The Yanks avoided a potentially dreadful start to the season with five straight wins this week, mainly behind the bat of Aaron Judge and brilliant starts by Michael Pineda and Luis Severino. The banged-up Bombers seem to be holding their own while waiting for some of their big bats to return from injury.
A major contributor for the Yanks so far has been the bullpen (which was to be expected). Aroldis Chapman earned his first save of the season on Tuesday (and has since added two more), while the supporting cast has put together a solid team effort to give the bullpen a 0.89 ERA through the first nine games of the season, which is tops in baseball.
The impressive stats don’t end there. The pen has held hitters to a putrid .167 batting average while surrendering only five walks through 30 1⁄3 innings pitched. Dellin Betances has struck out a third of the batters he has faced, while Adam Warren has been impressive with his seven strikeouts and no earned runs through his first six innings of work this season.
The bullpen performance is certainly something to be happy about, but it’s up to the starting pitching to keep it a strength of the team.
If the arms that precede the bullpen make too many early exits, the strength of the bullpen is bound to become a glaring weakness. We have seen electric arms like Betances put up All-Star caliber seasons before wearing down in the final month of the season due to overuse. This was obvious last year as Betances was used heavily while Joe Girardi tried to keep the Yanks in the Wild Card race, and Betances (understandably) was not able to hold up.
During the Cubs’ historic championship run, Chapman was heavily utilized and faltered in the World Series. He since expressed his lack of desire to pitch more than the ninth inning.
If those two arms are tired out by August, the Yanks would have no chance to compete for a Wild Card spot. At the rate these starting pitchers are going, they bullpen arms could experience fatigue even earlier than that.
Yankee starters have reached the sixth inning just four times in ten starts to start the season, although they have experienced three straight quality starts this week. Masahiro Tanaka has experienced a disappointing start to the season, while Pineda was rocked in his first outing before twirling a beauty on Monday. Knowing Pineda, his next start could very well look like his first of the year. CC Sabathia has been a horse his entire career, but his age and new style of pitching may decrease his work load ability.
The last three starts by Yankee pitching should be an encouraging sign. I mentioned Pineda’s performance, and last night could be a great sign that Severino is working his way back to his 2015 form with seven strong innings and 11 strikeouts. Fellow youngster Jordan Montgomery showed promise in his first major league start as well.
It would be huge if Pineda can build off of his unbelievable performance, but history shows that another roller coaster year could be in the cards for him. I expect Tanaka to return to form eventually (and his start last night showed signs of that), but expected quality starts from one pitcher isn’t enough. The Yanks hope Severino can become another reliable starter and provide some more rotation stability.
Of course, excessive bullpen use doesn’t just mean arm fatigue. It means more appearances, which means more chances for teams to see these pitchers and get a feel for their repertoire. Basically, nothing good comes from starters exiting after four or five innings on a consistent basis.
The bullpen is something the Yanks can hang their hat on, at least for now. However, if the starting pitching doesn’t find some consistent longevity, we could see an unfortunate change in that narrative.
What does everyone think? Has the rotation turned the corner this week, or is the workload of the bullpen going to be a concern down the road?