Yankees’ Bullpen Management Is Baffling

The Yankees' extra rest for their elite relievers has made them ineffective when called upon

There was more bad injury news for the 2019 Yankees this past weekend when it was announced Dellin Betances experienced soreness while throwing earlier and had to skip his most recent throwing session. Betances was going to return to New York for more tests to find out if his latest setback was only soreness or something more serious.

It’s getting more and more difficult to envision a scenario in which Betances helps the Yankees this season. He has essentially been shut down since spring training with a shoulder impingement and has suffered setbacks both times he looked like he might be nearing a return to the team. I’m sure the Yankees have already planned on not having Betances this season and if he’s able to give them anything it’s an unexpected bonus. But the Yankees have to plan to end their World Series drought with the arms they do have, and those arms should be more than enough.

The easiest way to win the World Series starts with winning your division. Avoid the one-game playoff and using your best starter and elite relievers to remain in the playoffs and advance to the division series. The Yankees are most likely going to be in a division battle all season long with the Rays who aren’t going anywhere as they just took three out of four from the Red Sox in Boston. The Red Sox’ division chances are over and they will most likely be the second wild-card team. The AL East winner will get to line up their rotation as wanted and rest their roster at the end of the regular season. The AL East runner-up will get to face Chris Sale in a one-game playoff.

Too many times this season the Yankees have sacrificed a potential win for the big picture of a 162-game season. I understand the philosophy of sometimes needing to lose a battle to win the war, though it seems like the Yankees are unsure of when they need to win a battle to make sure they can still win the war later. Losing five of their last seven and dropping series to the lowly Blue Jays and the no-offense Indians is bad enough, but the bullpen management this season and especially over the last few weeks has been nonsensical.

On Sunday, the Yankees held a 5-0 lead through five innings after miraculously receiving five shutout innings from Chad Green and Nestor Cortes. Aaron Boone then went to his super bullpen for the last 12 outs of the game, which is what every fan wanted, in an attempt to salvage the final game of the series.

First in was Tommy Kahnle. He entered the game having appeared in only four games over the previous 14 days and faced 14 batters and threw 62 pitches in those two weeks. Kahnle’s first pitch was driven out of the park by the light-hitting Leonys Martin for a solo home run. Two pitches later, Oscar Mercado singled on a line drive. Four pitches after that, Carlos Santana singled on a line drive, and three pitches after that, Mike Freeman belted a three-run home run. Kahnle had thrown 10 pitches, giving up two line-drive singles and two home runs, and the only out he had recorded had been another fly ball to left-center. It was clear he was out of whack with such little real-game work in two weeks and his inability to locate his fastball was rendering his unhittable changeup useless. After Kahnle shook off the initial rust, he settled down to get a strikeout and groundout to end the inning.

Clinging to a one-run lead, Adam Ottavino entered for the seventh. In the last two weeks, the Yankees’ best reliever had pitched in five games and faced 17 batters and threw 68 pitches. He had only appeared in one game since June 1, and despite being the Yankees’ top relief option, he had only pitched in back-to-back games once since May 9-10. Ottavino retired his first batter of the game, but fell behind Jake Bauers 3-0, and Bauers got the green light on 3-0 and destroyed the fourth pitch of the at-bat to deep center for a game-tying home run. It was the first earned run Ottavino had allowed since Easter Sunday on April 21, which is the only other game he’s given up a home run in this season.

For the eighth, Zack Britton came in. Britton had also only been used in two games in June and four games in the last 14 days and his lack of work had popped up four days earlier when he allowed a go-ahead, three-run home run to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in Toronto in an eventual loss. Rather than realize Britton needed work after that home run, he wasn’t used in any of the next three games. Thankfully, on Sunday, he was able to work around a one-out walk to pitch a scoreless inning.

The Yankees took the lead in the ninth and that meant it was Aroldis Chapman’s turn to come in. Chapman had also only appeared in two games in June and had also only appeared in four games in the last 14 days. After watching Chapman for over four seasons now, I know how terrifying it is to watch him pitch when he’s asked to close out a close game on extended rest. When Jose Ramirez singled to lead off the ninth, I basically expected it. I didn’t expect Chapman to throw over to first wildly and allow Ramirez to advance to second with no outs. Then Chapman walked Roberto Perez, a career .209 hitter. I had seen this game many times before and I had a feeling I knew how it was going to end. But with Chapman unable to locate his fastball or slider and clearly rattled on the mound, Terry Francona did the Yankees a favor and had Bauers bunt. Yes, the same Bauers who had crushed a home run off Ottavino two innings earlier. Bauers popped the bunt attempt up for the first out of the inning. Kevin Plawecki then flew out on a ball Brett Gardner ran down, which looked like it was headed for the gap, for the second out. Unfortunately, with two outs, Chapman induced a game-ending ground ball, but Didi Gregorius misplayed it to allow the game-tying run to score. Chapman got out of the inning with a strikeout and the Yankees won the game in 10th when Stephen Tarpley pitched a perfect 1-2-3 inning.

While the Yankees’ top four relievers sat and watched recent winnable games like the series finales against the Royals and Red Sox turn into losses, The Goof Troop (Jonathan Holder and Luis Cessa) was constantly getting work. The Yankees have chosen to give their regular everyday players and elite relievers extra rest this season in favor of playing lesser talent. Earlier this season, it was Mike Tauchman playing every game while the regulars rotated getting days off, and all season in the bullpen, the lesser relievers have been continually used in any and all situations in favor of Kahnle, Ottavino, Britton and Chapman. Need to blow a lead or trail in a tie game or allow some insurance runs or lose in extra innings or get your elite arms warming up in what was once a lopsided game? Then Holder and Cessa are your guys.

Somehow, while the elite arms have sat, Holder has been racking up appearances and nearly all of them have had disastrous results. Before Sunday, Holder had appeared in four of the team’s seven games in June and and nine of the team’s last 15 games. He had faced 39 batters and thrown 151 pitches with a 7.56 ERA and 1.441 WHIP.

Cessa continues to have a roster spot because he’s out of options and the Yankees are scared he will magically figure it out with another organization. After pitching to a 1.59 ERA in his first seven games of the season, Cessa has regressed to his usual self: a pitcher with no set role who isn’t major league material. In his last 11 appearances, Cessa has allowed 22 hits and 15 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings, including six home runs. Batters have a .991 OPS against him in that time and his season ERA is up 5.28 and his WHIP at 1.483. Last season, Cessa pitched to a 5.24 ERA and 1.433 WHIP, so I’m not sure why the Yankees thought he was going to be any better this season just because the calendar turned.

It’s not like the Yankees have been blowing teams out or getting blown out as to why the elite arms haven’t pitched. There have been opportunities for the elite relievers to enter to hold both leads and deficits in close games, but the work has gone to Holder and Cessa or other lesser arms. There’s a fine line between using relief pitchers too much and not enough and the Yankees have done both. There’s no set amount of pitches, batters faced, innings or days off to determine who to pitch and when, but the Yankees think they have somehow figured it all out.

The Yankees’ bullpen is their strength and if they are to win it all this season, it will be because they can shorten games in October and getting five innings from their rotation will be more than enough. Given the state of their rotation and their decision to not address it, five innings is about all you can ask for from the current rotation. The bullpen isn’t only the Yankees’ strength for the postseason, it’s also their strength for the regular season, and the best chance they have to winning the division and avoiding the wild-card game. If the super bullpen isn’t used when needed then what’s the point of even having it? Put the team in the best position to succeed in the current situation and win the game at hand. Worry about tomorrow when you get there. Or there won’t be a tomorrow to play for.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!