Two months into 2016, it’s clear the top relievers are most valuable to the Yankees as trade chips

Has he been traded yet? What about now? (Presswire)
Has he been traded yet? What about now? (Presswire)

The Yankees aren’t very good, folks. It’s true. They haven’t been all that good since the middle of last year. They were going to need some things to break their way to contend in 2016, and not only are those things not happening, unexpected things are going wrong. Luis Severino and Michael Pineda have been awful and Mark Teixeira forgot how to hit, for example. Last night’s loss dropped them to 24-27 on the season. Yuck.

Last night’s seventh inning meltdown notwithstanding, pretty much the only thing going right for the Yankees this year is the back-end of their bullpen. The trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman have allowed eleven earned runs in 54.1 innings (1.82 ERA) with 100 strikeouts and eight walks. Most of that is Miller and Betances since Chapman had to serve his suspension. But still, they’ve been collectively awesome.

Those three guys are the reason the Yankees are 23-0 when leading after seven innings and 18-1 when leading after the six innings. The problem is the rest of the team isn’t nearly good enough to hand them leads consistently. The offense is powerless (and average-less) and while the rotation has been much better of late, it’s not going to win many games by itself. The Yankees have three Ferraris in the garage but they can’t figure out how to get the door open.

It’s easy to say Betances, Miller, and Chapman are crucial to the team’s success this year and that they’ll go nowhere without them, and that is 100% true, but they’re not going anywhere with them either. What needs to happen for the Yankees to make a run and contend this year? Like four guys in the lineup need to start putting up huge numbers and both Severino and Pineda need to do a complete 180. Possible? Sure. So very unlikely though.

The Yankees are not a team that is one or two pieces away from contention. They need something pretty close to an overhaul whether they want to admit it or not. Ownership can continue to spout the “you can’t rebuild here” line until they’re blue in the face. It doesn’t change that it needs to happen. How much more obvious could it be? The Yankees have a ton of money coming off the books the next two years but they can’t spend their way back into contention. Baseball doesn’t work like that anymore.

The quickest and easiest way for the Yankees to add some desperately needed young talent is by breaking up that end-game bullpen and trading those relievers. Every single one of them should be on the market. Relievers are too volatile to be counted on as part of a rebuild — serious question: how confident are you Betances will still be an ace reliever when the Yankees are ready to contend again? — even the very best of them. These guys are hot commodities.

The good news is high-end relievers are always in demand. Every contender will want those guys. The Cubs lost last night because Clayton Richard had to face lefties Chase Utley, Corey Seager, and Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning of a scoreless game, for example. Don’t you think they’d be willing to pay big for Miller? The need for elite bullpen help always exists. There is lots more demand than supply. We saw the kind of packages Craig Kimbrel and Ken Giles fetched this offseason. They were significant hauls loaded with top prospects.

Believe me, there is nothing I would love more than to watch the Yankees storm into the postseason with Betances, Miller, and Chapman turning every game into a five (four?) inning affair. The bullpen is by far the most exciting and watchable part of the team (Masahiro Tanaka is a distant second). No one wants to see these players traded. They’re fun! That said, in the grand scheme of things, trading a reliever or three is 100% the right baseball move given the state of the franchise.

The Yankees are not ready to win with this group right now. There are too many weaknesses. This isn’t “the season is still young” stuff anymore. Holding on to these relievers only to win, say, 83 games instead of 78 would be a massive mistake, and the Yankees can’t afford any more mistakes. They’re paying for a lot of them right now. The sooner they trade them, the more they get back and less injury risk they assume. The Yankees must be willing to deal Betances, Miller, and Chapman starting today.

The Yankees and the difference between actual velocity and perceived velocity

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since the start of last season, Statcast has opened our eyes to all sorts of cool stuff that we knew existed in baseball, but were unable to measure. Exit velocity, outfielder first step quickness, things like that. All this information is new and we’re still learning how to use it — at-bat by at-bat exit velocity updates are the worst thing on Twitter these days — but it’s all really neat and interesting.

One of these fun new Statcast tools is “perceived velocity,” which measures how fast a pitch “plays” when factoring in things like extension and release point. We’ve all seen pitchers with a 92 mph fastball who get hitters to react like it’s 95 mph, and vice versa. Here is the perceived velocity definition from MLB.com’s glossary:

Perceived Velocity is an attempt to quantify how fast a pitch appears to a hitter, by factoring the Velocity of the pitch and the release point of the pitcher. It takes Velocity one step further — because a 95 mph fastball will reach a hitter faster if the pitcher releases the ball seven feet in front of the rubber instead of six.

