Earlier this week, the Yankees clarified their plans for top prospect Justus Sheffield. He will pitch out of the bullpen for the immediate future. This decision comes after months of speculation surrounding the left-hander’s eventual role with the big league team.
“Hopefully he can play a part in our pen [sic] down the stretch and give value toward the end of the season,’’ Aaron Boone told George King of the New York Post.
Some fans may wonder why the Yankees have yet to promote Sheffield. Consider me among them, as I advocated for his call up as recently as August 2nd. There are several reasons why this move makes sense now, and they’re worthy exploring in more detail.
The Yankees want to manage Sheffield’s innings
Sheffield occupies a lofty place in the Yankees’ eyes. They envision him as a starter who will one day pitch towards the front of the rotation. He figures to take over as the crown jewel of the Andrew Miller trade, if he hasn’t done so already.
With that in mind, the Yankees want to make sure he’s in the best position to succeed, not just this season, but for years to come. The strategic management of innings plays a critical role in a pitcher’s development. Teams want to increase workload, but in a controlled fashion, in a way that doesn’t lead to overuse injuries.
Prior to making his first relief appearance on Tuesday, Sheffield logged 108.2 innings. For context, he only tossed 98 innings last season. His career high came back in 2015, when he maxed out at 127.2 frames. Had he remained in the rotation, Sheffield had a chance to eclipse that mark. He almost certainly would have if he ended up on the Yankees’ starting staff. There’s no need to blow past that mark now, not when he has plenty of development time ahead of him.
He lacks command to start right now
Sheffield has impressed across the board since joining the organization. He profiled as a mid-rotation arm at the time of the trade, and now he projects as more of a frontline starter. Consider this excerpt from MLB Pipeline’s scouting report on the left-hander:
“Sheffield could have three plus pitches when all is said and done. His 92-97 mph fastball features some run and sink and is his most consistent offering, though his mid-80s slider may have more upside. His changeup isn’t as reliable as his first two options, yet he still shows the ability to miss bats with it.”
The only knock in Sheffield’s game, however, is poor command. He owns an 11.0% walk rate. which is pretty high. He puts far too many baserunners on via the free pass, something that would haunt him at the major league level. Some evaluators have attributed this shortcoming to inconsistent mechanics.
“My impressions, even going back to last year, is that he always seems to have one inning where he comes out of his delivery. It looks like he gets too amped up and the plate starts moving on him (he loses command) and his pitches get flat and that’s where the bulk of his walks come from,” a scout told Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News.
As a reliever, however, his stuff should play up. Plus, those command problems may not loom as large. He could pitch exclusively out of the stretch, thus streamlining his delivery and making it easier to repeat.
The bullpen opens the door to a postseason role
If the bullpen represents the key to Sheffield’s big league debut, it could also prove his ticket to the playoffs. Imagine a scenario where the 22-year-old made a few starts out of the Yankees’ rotation. It’s a long shot he pitches well enough to crack the postseason roster, right? The team would almost assuredly go with experienced starters should they advance to the ALDS.
Perhaps the Yankees move him into the bullpen in the playoffs. In that scenario, however, he will have no experience in relief. That’s something that can take time to get used to. Would they want to push him right into the deep end? I’m not so sure about that.
Having cut his teeth in the big league bullpen, however, Sheffield could pitch his way on to the playoff roster. That would be a bonus, of course, as the main goal is getting him acclimated to the majors, Nonetheless, it would be cool if he got the chance to help the Yankees in the postseason.