When the Yankees assembled the most imposing bullpen trio baseball has ever seen, some wondered about the unique ways the team could utilize its relief aces. It was exciting to dream up creative strategies New York could use with Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman on hand. Never before had there been a team with such a luxurious selection of late-inning options.
The possibilities seemed endless when the group was first constructed. Since there would always be another ace closer ready in the back of the bullpen, would manager Joe Girardi have the freedom to use one of his dominant relievers at unorthodox times? Could we possibly see Betances trot in to shut down a fifth inning rally? Would Girardi vary whom he used as the closer on a particular night based on platoon advantages? Would one of the three be allowed to pitch several innings on one night, with the knowledge the other two would be fresh the next day?
The question Yankee fans probably cared most about entering the season is that of whether the trio would actually meet expectations. While the three have given up a few more runs than expected, they have essentially lived up to the hype. In spite of Chapman and Betances' somewhat inflated ERA's, the group's numbers are fairly staggering. The three have a combined strikeout rate of 45.5%. They have walked just 4.5% of batters, and own a stellar 1.48 FIP.
The trio has been exciting to watch. What has not been exciting, however, is the manner in which they have been deployed. If anything, Girardi's bullpen usage habits have become more derivative and less inventive now that he has the most dominant bullpen in baseball at his disposal.
The Yankees have essentially lined up three of the best relievers in the game and assigned them each an inning. Betances in the seventh, Miller in the eighth, and Chapman in the ninth. To get a picture for how often Girardi has followed that rote formula, I looked at all the instances in which he called on one of the relief aces before their prescribed inning, and compared it to the rate at which he had done so last year:
|2015: Times entering game early||% of total GP||2016: Times entering game early||% of total GP|
Going back even farther, in 2014, Girardi brought Betances in prior to the eighth in over half his appearances. Granted, early in 2014, Betances was an unknown quantity, not an entrenched setup man or closer. However, even in the second half of 2014, after Betances had made the All-Star team and established himself as a historically dominant setup reliever, Girardi still called on him prior to the eighth in 37% of his appearances.
Of course, there are other ways to be creative with a bullpen, other than bringing in elite relievers earlier than is typical. Girardi has the option of letting one his relief aces air it out for a few innings, rather than limiting each to one inning stints. Again, it is an option the Yankees have foregone:
|Outings longer than 1 IP||% of total GP|
Just seven times in 2016 has one of the bullpen big three been allowed to get more than three outs. This, just one year after Girardi let Betances go for more than a single inning in 34% of his games pitched. In fact, Girardi has simply asked his dominant relievers to get fewer outs in general. Betances is on pace for 78 IP this year, which would be a career low. Chapman is on a 58 IP pace, after controlling for the 29 games he missed via suspension. Miller is on pace for 69 IP, up from 61.2 IP last season, when he missed a month due to injury.
So, with three of best relievers in MLB at his command, Girardi has become more and more conventional with his bullpen strategy. He has used his best relievers in more rigid ways than in years past, and he has used them a little less. This seems counter-intuitive, as New York was well aware entering the season that its strength was at the back-end of the bullpen. Wearing down relievers is to be avoided, of course, but the Yankees team that gets the most out of its best assets is the Yankees team with the best chance of succeeding in 2016. Sticking their top pitchers into highly limited roles does not fit that description.
Still, there are counter-arguments to the radical use of bullpen arms. For one, pitchers generally prefer to know when they are due to enter the game. Athletes are creatures of habit, and knowing exactly when they will be called on surely brings some peace of mind. Angels closer Huston Street went so far as to say he would rather quit baseball than enter games at unconventional times.
Even so, Girardi has an established reputation as an excellent bullpen manager. He has demonstrated the ability to get the most out of his relievers, without running them into the ground. That is why it is so disappointing to see him use this incredible bullpen in such straightforward ways. If there was ever a manager who could find a way to use his elite relievers in interesting, forward-thinking ways, Girardi might be the best candidate. Instead, the Yankees have fallen back on the tried, and boring, method of bringing in their best relievers one-by-one, one inning at a time, just according to the script.