To attain Perceived Velocity, the average Major League “Extension” must first be obtained. Any pitcher who releases the ball from behind the average Extension will have a lower Perceived Velocity than actual Velocity. On the other hand, if a pitcher releases the ball from in front of the average Extension, he’ll have a higher Perceived Velocity than actual Velocity.

Perceived velocity seems pretty important, right? More important than actual velocity, I think. Since the start of last season the league average fastball velocity is 92.5 mph while the league average perceived velocity is 92.1 mph. That’s not a negligible difference. There’s much more to it than the raw radar gun reading.

So, with an assist from Baseball Savant, let’s look over the Yankees’ pitching staff and compare average fastball velocities to perceived fastball velocities. These are numbers since the start of last season to give us the largest sample possible.

The Starters

Average Velocity Perceived Velocity “Gain”
CC Sabathia 89.96 90.93 +0.97
Michael Pineda 93.42 93.65 +0.23
Luis Severino 95.83 95.47 -0.36
Masahiro Tanaka 91.81 91.03 -0.78
Nathan Eovaldi 97.29 96.43 -0.86
Ivan Nova 93.31 92.32 -0.99

There are some pretty big differences between average velocity and perceived velocity in the rotation. Sabathia is a big man with a long stride, so it makes sense his fastball plays up and appears faster than what the radar gun tells you. He’s releasing the ball that much closer to home plate. Of course, a 90.93 mph perceived velocity is still well below the league average, but that’s what Sabathia has to work with at this point of his career.

On the other end of the spectrum is Nova, who is unable to gain any extra velocity through extension despite being 6-foot-4. His fastball looks a full mile an hour slower to the hitter than what the radar gun says. The ability to see the ball well out of Nova’s hand has always been a knock against him. He doesn’t have much deception in his delivery and the perceived velocity data suggests he lacks extension too. That’s why Nova’s always been more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe.

The same is true of Eovaldi, though he brings much more raw velocity to the table than Nova and most other starting pitchers. Eovaldi is not as tall as most of his rotation mates (6-foot-2) so his stride isn’t as long, which costs him some perceived velocity. He’s the poster child for pitchers with big fastballs and small results. His new splitter has really made a big difference because it gives hitters something else to think about. Before they could zero in on the fastball.

I have nothing to back this up, but the 0.78 mph difference between Tanaka’s average fastball and perceived fastball seems to matter less to him than it would other pitchers. Tanaka is basically a splitter/slider pitcher with a show-me fastball. Nova and Eovaldi rely on their fastballs much more heavily because their secondary pitches aren’t as good. I don’t mean that as a knock. Most pitchers rely on their heater. Tanaka’s an outlier. The lack of perceived velocity could help explain why he’s so homer prone though.

The Relievers

Average Velocity Perceived Velocity “Gain”
Andrew Miller 94.60 95.41 +0.81
Aroldis Chapman 99.92 100.32 +0.40
Dellin Betances 97.49 97.65 +0.16
Chasen Shreve 91.85 91.28 -0.57
Kirby Yates 93.16 92.05 -1.11

These five guys have been the constants in the bullpen this season. The other two spots — sometimes it has been three other spots — have been used as shuttle spots to cycle arms in and out as necessary.

The big three all gain some velocity through their release points because they’re all so damn tall. I’m actually sort of surprised the difference between Betances’ average fastball velocity and perceived fastball velocity is so small, relatively speaking. He has such a massively long stride …

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

… that you’d think his fastball would play up. Then again, it’s not where your leg lands, it’s where you release the ball. Miller has those long lanky arms and he seems to sling his pitches towards the batter, and those long limbs and funky angles make his already speedy fastball seem ever faster. Same with Chapman. Good grief. His fastball somehow looks faster to the hitter than the radar gun reading. That can’t be fun.

Yates is pretty interesting. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and he has that compact little delivery, so his fastball looks much slower to the hitter than what the radar gun tells us. That said, Yates is not a reliever who tries to throw the ball by hitters. His key to his success is his slider, which he throws nearly 40% of the time. The fastball may play down according to perceived velocity, but he’s not trying to get guys out with the heater anyway. It’s all about the slider with Kirby.

Miscellaneous Arms

Average Velocity Perceived Velocity “Gain”
Branden Pinder 92.25 94.35 +2.10
Bryan Mitchell 95.67 96.57 +0.90
Chad Green 94.43 95.32 +0.89
Nick Rumbelow 93.60 93.90 +0.30
Nick Goody 91.54 91.54 +0.00
James Pazos 94.16 93.59 -0.57
Jacob Lindgren 89.78 89.20 -0.58
Luis Cessa 92.53 91.62 -0.91
Johnny Barbato 95.28 93.54 -1.74

These are the so-called shuttle pitchers, some of whom haven’t pitched in the big leagues at all this season due to injury. The samples are all very small — Mitchell leads the group with 298 fastballs thrown since the start of last year, and in some cases (Green, Pazos, Cessa, Lindgren) we’re looking at 60 or fewer fastballs — so these numbers are FYI only. There’s something to look at that, not something that should be taken seriously right now.

