Our next Pinch Hitter is a one-two punch. Max Frankel and Sean Morash run a (mostly) baseball blog called Off The Bench. They’re both former college baseball players, and for the past five years, their blog has worked to “present original content from a unique viewpoint, offering insights into how the game is played and how it could be played better.” Max and Sean wrote that they’ve addressed issues ranging from the role of politics in sports to the best way to grip a curveball. You can follower them at @blogoffthebench on Twitter and at offthebenchbaseball.com.
For their post, Max and Sean take a look at the Yankees’ dominant late-inning bullpen trio in search of the best way to utilize such a set of relievers.
The Yankees Have Baseball’s Best Bullpen, Now How Do They Use It?
Before I really sink my teeth into the meat of this New York Yankees bullpen sandwich, I have to note that Aroldis Chapman is currently under investigation for a domestic violence incident. For the purposes of this post, I will largely be ignoring any potential disciplinary action against Chapman as it is impossible to predict at this point. Commissioner Manfred has never levied a domestic violence suspension, so there is no precedent for how many games a player might be suspended in a situation like this. Internet conjecture that Chapman might miss 50 or 100 games, is just that, conjecture.
What we can say with some certainty is this: With Chapman, for however many games he’s eligible, the Yankees have a bullpen unlike any other. Teamed with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, Chapman gives the Yankees a collection of shutdown relievers perhaps unrivaled in baseball history.
Last season, Chapman, Miller, and Betances were 1st, 2nd, and 4th in strikeout percentage in MLB, and among pitchers with a minimum of 60 innings, all three were in the top five in fewest earned runs , top 10 in fewest hits allowed, top 15 in lowest ERA, and top 10 in WAR from relievers (Betances was No. 1).
In short, the Yankees have three of baseball’s five best relief pitchers.
That’s probably a good thing because the Yankees’ starting rotation is going to be a bit of a struggle. Rumor had it the front office had been working all winter to bolster the starting staff. Apparently, they made very little progress as the rotation today is the same as it was last week and last month and the month before that.
Given the price the Yanks paid for Chapman, it seems this opportunity kind of fell into their laps, and they reasoned that strengthening the pitching staff would be a positive, no matter how it happened.
If that’s the case, they made the right call and a savvy move.
The Yankees’ rotation right now consists of Masahiro Tanaka, an ace with some injury questions; Michael Pineda, a streaky but talented pitcher; two potential innings eaters in Ivan Nova and Nathan Eovaldi; and a huge question mark in CC Sabathia. They also have Luis Severino, who showed promise in his rookie year but is likely not a rotation stabilizer.
Given the unpredictability of this staff — it could be pretty well above average or an absolute catastrophe — it is easy to get excited about the prospect of essentially shortening games to six innings before turning the ball over to Betances, Miller, and Chapman to nail down the final nine outs.
That type of dominant 1-2-3 punch in the back of the bullpen is, of course, what propelled the Royals to the World Series in 2014 and helped get them a title last season. However, we’d argue that dogmatically establishing, for instance, Betances the 7th-inning guy, Miller the 8th, and Chapman the 9th — as Royals manager Ned Yost did with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland — would be a big mistake.
While Yost saw success with his late-game formula, he was often criticized for his inflexibility, and while it is really enticing to hand the ball to a super-trio and forget about it, it makes more sense to base pitching decisions on in-game situations rather than inning assignments.
Girardi likes his Roles
In 2014, Betances pitched 70 games for the Yankees and had a 1.40 ERA. He was stellar, and as the Yankees learned more and more about how special he was, his usage changed.
At first, through the end of June, Betances pitched in the sixth and seventh innings nearly as much as he pitched in the eighth or ninth. He was manager Joe Girardi’s hottest reliever, and Girardi used him whenever the situation dictated a show of force.
However, as the season wore on, and it became clear that Betances wasn’t just hot. He was, in fact, the Yankees’ best relief pitcher, and he took on more of a traditional setup role. After July 1, 2014, Betances had just one appearance before the seventh inning.
That trend continued in 2015 when Betances did not throw one pitch before the seventh inning and most of his outings involved pitching in the eighth. He had just two appearances in which he did not pitch in the eighth. Although Betances was just as spectacular in 2015 (he didn’t allow a single earned run until the middle of June), he frequently pitched in four and five-run games and once pitched in a 13-3 victory over the Red Sox (one of the instances in which he did not pitch the eighth).
It is clear that Betances was pitching when it was his turn to pitch, with some regard to game situation, but certainly with the “setup man” label in mind.
||Entered 7th or earlier
||Entered 8th or earlier
||% of games 8th or later
|First half 2014
|Second half 2014
On the Platoon Splits
Two parts of the Yankees’ three-headed bullpen monster happen to pitch left handed, and as a result, Girardi is in a great position to maximize his bullpen’s potential platoon advantage. While none of the big three show any real weakness, the team would be wise to work to maximize their strengths.
Again, this requires some flexibility and a willingness to deviate from the usual late-game script. Below are lefty-righty splits for the 2015 season:
||Ave vs. RHB
||OPS vs. RHB
||Ave vs. LHB
||OPS vs. LHB
With two lefties and a do-it-all righty, Girardi has the ability to mix and match against sluggers late in games. Though Betances and Miller don’t obviously conform to conventional wisdom about pitchers having more success against batters of the same handedness, its likely that these stats are more the product of small samples than a larger trend. Since all three are extremely effective when facing batters of either handedness (all the numbers in the chart above are just ridiculous), Girardi can focus on matching his pitchers against batters who may fare significantly worse against pitchers of a certain type.
So What’s the Formula?
Now that Girardi has a new late-inning shutdown toy to play with, he could easily do the Yostean thing and simply slide Betances into the seventh inning, follow the script and crack a cold one with his work complete.
What he should do, however, is use Betances more like an old school “fireman” reliever, a term coined for pitchers who came out of the bullpen to put out whatever fire was burning, regardless of inning or silly title. This fireman reliever may not have a designated inning, but he’s capable of getting outs in any situation. The cookie cutter approach used by Yost should be replaced by a more fluid, matchup-and-situation tact.
If Masahiro Tanaka has done his job through six innings and seems to be tiring, it’d be really great to turn the ball over to three of the best one-inning pitchers we’ve seen and watch them work. I’m in no way advocating that Girardi avoid “going Yost” when the situation presents itself, but Girardi would be wise to not even hesitate to get Betances — or one of the other two big guns if that’s how the platoon advantage dictates — in the game early if the situation demands it.
That Girardi has already named Chapman his “closer” entering spring training is the first sign that he’s heading toward a rigid approach. Screwing with the late-game formula is a welcome policy if it leads to more wins.
While that might seem obvious to most fans, baseball is a copycat game. Whenever one team finds a formula that seems to work, others scramble to put their spin on it (see the Moneyball strategy and an emphasis on high on-base percentage hitters, for an obvious example).
Yost, like Girardi now, has had a lights-out triumvirate in the back of his bullpen for most of two seasons and used it a certain way, to great and undeniable success.
If the Yankees are smart, they’ll ignore KC’s success, despite what the Royals have accomplished. There’s a better way to do things.
Associated Press photo