One of the issues with the 2019 Yankees has been starting pitcher length. The starters overall have been excellent, but they are not getting deep in games. Yankee starters average 5.2 innings per start, and throw just over 80 pitches per game. Compare that to teams like the Astros and Dodgers, who average 5.7 and 5.9 average innings and over 90 pitches each, and you can see how that would be an issue. But I’m not here today to talk about why that is the case or how to fix it, but rather the impact it has on the other part of a team’s pitching staff: the bullpen.
Once again, the Yankees have an incredible bullpen, likely the best in baseball. Per Bobby at Views From 314 Ft, here is where the Yankee bullpen ranks in various metrics:
All of that is really, really good, especially the numbers about strikeouts and contact quality. Those are important because they are more predictive of future performance for relievers than statistics like ERA. And as usual, the Yankees have far and away the highest bullpen WAR of any team. So we know the bullpen has been excellent and that it has been used a lot, but has it been overused? Let’s take a look.
Here is a table showing the five main Yankee relievers G and IP thus far, their pace for the full season, and their career highs.
You can see how these five relievers are all on pace for over 65 games and over 60 innings. And Jonathan Holder is on pace for a ridiculous 78 innings. The reason I included their career highs is not to show what a reasonable workload is, but rather to show that if the Yankees do not make some changes, they are likely to have pitchers nearing or exceeding their career highs. For guys like Chapman, Ottavino, and Britton who are on the wrong side of 30, there will likely be a drop-off in performance as they approach those figures.
Another issue that is not encapsulated fully in this table is that most of these pitchers appeared in the playoffs last year which 1. Adds to their innings totals and 2. Shortened their off-seasons. If anything, you would want to further limit the amount of innings guys throw during the regular season so they are fresh and ready for the postseason, not worn down and at a new career high.
The main reason this has been the case so far is obvious: the lack of length from starting pitchers. The fewer innings starters throw, the more relievers naturally have to throw. The issue is we have very little reason to believe the Yankees’ starting pitchers will throw more innings per start. And the reason for that is the second reason why the bullpen has been overworked: starting pitcher injuries.
Without Luis Severino, the Yankees lost their guy who is known for going deep into games. When you could rely on him going into the 7th inning each start, it helped rest the bullpen for other games. Domingo German replaced Sevy in the rotation and did an incredible job, but he too is now injured. As you move further down the depth chart, you do not see an uptick in starter length because these pitchers are not as good. Chance Adams and Nestor Cortes Jr. are not going to average over 6 innings per start. I would love if they did, but I’m not holding my breath.
There are other injury concerns in the rotation which will only further exacerbate this issue. James Paxton and CC Sabathia have already spent time on the DL. J.A. Happ is up there in years and Masahiro Tanaka does not have an ironman reputation. The only saving grace for the Yankees right now is the eventual return of Severino and the potential return of Jordan Montgomery from Tommy John surgery. But neither of those is a sure thing, and we have no idea how effective either of them will be when they return. Plus, going deep into games is not a common trait of pitchers returning from injury.
I hate to beat a dead horse, but all of this makes passing on Dallas Keuchel even more egregious. No, he is no longer a Cy Young caliber pitcher, but he is a serviceable arm who will give you length and ease the burden on other pitchers. Plus he was further injury protection for the other starters. With the rotation as it is, I would look for Cashman to strike early in a trade rather than wait it out until near the trade deadline to make a move.
I know this article was supposed to focus on an overworked bullpen, so let’s end with some thoughts there. The bullpen has been excellent, but there are concerns moving forward with how overworked some of the main horses are. In fact, part of the reason the Yankees have such a high bullpen WAR is because they throw so many innings. WAR is a counting stat, which means the more you pitch, the more chances you have to increase it. The Yankees WAR is high because the bullpen has been great, but also because they have thrown so damn much.
You may have noticed Chad Green was not included in the table, and that is because he spent time in the minors which skewed his innings total. Now that he is back and pitching well, look for him to be heavily involved and ease the burden on the other guys. The issue, unfortunately, is that using him as an opener does not reduce late inning situations he could have otherwise appeared in. The real hope for the Yankees is that Dellin Betances can return and be his usual dominant self. But he just had a setback and there is a real possibility he will not pitch this year. The bullpen workload is certainly a concern, and I would look for Cashman to address pitching, pitching, and more pitching in the weeks to come.