Three months ago, I wrote about how the bullpen was overworked and that it will become an issue for the Yankees at some point this season. The trend in baseball of using starters less has lead to using the high-leverage relievers for more innings. The Yankees have assembled an all-time great bullpen, and they should use this strength to shorten games. And to this point, it has worked. As of this writing, the Yankees have the best record in the AL and trail the Dodgers by only 0.5 games for the overall best record. But it has come at a cost, and that cost is the high toll on the back-end bullpen guys.
In that earlier article, I had a table showing the pace that various relievers were on pace for, and how that pace compared to their career highs. Here is that table again:
In that table, you can see how Chapman, Ottavino, Britton, and Khanle were all on pace to approach their career highs, which is concerning for two reasons.
These guys are all getting older. Chapman, Otto, and Britton are all on the wrong side of 30, and that is not the time to set new career highs. They are all past their physical primes and there are fewer bullets left in those arms than there were when the career highs were set.
The Yankees’ hope to make a deep postseason run. That entails more innings. If you already are near or set a career high in the regular season, you will only add to it in the postseason. That could shatter previous career highs which may lead to ineffectiveness when it matters most in October.
I’ve recreated that same table with stats through yesterday’s game to get a better sense of if these guys are still being overworked, or if the Yankees have pulled back.
So the good news is that Chapman, Ottavino, and Britton have been used less often lately and their on-pace-for stats are lower. The bad news is Tommy Kahnle is still on pace to set a new career high in innings. He has been insanely good this year and it is hard not to use him.
The other piece of bad news is that these are still some serious high usage rates. Ottavino is still on pace to appear in nearly 75 games! As a rule of thumb, you don’t want relievers appearing in more than 65-70 games. He and Kahnle are both on pace for 75 appearances. Every time a pitcher warms up and enters the game, it takes a toll. Even if they only face one or two batters, they exert a lot of energy.
Last time, I included Jonathan Holder in the table, and this time I swapped him out for Chad Green because Holder is injured and (thankfully) no longer pitching high-leverage innings. As for Green, he looks okay workload-wise. He is on pace for about 65 MLB innings, most of which come as the opener. He did have a stint in AAA, but I did not include those numbers because they occur in a low-stress environment and his workload was carefully scheduled and monitored while down there.
The Good News
There are two really fortunate things happening for the Yankees in the near future when it comes to bullpen management. First is roster expansion on September 1. When that happens, look for a parade of AAA arms to come up and take every inning other than the ones in close games (and probably even in some of the close games, to give the big guys a breather). Nobody should be overworked in September because of the generous roster provisions.
The second piece is that help is on the way. As Joe wrote last week, Dellin Betancesis nearing a return! That is great because Dellin is arguably the best pitcher in the Yankees bullpen. Because he’s my favorite player, here are some stats and metrics to wow you from Joe’s article:
Nothing makes me giddier than Dellin blowing his fastball by guys and locking them up with his curve. He is scheduled to throw sim games this week, and hopefully he comes back by mid-September. Having him down the stretch the last couple weeks of the year and in October will greatly help reduce the strain on the other guys in the pen because Dellin is not some AAA fodder, he is a high-leverage guy.
Chasing the best record in baseball to secure home field advantage in the playoffs is important. Look at the 2017 ALCS, where the Yankees won all 3 games at home but lost the series because Houston won all 4 down there. But home field advantage shouldn’t come at the expense of over-using high-leverage relievers, because then they won’t be effective in October. Hopefully roster expansion and the return of Dellin Betances can mitigate their usage and get the Yankees nice and rested for a long playoff run.