According to major league rules, the 26-man roster must be split evenly between pitchers and hitters. Of course, although this rule has technically been in place since after the 2019 season, you’re forgiven if you had forgotten it, since it was suspended in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic and has yet to come into play in 2022 because of the special roster rules for the month of April because of the shortened spring training.
Between the 28-man roster and the suspension of the cap on pitchers, the Yankees have been able to keep just a three-man bench and instead carry 16 pitchers on the roster for the month of April. The logic behind this 11-man bullpen was fairly simple. With starting pitchers only having three weeks to get themselves stretched out, they were going to be on strict pitch limits in their first few starts, while the relievers did not have much time to get themselves accustomed to pitching on back-to-back days. The extra arms, therefore, would allow for the quick hook to be largely painless, virtually eliminating the chances of running out of pitchers in a game.
So far, this strategy has worked out to perfection for the Yankees. Despite the fact that, headed into action yesterday, the Yankees had seen their starter go more than five innings just once, they were fourth in baseball in runs per game at 2.86, all the while facing the potent Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays lineups. The parade of arms has more than done its job, allowing Aaron Boone to feel comfortable not pushing his starters too quickly and thus keeping them both healthy and effective as they continue to build up.
That said, with the off-day on Monday, it’s time for the Yankees to send down a pitcher and bring the bench to full strength. Assuming that they are increasing pitch limits by 15 each turn through the rotation, which is what David Cone has been saying on the YES broadcasts is the standard, all five starters will be built up to 90+ pitches for their third start. After the stretch of 10 games in 10 days to start the season, the bullpen won’t be nearly as hard-pressed for the final two weeks of April.
Based on how Boone has used both his bullpen and bench, in fact, having a fourth bench piece is a better use of resources than an 11th arm. Seven games into the season, Clarke Schmidt and JP Sears have entered just one game apiece, combining for 3.2 innings. On the other hand, the Yankees have employed a pinch hitter late in the game four times. While the fact that one of Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Joey Gallo, and Aaron Judge is available off the bench almost every night due to the way the team’s lineup is constructed, there are currently two hitters in the lineup, Kyle Higashioka and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who have been virtual automatic outs in the early going. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a second bat off the bench that you’re comfortable using as a pinch hitter? Sure, options in Scranton are currently a little sparse, but at this point, even Ronald Guzmán (career 86 OPS+) and Miguel Andújar (80 OPS+ over last two seasons) might qualify as an improvement at the plate.
Ultimately, though, what behooves the Yankees the most to make this move is that it is inevitable. Once May 1st rolls around, not only does the roster shrink back down to the standard 26, the number of pitchers will also be once again capped at 13. A fourth bench player — be it a backup center fielder, a pinch hitter, or even a third catcher — will be on its way. Since, after Monday, that fourth bench spot will be more likely to see the field than the 11th arm in the bullpen, there’s no reason to wait until that last possible second to make the necessary move. The 16-man pitching staff has served a very necessary, albeit frustrating, purpose, but it’s purpose is coming to an end.