The numbers are on the extremes are pretty fascinating. Statcast says Pinder’s fastball has played more than two full miles an hour faster than what the radar gun says. Barbato is the opposite. His fastball plays down nearly two miles an hour. Pinder is listed at 6-foot-4 and Barbato at 6-foot-1, so there’s a big height difference, but look at their strides too (you can click the image for a larger view):

Barbato (left) via Getty, Pinder (right) via Presswire
Barbato (left) via Getty; Pinder (right) via Presswire

I know this is amateur hour with the photos, sorry. In my defense, it’s really tough to find photos of up and down relievers who have thrown a combined 41.2 innings in the big leagues.

Anyway, you can still kinda see the differences in their strides with those two photos. Both are about to release the ball, yet Pinder is so much closer to the plate that his back foot is already disconnected from the rubber. Look at the angles of their legs too. Barbato is standing a bit more upright, which means he’s not striding as far forward.

Just like regular old velocity, perceived velocity alone is not the key to pitching, but it is definitely part of the equation. Those extra miles an hour — or, to be more precise, the appearance of those extra miles an hour — disrupt timing and give hitters less time to react. Mike Fast once showed a difference of one mile an hour of velocity equates to roughly one-quarter of a run of ERA.

Perceived velocity still doesn’t tell us why Eovaldi’s fastball is less effective than Miller’s, for example. Eovaldi’s heater has Miller’s beat in terms of both average and perceived velocity. I do find it interesting someone as tall as Sabathia can “add” a mile per hour to his heater with his size while a short pitcher like Yates “losses” a mile an hour. Intuitively it all makes sense. It’s just cool to be able to put some numbers on it now.

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.

Yankeemetrics: Light at the end of the tunnel? [May 13-15]

Chase "Mr. Clutch" Headley (AP Photo)
Chase “Mr. Clutch” Headley (AP Photo)

Raise the white flag
Friday’s pitching matchup between Chris Sale and Luis Severino looked like a complete mismatch on paper, and that’s how it played out in real time as the White Sox crushed the Yankees, 7-1, in the series opener.

Sale went the distance, dominated the Yankees lineup and moved to 8-0 with a 1.67 ERA this season. He also lowered his career ERA versus the Yankees to 1.17, the best mark against the Yankees by any pitcher in major-league history who has made at least five starts against the team.

Holding the Yankees to one run on six hits, Sale also became the first White Sox pitcher with a complete game win at Yankee Stadium since Jim Abbott on July 18, 1995. The last White Sox pitcher to allow one run or fewer in a nine-inning complete-game win at Yankee Stadium was Neil Allen in 1986.

Severino was removed in the third inning after surrendering seven runs, and fell to 0-6 with a 7.46 ERA in seven starts. The only other Yankees in the last 100 years to go winless in their first seven starts of the season, and lose at least six of those games, were Chien-Ming Wang (2009), Doyle Alexander (1982) and Stan Bahnsen (1969).

Two good to be true
The Yankees bounced back from Friday’s deflating loss with a 2-1 victory on Saturday afternoon, improving to 9-2 against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium since the start of 2013, their best record in the Bronx against any team over the past four years.

The win was also their first this season when scoring fewer than three runs; entering Saturday, the Yankees were 0-16 in those games, the worst record among all MLB teams.

Ivan Nova, making his second start of the season, was outstanding in giving the Yankees 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball. He’s now allowed one run or fewer in six of his seven starts against the White Sox, including all three at Yankee Stadium. His 2.42 career ERA versus Chicago is the best by a Yankee pitcher in the Wild Card era (min. 44 innings).

Dellin Betances relieved Nova in the sixth inning and struck out all four of the batters he faced. That’s the second time in his career he’s thrown more than an inning and punched out every guy.

He is the only Yankee pitcher in the last 100 years to have multiple outings like that. Two other active pitchers have two such games on their resume: Steve Geltz (Rays) and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers).

Milestone Man (mlb.com)
Milestone Man (mlb.com)

Don’t call it a comeback
Slowly, but surely, the Yankees are starting to dig themselves out of the massive hole they dug themselves into during the first month of the season. After taking the rubber game on Sunday afternoon against White Sox, the Yankees clinched their third series in a row and finished off a strong 10-game homestand at 7-3.

