the Yankees made the roster all but official with their latest round of moves, including Austin Romine being designated for assignment. Here is the 25-man roster the Yankees will take into the regular season tomorrow:

CATCHERS (2)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy

INFIELDERS (7)
Stephen Drew
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Garrett Jones
Gregorio Petit
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Carlos Beltran
Brett Gardner
Jacoby Ellsbury
Chris Young

STARTERS (5)
Nathan Eovaldi
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Masahiro Tanaka
Adam Warren

RELIEVERS (7)
Dellin Betances
David Carpenter
Chris Martin
Andrew Miller
Esmil Rogers
Chasen Shreve
Justin Wilson

DISABLED LIST (4)
Chris Capuano (quad) — retroactive to March 27th
Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — retroactive to March 27th
Jose Pirela (concussion) — retroactive to April 2nd
Brendan Ryan (calf) — retroactive to April 1st

Pirela was placed on the 7-day concussion DL while Capuano, Nova, and Ryan were all placed on the regular old 15-day DL. Petit takes Romine’s spot on the 40-man roster, which is full. The Yankees can transfer Nova to the 60-day DL whenever they need another 40-man spot since he’s not expected to return until June. Romine, Petit, and the DL assignments were the moves announced yesterday.

Despite those injuries, the Yankees made it through Spring Training as the healthiest team in the AL East, just as we all expected. The rest of the roster is pretty straight forward. Warren was named the fifth starter a few days ago and it was clear Shreve and Martin were going to make the Opening Day roster once Chase Whitley was optioned to Triple-A. Joe Girardi is planning to use Betances and Miller as co-closers to start the season, which is pretty cool. Hopefully it works as planned. Carpenter and Wilson figure to be the sixth and seventh inning guys.

As always, the 25-man roster is going to change throughout the course of the season. Quite a bit too. Petit figures to be replaced by Pirela or Ryan, whoever gets healthy first, and those bullpen spots belonging to Shreve and Martin could be revolving doors given the team’s relief pitcher depth. That includes Capuano, who could wind up working in relief if Warren fares well as the fifth starter. For now, this is the group of Yankees to start the new season.

Girardi confirms Yanks will head into 2015 with co-closers

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the 2015 season begins on Monday, the Yankees won’t have a closer. They’ll have two closers. Or they’ll have two half-closers. Something like that. Yesterday, Joe Girardi confirmed the Yankees will start the season with lefty Andrew Miller and righty Dellin Betances as co-closers, something he’s been hinting at since even before Spring Training. The eighth and ninth innings will be based on matchups.

“I really think that if you do it that way, and as long as you’re prepared, it has a chance to be advantageous to you,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “My thought has been more like with a power lefty who strikes out a lot of guys and a power righty, the lineups just might match up where one day he’s the eighth inning guy and then one day he’s the ninth inning guy a little bit better. I think you start managing who you’re going to use (in the ninth) in about the sixth inning, because you try to prepare them.”

This isn’t a situation where the Yankees don’t have a viable closer on the roster. They have two very qualified closer candidates in Miller and Betances — two qualified candidates when Betances is right, that is, and he hasn’t been right this spring — and selecting either one as the traditional closer would have been easy and completely justifiable. Instead, Miller will face the tough lefties regardless of whether they’re due to bat in the eighth or ninth while Betances gets the tough righties.

For what it’s worth, both Miller and Betances have being saying all the right things about the possibility of being used as co-closers since the idea was first broached before Spring Training. Both guys say they don’t care about closing, they just want to win, sometimes the eighth inning can be just as important as the ninth, all that good stuff. Girardi ran the idea by them again earlier this week and both guys are still all for it.

“I’ve talked to both. They’re concerned about winning more than (roles), in the sense of I’m this guy, I’m this guy. That’s the sense I’ve got from them,” added Girardi. “Now, could it iron itself out and you start to do it one way? Yes. But we talked a little bit about it yesterday. I’ll continue to talk about it with my coaches and (pitching coach Larry Rothschild) and his feelings about it as they get a feel, and (bullpen coach) Gary Tuck who’s in the bullpen, what do you think the importance of it is that we actually set a role? But as of right now, we haven’t felt that we have to.”

In theory, co-closers is a great idea. Girardi is meticulous with his bullpen usage, both matchups and workloads, so I have no reason to think he couldn’t pull this off. It’s been done before, most notably by the 2009 Braves with Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, but it certainly is unconventional and ripe for second guessing. Optimizing reliever usage by putting them in situations where they are most likely to help the team is much better than marrying them to specific innings.

Now, that said, Dellin’s spring performance is a problem we can’t ignore. It doesn’t look like he’s hurt, it looks like his problems are purely mechanical, but Betances has a long history of mechanical issues and he’s yet to sort them out. The Yankees open the season against the Blue Jays and Red Sox, two teams will a ton of very good right-handed hitters, so tossing Dellin out there in the ninth inning with a one-run lead against a bunch of righties isn’t so comforting at this very moment.

Until Betances gets sorted out, David Carpenter might be a safer bet for high-leverage work against right-handed hitters. Girardi told Bryan Hoch he doesn’t consider Chasen Shreve or Justin Wilson to be lefty specialists, though those guys figure to handle the middle innings, not the eighth and ninth. Maybe the co-closer system should be Miller and Carpenter for a little while until Betances is back to where he needs to be. My guess is Dellin will be used alongside Miller as the co-closer until he pitches his way out of the job though.

