2016 Statistics: 5 G, 25.0 IP, 3.24 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 3.96 K/9, 4.32 BB/9, 0.4 fWAR
2017 Roster Status: Pre-arbitration
As Bryan Mitchell began 2016 spring training with the Yankees, his role with the club was uncertain to say the least. There was a chance he would start in the bullpen as a middle reliever with high leverage upside, but he also had a slim shot at winning the fifth starter job over CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. Then again, there was a non-zero chance Mitchell could be demoted to Triple-A to be groomed as a starter.
Mitchell answered the questions with 15.2 dominant innings (three starts and three relief appearances), allowing just one run while striking out 12 and walking three. Hype began to build around the 25-year old, but any excitement was quickly snuffed out when he suffered a fractured sesamoid bone at the end of March that was expected to keep him out until August.
Considering this injury, the fact that Mitchell even logged more than a handful of innings is an accomplishment. At one point, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t even confident Mitchell would return to the big leagues, yet the righty threw 25 solid innings out of the rotation at the end of the season.
The results weren’t exactly spectacular, but one can do much worse than Mitchell’s 3.24 ERA over the five starts. Although Mitchell walked more than he struck out while starting (11 strikeouts to 12 walks), the overall results were a pleasant surprise given the fact that he didn’t throw a pitch until August 8th (on a rehab assignment in Low-A).
Rather than looking at the small sample size over five emergency September starts, though, it may be more helpful to break down his stuff. Most notable was that he showed decreased velocity, with the fastball trending down from 96.7 mph in 2015 to 95.3 last season. This can partly be attributed to the injury, but the real reason for the drop was his usage as a starter (opposed to a reliever in 2015). While it would be reasonable to expect his velocity to rise a bit next season with health, a fastball sitting around 95 out of the rotation (compared to a tick or two higher as a reliever) is likely.
Also interesting is Mitchell’s pitch mix: the changeup was all but curbed, and he instead worked as a fastball/cutter/curveball pitcher in 2016. This isn’t a death sentence for the former 16th round pick, but sticking as a starter will be more challenging with the thin repertoire. That said, he brings legitimate weapons with the high velocity fastball and cutter. In addition, the curveball is a solid groundball pitch.
Still, Mitchell’s pitch arsenal may not be enough for him to turn over the lineup more than once. His fastball, despite its great velocity, was tattooed in 2015, so Mitchell may be showing symptoms of Nathan Eovaldi syndrome. Without other pitches for batters to worry about (the curveball and cutter haven’t induced many whiffs), the opposition can sit on the fastball. Also troubling is Mitchell’s wavering command, which resulted in a BB/9 hovering near five in 2015. His minor league walk rate isn’t much better, and Mitchell didn’t exactly show pinpoint precision in his cup of coffee last year.
All of these concerns add up and make it unlikely that Mitchell is a starting pitcher long term. Although he’ll likely get his chance to make the rotation out of spring training (considering there are two spots up for grabs), the thin repertoire and shaky control make it much more likely Mitchell is a reliever. Maybe Mitchell can improve the changeup and make it a legitimate pitch, but expecting that development is unrealistic. Mitchell would still be valuable in a bullpen role, as the Yankees certainly need relief help and Mitchell’s fastball/curveball combination could prove deadly in short stints.