Carlos Beltran, hitless in his previous three games, broke out of that mini-slump in style with a towering home run in the sixth inning to give the Yankees a 5-4 lead. It was also the 400th of his career, putting Beltran in rare company with some of baseball’s greatest sluggers. He is the:

  • 54th player in MLB history with 400 career homers;
  • eighth player to reach the 400-homer milestone in a Yankee uniform (Babe Ruth, A-Rod, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Gary Sheffield, Alfonso Soriano);
  • fourth switch-hitter to reach the milestone (Chipper Jones, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray);
  • third Puerto Rican in the exclusive club (Carlos Delgado and Juan Gonzalez).

Beltran’s legacy is more than just homers, though, he’s one of the best all-around, five-tool players. There are now three players in major-league history with at least 400 homers, 75 triples, 1,000 walks and 300 stolen bases in a career: Beltran, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.

While Beltran provided the biggest milestone moment of the game, Chase Headley delivered the decisive blow with a two-out, pinch-hit RBI double in the bottom of the seventh that broke a 5-5 tie. It was his fifth go-ahead hit in the seventh inning or later since his debut in pinstripes on July 22, 2014. That’s tied with A-Rod for the most go-ahead hits in the seventh inning or later among Yankees during that span.

Drifting release points costing Betances deception, but it hasn’t mattered yet

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

After 122 starts and parts of eight seasons in the minors, the Yankees finally pulled the plug on Dellin Betances as a starting pitcher in Triple-A four years ago. His control problems were not going away — he walked 99 batters in 131.1 innings in 2012 — and there’s only so long you can wait for a guy to figure things out. It was time to make a change, so to the bullpen Betances went.

Dellin has been a revelation out of the bullpen. He dominated Triple-A as a reliever in 2013, made the Yankees out of Spring Training in 2014, and has remained a mainstay in the Circle of Trust™ ever since. His numbers over the last three seasons are just insane: 1.53 ERA (2.09 FIP) with 40.3% strikeout rate. Betances leads all relievers in strikeouts (293) — Andrew Miller is second with 226 (!) — and is second in bWAR (+7.5) behind Wade Davis (+7.8) since 2014. He’s been phenomenal.

Betances dominates hitters with an upper-90s fastball and a curveball that is the very definition of a knee-buckler. We’ve seen more than a few hitters jelly leg at the pitch only to watch it dart down the middle for a called strike. The fact Betances is also 6-foot-8 and releasing the ball that much closer to the plate helps things as well. As does the way he “tunnels” his pitches, meaning he throws the fastball and curve from the same spot.

That deception has been an underrated part of Dellin’s dominance these last few years. That deception, the ability to tunnel pitches from the same release point, has been fading, however. Here are his vertical and horizontal release points by month, via Brooks Baseball:

Dellin Betances vertical release point Dellin Betances horizontal release point

See how nice and tight together Dellin’s release points were back in 2014? The fastball and curve came from the exact same spot. So not only was the heater coming in at 98+ mph and the curveball breaking like mad, it was close to impossible to read the pitch out of his hand. Betances released both pitches from the same spot and hitters basically had to guess whether it would stay true (fastball) or break (curve). That’s why so many hitters buckled against the curve. It looked like a high fastball.

Last year Dellin’s release points started to gradually drift apart, and that has continued early season. He releases his fastball from one place and the curveball from another. Here’s a GIF showing his release points by year.

Dellin Betances release points

Again, back in 2014 his release points where right on top of each other. That’s good! Last year Dellin’s release point on the curve started to fade a little towards the third base side. This year the two release points don’t overlap at all. Astute hitters will pick up on this and have a better idea of what’s coming. (I’m not saying it’s easy to read his release points, but it’s possible.)

The called strike rate on Betances’ curveball dropped from 26.1% in 2014 to 22.2% last year. In the super early going this year his curve has a 25.2% called strike rate, so while it has ticked up from last season, we have to keep in mind this is a small sample. He’s thrown 143 curves this year. One outing could chance that 25.2% drastically in either direction.

Betances has thrown his curveball for a strike roughly 41% of the time since the start of 2014 and that rate has held steady. So has the rate of misses when hitters swing. That number is right around 50%, which is out of this world. Even with his release points drifting apart, Betances is still insanely good because his stuff is so overwhelming. He could tell hitters his curveball is coming and lots of them still wouldn’t be able to hit it.

As long as Betances isn’t hiding an injury, and there’s no reason to think he is, the change in release points is not an issue right now. And it might never be. I do think this is something to keep an eye on going forward though. Most pitchers gradually drop their arm slot over time because of wear and tear, but Betances is only doing it with his curve, not his fastball. He’s a guy who has fought his mechanics his entire career, remember. If Betances’ release points continue to drift apart, it could give hitters that much more of a fighting chance against him.

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.