Assembling a lockdown relief crew is tantamount to a successful baseball team. During the last few postseasons, it has become evident that championships do not come without dominant relievers.
The Yankees entered the season with what they believed to be the basis of such an endgame crew. With Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman leading the backend of the bullpen, the Yankees figured they had enough leading up to them with Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren picking up set-up duties. However, Clippard faltered mightily by June, Chapman and Warren endured stints on the disabled list and Betances lost his mechanics.
As the Yankees spiraled from the top of the American League East, the bullpen was a large part of the reason. Night after night, it seemed the Yankees relievers found a new way to cough up the lead and ultimately the game.
Despite the severe downturn, the rest of the division failed to take complete control away from the Yankees. As Chapman and Warren returned to the mix, at the height of the emergence of Chad Green, and while Betances worked through his mechanical flaws, the Yankees made a significant trade to bolster the bullpen.
The Yankees doubled down on the bullpen, bringing in former closer David Robertson and previous farmhand Tommy Kahnle. Robertson's experience and success in various relief roles with the Yankees was certainly alluring and Kahnle's reinvention in which he's racked up strikeouts while limiting free passes had the club drooling.
Since July 25, the Yankees have witnessed how essential the bullpen will be to the club's postseason chances. In 45 2/3 innings, Yankees relievers have allowed just 12 runs (2.36 ERA), while striking out 60 batters and walking just 13.
Robertson and Kahnle have pitched in various innings for the Yankees when high-leverage situations require a fireman type of performance. Green and Warren have provided lengthier outings when needed. Betances has found his control and comfort zone in the eighth inning. Chapman is using his slider and fastball together to once again, throwing batters off balance and blowing them away.
If we count statistics for just Green, Warren, Kahnle, Robertson, Betances and Chapman in the same period and the numbers get even better -- 36 1/3 IP, 1.73 ERA, 48 K and 7 BB. It's easy to see why Yankees manager Joe Girardi wants to lean on the six-pack of relievers.
The question becomes, how often can Girardi continue to trot the six relievers out to get three to four innings of work? The formula of leaning on relievers in short playoff series, which has built in off-days, is much easier to navigate. However, with 52 games left on the calendar in 55 days, Girardi is going to have to leave his comfort zone in the way the he uses the relievers.
The Yankees have a luxury of employing three relievers -- maybe four if we include Kahnle -- that can handle closing out a game. This should allow Girardi to navigate games without pitching any reliever in three straight games. However, this will require Girardi not utilizing any of the final three/four relievers for two-inning appearances as he did with Robertson on Saturday night. Those types of games are going to eventually catch up to the pitchers and potentially hinder the relievers' abilities in the postseason.
Beyond allowing his starters to push through the sixth inning more often than not, Girardi must trust in Green and Warren in certain games to hurl two-inning appearances in an effort to piece together a cycle of sorts for closing games. Girardi can use Green and Warren to handle the fireman role and then the subsequent inning(s). Neither Green nor Warren will suffer from the work, in fact they are built for it.
From, that point the Yankees could essentially create two separate eighth/ninth inning combinations with whatever tandem Girardi feels works best. An occasional overlap might not be avoidable, but the main point here is that using the fearsome foursome of Kahnle, Robertson, Betances and Chapman all in the same game does not have to be the formula. If Girardi continues to force the issue with four innings of relief from that grouping, they'll be completely spent when they will be needed most in the postseason.
The Yankees can shrink as many games as they want in the playoffs, but they cannot expect to win those games if the bullpen is exhausted because of the structure Girardi wants to deploy in August.