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Ask Pinstripe Alley 4/6/19: Sabathia to the bullpen, Chapman’s velocity, and Ottavino’s workload

The first mailbag of the season has arrived in your inbox.

Welcome to our first mailbag of the season! We received several interesting submissions, and we’ll get to as many of them as we can below.

y4nkees asks: If German continues to pitch well, does he take CC’s spot in the rotation and move CC to the pen?

My sense is that this sort of “problem” is the kind that would sort itself out. If Domingo German pitches well with consistency, the Yankees will surely find use for him, most likely in the rotation.

The odds that CC Sabathia and Luis Severino return quickly and without complication, German continues to pitch well enough to demand a rotation spot, and no one else in the rotation goes down, are slim to none, unfortunately. The Yankees needed 12 pitchers to make at least one start last year, and the fact that every team needs several starters to navigate the season means that a German that’s pitching well will likely find a way to stick in the starting five.

That being said, if there is a stretch in which the Yankees’ projected top-five starters are all healthy at once, I’d imagine the team would shift German to the bullpen for a time before they asked someone like Sabathia to pitch in relief. Setting aside the fact that Sabathia has long been a starter and has zero experience pitching out of the bullpen, unlike German, Sabathia simply doesn’t have the stuff that suggests he would perform much better in relief.

According to Statcast, Sabathia’s fastball breached 94 mph just once last year. Both his four-seamer and his sinker barely averaged more than 90 mph. He does not profile as the kind of pitcher that could reach back and find something extra if tasked with covering short stints. German, on the other hand, can touch the upper-90’s, and has flitted between the rotation and the bullpen in the past. I’d guess, on the rare occasions when the Yankees have five healthy starters, that German would take a spell as a multi-inning reliever before Sabathia would.

RJ Richards asks: I’m concerned about Chapman and Gardy, to the point I don’t feel good about either any longer. Do you feel they will be a concern this season?

I’ll leave the aside the question of Brett Gardner, as any concern about him is pretty much the same concern that existed at the end of last season; he’s aging, and may not be able to carry the load of an every day player in the outfield.

The story is different with Aroldis Chapman, as new concerns have arisen regarding his velocity. Chapman’s loss in fastball velocity is absolutely something the Yankees should be worried about going forward.

With the help of Statcast, I did a little research and looked at the 141 pitchers that threw at least 500 four-seam fastballs last season and have thrown at least 10 more this season. Among those pitchers, Chapman’s velocity decrease, from 98.7 mph to 96.3, is the fourth-largest. Only Matt Strahm, Reynaldo Lopez, and Chris Sale have seen bigger losses in velocity from last season to 2019.

That’s just too big of a drop to ignore. Chapman probably can still be highly effective with a velocity decrease, but that kind of enormous drop opens up all kinds of questions. With Chapman holding an opt-out after 2019, this season is hugely important for both player and team. He needs to either gain strength as the season goes on, or prove he can still dominate with hugely diminished velocity.

y4nkees asks: Boone has used Ottavino 4 out of 5 games so far and he has pitched great. Do you think that this over-usage will result in a rough ending to the season for him?

To be fair, this question was asked four days ago, and Adam Ottavino hasn’t pitched since, so he’s had a fair bit of time to breathe. Even so, Ottavino carried a heavy workload last year, and I think the question as to how he holds up over the course of a season is worth exploring.

Ottavino appeared in 75 games in 2018 for the Rockies, seventh-most in the majors. His workload was pretty constant throughout the year, posting at least 10 innings in every month save for June, in which he pitched 9.2 innings.

In some ways, that workload does seem to have worn on him. Ottavino was absolutely sensational early on, posting a 1.40 ERA through July, before running his two worst months at the end of the year, with his ERA ballooning to 4.44 across August and September. Purely from a runs-allowed perspective, Ottavino looked like he wore out at the end of the season.

On the other hand, most of Ottavino’s underlying indicators held up even under duress. His average fastball velocity sat at 95.1 mph in September, above his season average of 94.2 mph, indicating he still was as physically strong as ever at the season’s conclusion. Plus, though his ERA was inflated, Ottavino held hitters to a microscopic .167/.304/.289 slash line in August and September. He was a little worse than during the season’s early months, but still excellent on a per-plate-appearance basis, in spite of a higher ERA.

In all, I think the fact that Ottavino’s velocity stayed strong all year, combined with the fact that he still ran great underlying numbers even as his ERA rose, indicates that Ottavino stood strong under a huge workload. So yes, Aaron Boone has used Ottavino plenty so far, but given his performance in 2018, Ottavino looks like he should be up to the task.