Consider this: going into the 2016 season, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and Aroldis Chapman, the three best pitchers on this year’s reliever market, made $10.65 million, $9.65 million, and $11.3 million respectively via arbitration. Now, consider something else: Bryan Shaw and Pedro Strop, who are entering their final years of arbitration, are projected to make $4.5 million and $5.5 million in 2017, respectively. It’s not hard to see that the former three are the better pitchers, and they are getting paid for it. But a big difference, as far as arbitration salaries go, is one thing: how many saves do you have?
Jeff Wiser over at Beyond the Box Score put this well in 2013, and even he knew how much of a bargain someone like Strop could be:
“They [arbitration salaries] are generally derived from counting the number of saves or holds accumulated by the pitcher in the most recent (platform) season, with past save and/or hold counts also used for consideration. Other stats, like ERA and strikeouts play a supporting role. The reliever going through arbitration is then compared to recent, similar relievers and a salary is determined... the Cubs used an incredibly mediocre Kevin Gregg to ‘save’ games while they let a very good Pedro Strop set him up. If they had allowed Strop to pick up the saves after coming over from Baltimore, they would likely be paying him over $2.5 million in 2014 instead of the $1 million that he’s projected to earn this season...”
Now let’s think about Dellin Betances. With Chapman back into the fold as the Yankees’ primary closer, the debate around whether that move in isolation was a good one, both from an on-field and off-the-field perspective, will rage on indefinitely. One byproduct that could come out of this move, one that may not be appreciated fully until we’re a couple of years in, is how much having a consistent closer, whether it was Chapman or Jansen, helps Betances.
Betances may only have 22 saves in his career, but he is still one of the best relievers in baseball. Since 2014 among relievers, he is: 5th in ERA-, 4th in FIP-, and 1st in fWAR. No reliever has pitched more innings, and none have more strikeouts. There’s just only so many ways that I can say that he’s great.
There are degrees of great, of course. While there is no evidence he does worse in save situations, there are quite a few reasons why keeping him in a fireman role makes perfect sense. The first one is that he’s really good, and he throws a lot of innings. That could have been the whole article, but it’s really that reasonable. He is one of the best relievers in the league, and one of his strengths is pitching a lot of innings, so allowing him to do so only maximizes one of his best strengths.
The other reason, which I prefaced before, is arbitration costs. Keeping him in non-save situations is fine because leverage is often independent of whether there is a save situation, and the ninth inning is just more expensive in general. It’s likely a wash because Chapman is just so expensive, but it’s still a factor: without saves, the Yankees will probably save a few million dollars in arbitration costs.
That doesn’t mean it’s without risk. Betances is notorious for slowing down down the stretch (1.85 ERA in the first half vs. 2.58 ERA in the second half), and arm fatigue can be troubling for a young reliever. Then again, he has still pitched phenomenally, and because relievers are quickly diminishing assets, it makes sense to make the most of it in the present—not that Joe Girardi doesn’t do a good job with managing workload.
Overall I think the Chapman is a questionable one, for reasons I could enumerate at length ad nauseum. But if there’s one bright side, it’s that we’ll get to see more of Dellin Betances. And if we get to see more Betances, then this bullpen is “shutdown” for at least the last six outs. If only Hal Steinbrenner and company focused more heavily on the other 21.