Yanks' multi-inning relievers fill need
In his first few years as manager of the New York Yankees, Joe Girardi showed an affinity for using relief pitchers for four or more outs. From 2008-10, Girardi's first three years as Yankees' skipper, the club finished in the top five of multi-inning relief appearances in each season. Back then, former starting prospects Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes were frequently used for more than three outs. Signed out of the Mexican League, Alfredo Aceves also had appearances that typically lasted more than one inning.
Be it a change in philosophy or roster composition, Girardi's clubs finished outside of the top 10 in multi-inning appearances in each season from 2011-13. Hughes became a permanent member of the rotation before signing a multiyear contract with the Minnesota Twins this winter. Chamberlain battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness. He also left New York as a free agent in the offseason. Like Chamberlain, Aceves got injured, but he was non-tendered after the 2011 season. He has since returned to the club this year.
Partially out of necessity, and another part out of practicality, Girardi has returned to his roots in 2014. In 2013, he had his relievers record four or more outs 101 times. This year’s Yankees are almost halfway to that total this year, as they lead the league with 49 games of a relief pitcher working a game in which they record more than three outs.
Currently, the Yankees have three members of their Opening Day rotation on the disabled list: CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova. Sabathia is out until at least July if not longer, while Ivan Nova is out altogether after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Pineda, however, is close to a return from a strained lat muscle. The injuries in the rotation in addition to time missed by closer David Robertson and setup man Shawn Kelley in the bullpen -- two key figures tapped to help fill the void left by Mariano Rivera's retirement -- have left Girardi with little or choice but to maximize his available resources. Meanwhile, the emergence of two former starters turned relievers has given him extra incentive to use a longer leash with his men in the pen.
Who are some of the guys the Yankees are relying on now? Adam Warren is one of them. The Yankees selected Warren in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. The North Carolina native worked exclusively as a starter in the minor leagues. He made his major league debut as a starting pitcher in 2012.
Since then, Warren has appeared in 55 games at the big league level. Just two of those were starts. Instead, the right-hander as been a multi-inning weapon for Girardi. Of the 55 relief appearances he has made since last season, he has recorded more than three outs in 31 of them. This season nine of his 22 outings have lasted more than an inning.
Primarily using a three-pitch mix consisting of a mid-90s fastball, a strikeout slider and a power-zapping changeup, Warren has had little trouble retiring batters at the highest level. His medicine has been best served in smaller doses (25 pitches or less); however, he has extended past that limit recently to favorable results.
Dellin Betances had a short distance to travel when the Yankees called his name in the eighth round of the 2006 draft. Born in New York City, the Grand Street Campus High School (Brooklyn, N.Y.) product quickly shot to the top of prospect lists. Blessed with a big fastball and an even bigger frame (listed as 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds), it was believed Betances might one day anchor the Yankees' rotation.
Injuries to his elbow and shoulder, along with an inability to consistently throw strikes, dominated most of Betances' time as a minor leaguer. After working as a starter for the first seven years of his professional career (although he appeared as a reliever in his 2011 big league debut), he converted to a reliever full time in May 2013.
While Warren became indoctrinated as multi-inning weapon last season for the Yankees, Betances spent most of the year honing his craft in the minors. He made six appearances out of the Yankees' pen in 2013, only one going beyond three outs.
What a difference a year makes. The 26-year-old has recorded more than three outs in 12 of his 18 appearances -- leading the majors. Not only is he generating outs, he’s doing so in grand fashion. Among relief pitchers with 15 or more innings thrown, only two (Craig Kimbrel and Wade Davis) have struck out a higher percentage of batters than Betances' whopping 45.2 percent.
As a reliever, Betances has narrowed his repertoire down to two pitches: a blazing fastball that lives around 96 mph and a breaking ball that sweeps in more than 10 mph slower than the fastball on average. Unlike his days as a starter, he now controls the heater and commands the hook (a potential byproduct of shifting positions on the rubber toward first base). With upper-90s heat pounding the zone (68 percent strikes), he has used the hook to entice hitters to expand the zone. Commanding the pitch glove side and down, hitters have missed on 38 of the 64 swings they have made against the pitch. The 59.4 percent whiff rate is the highest of any offering that has been thrown at least 150 this season including Mashiro Tanaka's splitter, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
With his team trailing 4-3 on Friday night against the Chicago White Sox, Girardi deployed both his weapons in an effort to keep the game close. After an uncharacteristically short outing from Hiroki Kuroda, Betances was summoned with two outs in the fifth inning. He recorded the final out of the frame before tossing a scoreless sixth inning. He struck out two more batters.
Betances was relieved by Warren in the seventh. By this time, New York had grabbed a 5-4 lead. Warren struck out two batters in the inning and around a two-out single to hold the lead. He remained on for the eight, logging two more outs (one via strikeout) wrapped around a single.
The dynamic duo combined for three innings allowing three hits while striking out five and walking none. They needed 56 pitches to generate nine outs. In the process, they allowed their team to comeback to take the lead.
Unfortunately for New York, Girardi attempted to go to the multi-inning well one time too much. With two outs in the eighth, Girardi called on closer David Robertson to relieve Warren. He closed out the eighth before taking the mound in the ninth in search of a four-out save. Following a single to begin the inning, Robertson served up a two-run, walk-off shot to Adam Dunn.
In this case, perhaps there was a bit too much of what has been, for the Yankees this year, a good thing.