Who’s going to close games for the Yankees?
With Aroldis Chapman on the shelf, who will step in as the Yankees interim closer?
Aroldis Chapman has been absolute money for the Yankees in 2018, but his left knee has been barking at him since May. He’s dealt with left knee tendinitis, which has affected his release point and rhythm at some points this year. That hasn’t stopped the 30-year-old from having another All-Star caliber season for the Yankees. The man dubbed “The Cuban Missile” has again routinely hit 100 miles per hour or higher, while also pitching to a slick 2.11 ERA, and has nailed down 31 of 33 save opportunities.
But Chapman’s knee issue was just too much for him to handle without a stint on the 10-day disabled list. It hindered him when he had over three days of rest, which led to 7 earned runs allowed in 8.1 innings along with 9 walks when he was rested longer than three days. So after seeing something they didn’t like during Chapman’s outing on Tuesday in Miami, they sent him for an MRI and eventually placed him on the DL. Finally, Chapman can take time off to tend to his knee instead of preparing to pitch on any given night. Thankfully for the Yankees, they’re still in good shape despite temporarily losing Chapman as they have plenty of veteran bullpen arms ready to step into the role as interim closer.
Britton, a former Baltimore Orioles closer who was acquired by the Yankees a few days before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, will probably be in the mix for saves while Chapman is hurt. The 30-year-old southpaw is well known for his outstanding three-year run from 2014 to 2016 with the Orioles when he pitched to a 1.38 ERA and successfully converted 120/128 save chances. Unfortunately, injuries hampered him most of 2017, limiting him to only 38 appearances and 15 saves. 2018 has been none the kinder to him as he ruptured his Achilles in December and he didn’t make his season debut until mid-June.
Britton had seen a few struggles early on with the Orioles this season, but towards the deadline, it seemed like he was settling back into his role as their elite closer. With the trade to the Yankees however, his role has drastically changed. To this point, he has appeared in the seventh or eighth inning of games. This change has shown in the struggles he’s had as a Yankee. He’s allowed 6 earned runs in 10.1 innings while striking out 9 batters and walking 6.
Sure, most of the situations he comes into are still high leverage, but there’s a specific difference between pitching in the sixth, seventh, and eighth compared to closing in the ninth as many legendary relief pitchers have noted. The adrenaline is higher, there’s much more at risk, and almost a sense of worry that one poorly located pitch could drastically swing the momentum of a game or even end it, resulting in a loss. Zach Britton can handle these situations well and should they choose him as the temporary closer, Yankee fans should be able to sleep well at night knowing he can shut games down for them.
David Robertson has a long history with the Yankees, having pitched for them as one of Mariano Rivera’s best setup men for close to six years, then serving as a closer himself after Rivera’s retirement following the 2013 season. But Robertson left in free agency following the 2014 season, signing a four-year, $46m contract with the Chicago White Sox. His time with the White Sox was a roller coaster. While he converted 84 saves in his two and a half year stint with the club, he also blew 15 saves and ended his time there with a slightly high 3.28 ERA.
Robertson was a part of a trio of high quality, MLB talent shipped to the Yankees at the trade deadline last year, and he had phenomenal success with the team as a setup man. Though Robertson has seen success as a closer before, he’s blown four of seven save opportunities this season and owns a 3.11 ERA. Although, if he knew he was to get most of the save chances in Chapman’s absence, he might gain confidence in knowing he’s considered “the guy” the team will go to in save situations. He should be considered to close games for the Yankees for the time being, primarily because of his long history of pitching well at Yankee Stadium and his veteran approach on the mound.
Dellin Betances has a love-hate relationship with many Yankee fans. His 2014 and 15 seasons he was arguably the best non-starting pitcher in all of MLB, pitching to a combined 1.45 ERA and striking out 266 batters in only 174 innings. But for most of 2016 and ’17, he was difficult to watch at times, struggling with command and blowing multiple leads. While he has closed games for the Yankees in the past, he’s only converted 32 of 49 save opportunities in his career, leading to 17 blown saves.
One thing Betances has going for him, however, is his much-improved command in 2018. He’s walked less than half the hitters he did last season and is on pace for a 5th consecutive season with 100+ strikeouts, not to mention lowering his ERA to a much more solid 2.24. Betances has some of the nastiest pitches in the game and when he has a solid command of his breaking stuff, he’s borderline impossible to hit. But when he struggles to find the feel for his pitches, games can turn ugly fast. He’ll likely see an opportunity or two if Robertson and Britton have both worked multiple days in a row or if Robertson’s shoulder soreness turns into anything worse.
What’s the plan?
I expect the Yankees to use a committee of Britton and Robertson, potentially riding the hot hand if one appears. Betances has excelled as a setup man and removing him from that role may lead to the same issues he’s had when closing games in the past. Other ‘pen arms like Tommy Kahnle, AJ Cole, and Chad Green will probably be used in a middle/long relief role.
For the Yankees, it’s times like these that have them thanking themselves for owning one of the deepest bullpens in MLB history. They should come out on the other side of this with a healthy Aroldis Chapman, and plenty of pitching depth going into October.