Aroldis Chapman improbably pitched poorly enough this season to lose the closer job, but that doesn’t lessen his importance to the team.
His August was pretty dreadful as he allowed 14 baserunners and eight runs (three home runs) in eight innings, proving unreliable and forcing Joe Girardi to take him out of the closer’s role.
But after getting six days off after taking a loss on Aug. 25 vs. the Mariners, Chapman came back with a return to form starting with a low leverage outing against Boston on Sept. 1.
And now he’s back where he needs to be for the Yankees to be successful. You definitely don’t have to like Chapman, but he’s still essential to the Yankees’ postseason chances. While David Robertson and Dellin Betances can capably close, the team needs Chapman as their ninth inning man. Here’s why:
1. The contract: Let’s get this reason out of the way. In terms of the 2017 team, his contract is irrelevant. He’s a sunk cost and Girardi should go to his best relievers without worrying about the future.
But you can’t ignore the $68.8 million he’s owed after this season. With the Yankees aiming to get under the luxury tax, they need their top earners to play at a high level. Before Betances receives a raise via arbitration this winter, the Yankees will have $33.3 million tied up in their top three relievers.
They’ll have at least two openings in their rotation and trading either Robertson or Betances to both save money and fill a rotation spot would make some sense, although it’d be painful to trade one of those fan favorites. However, the front office can’t feel comfortable making that type of deal if Chapman continues to pitch like he did in August.
2. Weaponize the bullpen: Beyond Chapman’s contract, the return of something approximating his 2016 form would make the Yankees a deadly force this postseason.
Picture it: You can turn to Luis Severino in the Wild Card Game and feel comfortable going to the bullpen as early as the third or fourth inning, not that he would. Even without Adam Warren, Girardi can use Chad Green and get innings out of Robertson, Betances and Chapman in any one game, turning any early lead into wins with his cadre of relievers.
And with Severino teaming with Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka, the team has the ability to get relatively deep into games. That means Robertson and Betances can work as firemen and clear the way for Chapman. That’s certainly what Brian Cashman was dreaming up after the trade deadline. It just hasn’t worked out in the last 1.5 months because Chapman and now Betances have had rough patches.
How Chapman performs also could affect how Chad Green is used in the playoffs. He could be a caddy for the No. 4 starter, but he’s probably best used in the same way they’ve used him recently, taking early high leverage situations and then reeling off multiple innings. Warren can do this, too, but with him out, Green is the go-to first reliever out of the pen for any short outing.
If Chapman is August Chapman, that’s irrelevant. The Yankees then likely need Green as a late inning reliever, even with Tommy Kahnle in the pen, and Chasen Shreve could be the one coming in early this October. That’s not ideal.
3. Roster flexibility: Chapman in top form also enables the Yankees to carry more position players in a postseason series. Right now, the team appears set to go with 14 position players and 11 pitchers, adding Jordan Montgomery or someone like him as the long man in addition to all the names mentioned above. If Warren is out, then Shreve or Garcia could find their way onto the roster.
With Chapman pitching like he has this September (5.1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 10 K), the team can worry less about the last reliever on the roster and instead add a pinch runner like Tyler Wade or extra hitter in Tyler Austin, if not both.
The Bombers didn’t maintain much roster flexibility this season, often going with eight relievers. They should buck that trend for a series (Wild Card Game is a different animal), but you may need that 12th pitcher if one of your key cogs is unreliable, thus moving everyone up an inning.
4. Betances and Robertson as dual Andrew Millers: As they’ve proven plenty of times, both Betances and Robertson can close. It gets a little dicey at times with Betances and his 16.9 percent walk rate, but he tends to get the job done, recently outings notwithstanding.
This kind of piggybacks on point No. 2, but can you imagine how these two can be used if one isn’t tied to the ninth inning? Sure, it could end up being a traditional 7-8-9 of Robertson-Betances-Chapman, but Girardi has shown glimpses of a willingness to use his relievers more like Terry Francona has deployed his bullpen.
Take Monday and Wednesday for example: With his pitchers one out from a win, Girardi instead turned to two of his best relievers — Robertson and Green, respectively — to face Evan Longoria in a key situation. That’s not something we’ve seen all too often from Girardi and it’s a welcome sign.
The September roster expansion helped enable him to do that, but Chapman’s resurgence does as well. He’d do the Green move again for sure, but I feel Robertson would have been tied into later innings in a 5-1 game on Monday if Betances is the only other top reliever he trusts at the end.
While there won’t be an expanded roster in October, there will be enough off days to keep nearly everyone fresh. And that leaves Girardi to throw Robertson or Betances into any situation on any night. A flamethrowing and effective Chapman allows him to not worry about who he has left at the end. It also means he can pull either of his firemen if they’re ineffective as he did on Wednesday. Betances’ control problems are, therefore, less of a concern.
It’s tough to say which Chapman we’ll see next outing, let alone next month. Up until this April, he constituted just about the safest bet of any reliever, but that’s been thrown into question with his 3.71 ERA, multiple blown saves and lesser heat.
But if he continues to look more or less like a reliable reliever for the stretch run, even if he isn’t dominating quite the same, it’s worth keeping him in the closer role. And yes, you could go without a closer entirely, using any reliever in any situation, but the Yankees remain unlikely to eschew that tradition entirely. Assuming they don’t, Chapman is the man they need in the job if they’re going to make a run at a 28th title this fall.