Dellin Betances’ rough spring and reduced velocity are a cause for some concern, but not yet panic

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the fourth consecutive appearance, ace righty reliever Dellin Betances allowed a run yesterday afternoon, this one on a home run by the generally powerless Juan Lagares. The homer came on a hanging breaking ball, and while it was Dellin’s second straight day on the mound — his first set of back-to-back games this spring — it continued his recent stretch of tough outings.

Betances has allowed four runs on seven hits and two walks in his 5.1 innings this spring, striking out four. All four strikeouts came his first two outings. He hasn’t struck out any of the last 18 batters he’s faced after going no more than 13 batters between strikeouts in 2014 as best I can tell. Dellin allowed one run on five hits and four walks in 12.1 last spring, striking out eleven, just for reference.

The circumstances this year are much different than last year, however. Betances was trying to impress last spring because he wanted to make the team. He had a strong showing in September 2013 after moving to the bullpen full-time in Triple-A, but Spring Training was his best opportunity to impress the decision-makers. Betances has a roster spot locked up this spring, so he could afford to take it a little easier in March.

Now, that said, Dellin’s struggles appear to go beyond something we could chalk up to a veteran just getting work in. There is no PitchFX in any Grapefruit League park, so while we don’t have an accurate measure of his velocity, it is clearly down a few miles an hour. Joe Girardi acknowledged it the other day, telling Chad Jennings that Betances “wasn’t throwing 97, 98 in Spring Training last year at this time. He wasn’t. And power pitchers usually take a little bit longer to get going.”

While true, PitchFX clocked Betances at 97.1 mph during his first regular season outing last year, on April 1st. First game of the year adrenaline? Maybe. He was at 95.4 mph in his second game and 96.6 mph in his third. Either way, Dellin hasn’t come close to that average fastball velocity this month. His breaking ball hasn’t had the same sharp bite either — it certainly isn’t buckling as many knees — and his overall location has been poor. Betances knows it too and he’s getting frustrated.

“I’m obviously frustrated. I mean, it’s been four outings where every time out, I’ve given up a run. Today I felt better, but you got to make a better pitch than that to Lagares. It’s frustrating, but I’m sure I got four more outings left and I’ll do whatever I can to be better for the season,” said Dellin to Jennings and Brendan Kuty following yesterday’s game. “A lot of those guys know who I am now. Last year, I was unknown. Right now I need to get a few more (mph on my fastball) and maybe attack the zone better.”

Three years ago we went through a similar situation with a pitcher showing reduced velocity, though I think Michael Pineda‘s situation in 2012 was much different than what Betances is going through now. Pineda was having a tough time cracking 90 mph — Jennings spoke to a scout who had Betances at 92-93 mph yesterday, for what it’s worth — and he seemed to be laboring physically. Dellin doesn’t give off that same vibe. It seems like it’s a mechanical issue more than a physical issue, but I’m neither a doctor nor a pitching coach.

Betances of course has a long history of mechanical issues. Very long. Basically his entire career sans 2014. He struggled with extreme control problems in the minors and things didn’t click until he went to the bullpen, and Dellin attributed the regular work to his improved mechanics. That could be part of the problem this spring — he’s thrown roughly 40% of the innings he did last spring with only a week to go in camp. Maybe he hasn’t seen enough game action to get up to speed.

Last season’s workload — 90 innings across 70 appearances — could certainly be a factor, though the innings total itself was not out of the norm for Betances. He threw 89 total innings in 2013, 131.1 innings in 2012, and 129 innings in 2011. That said, he was a starter in 2011 and 2012, and throwing that many innings as a starter is different than doing it as a reliever in so many more appearances. Dellin threw a ton of stressful innings last year. Of course the workload could be a factor.

I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t worried about Betances’ rough spring and his stuff not being as crisp as it was in 2014. Between that, his minor league history, and last year’s workload, I don’t know how some concern doesn’t creep into your mind. But full blown panic? No, not yet. I want to see what happens when Betances gets into the regular season and gets some more innings under his belt. If he’s still throwing low-90s with no feel for his breaking ball say, three weeks into the season, then I’ll be much more concerned than I am right now.

As I wrote in our Season Preview post earlier this week, Betances is unlikely to repeat last season’s overwhelming dominance because basically no one does that two years in a row. That doesn’t mean I expect to him bad though. I still expect him to be an elite reliever, the same way David Robertson never repeated his 2011 performance but remained elite from 2012-14. The good news is the Yankees have a deep bullpen and have the relievers to cover the late innings if Betances’ struggles carry over into the regular season. They can be patient and let him work it out.

But let’s not kid ourselves either. Dellin is a major piece of the 2015 Yankees, a team built to win close games on the back of a shutdown bullpen, a bullpen Betances was expected to anchor. If whatever is ailing him this spring continues deep into the season, it’s going to hurt the team’s chances of contending substantially. This isn’t some generic middle reliever we’re talking about. For now, I am a bit concerned about Betances and hope to see improvement over his final few Spring Training appearances. And if he doesn’t get straightened out a few weeks into the regular season, the Yankees could have a big problem on their hands.