As great as the New York Yankees bullpen has been, being overworked this early in the campaign can come back to bite the unit.
Through the first three games of the 2017 season, the New York Yankees bullpen couldn’t be off to a better start.
Across major league baseball, New York’s ‘pen ranks first in ERA (0.00), fourth in strikeout rate (11.20 K/9), first in xFIP and fourth in overall WAR (0.3). Best of all, none of the bullpen’s seven inherited baserunners have scored, helping the unit rank first in left-on-base percentage (100 percent).
This is a narrative that manager Joe Girardi needs to continue throughout the remaining 159 games this season. What’s also noteworthy was when New York unnecessarily went to Betances and Chapman during Tuesday night’s 5-0 win, but this team’s success will heavily rely on the bullpen.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows as the struggling rotation is not only discouraging any hope of competition in 2017, but it’s also taxing the impeccable bullpen far too early on in the regular season.
Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda have combined for 11.1 innings of work — the third-fewest in baseball so far. Furthermore, the three own the worst ERA (8.74), the second-worst win probability added (-0.53) and the highest batting average against (.365 BA).
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Yes, it’s just three games, but we weren’t kidding when we talked all offseason about how unstable this rotation will be this season. Tanaka, the unquestioned best starter on this staff, has been the opposite of an innings eater throughout his three-year career and that is likely to remain unchanged. Sabathia, in his best season since 2012, still averaged juts under six inning per start and at age 36, his days as an ace that can consistently go seven-plus innings are behind him.
This was exactly the case last year.
Yankees’ starters averaged 5.6 innings per start and there were a ton of examples where the bullpen tried to shut things down for three-plus innings on a daily basis. Yes, the bullpen, especially the middle relief, looks much better than it was in 2016, but taxation on even elite arms will come back to bite New York.
For example, Betances pitched in 44 innings (the 13th-most among major league relievers) throughout the first half of last season thanks to the lack of length of the rotation and lack of trust in relievers like Kirby Yates, Johnny Barbato, Anthony Swarzak and more.
By the time September rolled around, the workload affected the All-Star to the point where he maintained the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of any month in his five-year career and an appalling ERA of 9.64.
In the end, owning the best ERA among major league bullpens is probably a good thing in hindsight. But, when the rotation manages the fewest innings and an astronomical ERA, having one of the better bullpens in the sport almost becomes a non-factor.
As long as the rotation contributes very limited production, even the team’s strong suit will be dull by the dog days and be unable to lift this team beyond the AL Wild Card game for the first time in five years.