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The Yankees shouldn’t have a Closer in 2017

With a pair of dominant relievers on hand, the Yankees should consider using Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman in more creative ways.

New York Yankees Workout Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Last offseason, the Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman in an effort to assemble a super bullpen. For the most part, it worked. During the first half of 2016, the Yankees’ trio of Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances combined for 108.2 innings, a 2.15 ERA, 1.60 FIP, and a 15.3 K/9 rate.

However, the way the Yankees deployed their bullpen was boring and conventional, as manager Joe Girardi essentially assigned each elite reliever a specific inning. Then, of course, the Yankees broke up that bullpen, as the front office decided to sell at the trade deadline, shipping out Miller and Chapman for potentially franchise-altering prospect hauls.

The Yankees have acquired Chapman again, and so have another chance to put an uber bullpen to work. Miller might be gone, but Chapman and Betances are so dominant that the Yankees’ relievers still project as 2nd best in the major leagues according to FanGraphs.

Given a second opportunity to deploy multiple ace relievers, will Girardi and the Yankees get more creative? If reliever usage across pretty much all of baseball history is an indication, then probably not. Still, with a pair of incredible relievers that throw from opposite sides, forgoing the traditional closer role and using Chapman and Betances in unconventional ways should be something the Yankees consider in 2017.

First, there are platoon splits to consider. Chapman has crushed both right-handed and left-handed hitters, but right-handers still have a relative advantage against him. For his career, lefties have hit a minuscule .122/.237/.155 against Chapman with just one home run, while righties have hit a marginally better .166/.270/.251, with 18 total home runs.

Somewhat strangely, Betances hasn’t had much of a platoon split. Betances did hold right-handers to an OPS 100 points lower than left-handers in 2016, but for his career righties (.167/.268/.271) and lefties (.180/.254/.258) have very similar lines against Betances. Digging a little deeper, Betances has posted a 40.8 K% and a 11.4 BB% against righties, and a 38.8 K% and 8.1 BB% against lefties.

So for his career, Betances hasn’t actually pitched any better versus righties, but as the sample sizes for Betances against both sides are still pretty small, it might be safer to assume he’ll pitch righties tougher than lefties going forward. In Chapman’s case, there’s every reason to believe he will continue to be a relative nightmare for lefties.

With this in mind, it would seem that Girardi should play the matchups when choosing when to use which elite reliever. He did not take that tact in 2016. For example, in a game against the Mariners two weeks into the season, Betances pitched the eighth inning and faced three lefties, while Miller faced a pair of righties in the ninth.

A couple weeks later against the Red Sox, Betances entered in the eighth inning to face two lefties, one of them David Ortiz. Miller then was forced to face several righties in the ninth. In both of these games, the Yankees went on to win, underscoring that using Chapman and Betances based on matchups would only help the Yankees by a few percentage points here and there, but those advantages on the margin are what a manager like Girardi should be hunting for.

Additionally, when Miller went to Cleveland, he, manager Terry Francona, and reliever Cody Allen laid out the blueprint for how to leverage a super bullpen. Francona mixed and matched in unprecedented fashion, bringing Miller into games as early as the fifth and sixth innings, occasionally alternating Miller and Allen in the ninth inning, and allowing his relievers to pitch multiple innings when needed.

If Girardi can get similar buy-in from his relievers, such creative usage cannot be discounted. However, even though Betances has been a good soldier that has done everything that has been asked of him by the Yankees, Chapman has previously expressed a disdain for non-traditional reliever usage. Chapman was openly critical of Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s unconventional usage of him in the playoffs, though to be fair, Maddon’s decision-making during the playoffs was at times curious, to say the least.

Plus, even though Miller and Francona seemed to make it look easy, actually deploying elite relievers in an optimal way is challenging. There is no magic button that a manager can press to get his relievers warmed up and ready in an instant, and it is impossible to predict exactly when the highest leverage moments in a game will come up. Over at Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carlton examined these difficulties, and found that, after accounting for warm-up time, there was simply no easy way to predict when the best situation to bring one’s best reliever in would occur.

Even so, the Yankees have two relievers that could arguably be referred to as the best in the game. If Girardi brings in Betances into a seventh inning jam, only for another high leverage situation to arise in a later inning, well, he has the luxury of another elite arm waiting in the wings. Plus, as Betances and Chapman throw from opposite sides, Girardi can afford to play matchups in an effort to best deploy his players. There are logistical difficulties with these kinds of strategies, not the least of which are getting players warm and even convincing them to buy-in, but with so much invested in the bullpen, the Yankees have to at least consider using their best relievers in an unusual manner.