Yankees Bullpen Plan Yielding Early Returns

The New York Yankees entered the 2016 season with two obvious, potential flaws. They have an aged offensive core that is at high risk for injury. And, the rotation has the potential to be a disaster. Just six games into the season, the potential rotation problems can be seen. Yet, the team’s bullpen plan has already started to cover for that potentially flawed rotation.

In many ways, the first six games of the Yankees season have played out exactly as one could have forseen this Spring. The offense has scored more than enough runs to be competitive. Yankees’ batters rank fourth in both runs scored, home runs, and slugging percentage. The group ranks second in on base percentage. The offense is unquestionably talented. If the majority of the group can take the field, the Yankees will not have trouble scoring runs.

Predictably, the rotation hasn’t given tremendous results. Of the Yankees’ five starters, only one — CC Sabathia — has reached the seventh inning. No other starter has pitched into the sixth inning. While all but Masahiro Tanaka have yet to make a second start, the fact that the Yankees are 4–2 in the early going has everything to do with the bullpen. The New York rotation has pitched just 31.1 innings thus far, slightly more than five innings per start. Only the Cleveland Indians’ starters have pitched less (29.1), but that is explained by the fact that Tribe have played one less game. Their 5.97 ERA is second worst through the first week of games, besting only the Boston Red Sox.

[caption id=”attachment_109" align=”alignleft” width=”300"]

Miller has picked up right where he left off in 2015.[/caption]

Again, it’s early and there is some talent in the rotation. The group will pitch better. However, the idea that the Yankees will get consistent legnth from this rotation isn’t realistic. That’s why the bullpen is so important. It’s why Brian Cashman went out and traded for Aroldis Chapman and held onto Andrew Miller. It’s why sixth starter Ivan Nova is so important.

Thus far, even without Chapman, the Yankees’ bullpen is living up to expectations. The group has pitched 21.1 innings and posted a Major League best 0.84 ERA and second best FIP of 1.72. The pen leads the Majors with a 37.7 percent strike out rate and is sixth with a 5.9 walk rate. It also leads Major League Baseball in eliciting soft contact at a 34 percent rate.

The dynamic duo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller have already combined for 7 innings and 15 strikeouts against 2 walks and 4 hits allowed. Chasen Shrieve has made three appearances and has allowed just two baserunners in 3.1 innings of work. In Ivan Nova’s one long relief appearance, he spun 4 shut out innings.

Of course, there is the risk that the bullpen burns out. But, Cashman’s plan has two positives. First, the underbelly of the bullpen can be shuttled back and forth with the Triple-A club, allowing for the middle relief to be contiually fresh. And, most obvious, Aroldis Chapman will be back in a couple of weeks. With the trio of Betances, Miller, and Chapman, the Yankees will be looking to simply piece together six innings on many nights. That will allow for that flawed rotation to not only contribute, but peform well in a limited role. The presence of Chapman will also allow either Betances or Miller to be rested a bit more rather than pitch in every high leverage situation.

Not much can be ascertained from six games. But, those six games have played out much like the Yankees seemed to have planned (based on roster construction). While the bullpen will become a bit more human, it won’t regress all that much. With three elite level relievers, there is the realistic expectation of stability. And, with eventual improvement from the rotation, there will be more occasion to rest the bullpen.

In a very tough division, every win counts, even in April. The Yankees have already ridden their bullpen to four of them. That narrative is one that will be played out all summer if the club expects to be in contention for a playoff spot.