A critique of Joe Girardi's bullpen management last night

I know, I know. How can I already have a bone to pick with Joe Girardi merely two games in? I should be happy that the Yankees won their first game of the season in convincing fashion, right? I am, but there’s one thing I would have preferred to have occurred differently: how Girardi handled the bullpen in the eight inning.

First and foremost, I must applaud Joe for refraining to use Dellin Betances to start the inning. It seems that the fifth run made the difference, but I’m pleased that he decided to not use Dellin immediately. I understand the notion that a manager wants to get everyone into a game as soon as possible when the season begins, but the situation last night did not call for it. Instead of Betances, who was warming up before the fifth run scored, Girardi called on rookie Jonathan Holder. Two thumbs up for that. Now that the initial praise is out of the way, let’s look at how I think Girardi jumped the gun later in the inning.

After striking out Corey Dickerson to open the eighth, Holder allowed two infield singles. Steven Souza reached on a swinging bunt and Kevin Kiermaier’s grounder was too deep in the hole for Ronald Torreyes to throw him out. With one down, runners on first and second, and Evan Longoria due up, Girardi made the call to the bullpen for his relief ace, Betances. On the broadcast, you could see Girardi mouth “there’s nothing you can do about that” to Holder as he pulled him. If that’s how Joe felt, why not give him another batter? The Rays’ win expectancy, with Longoria coming up, was only 3.4%.

Source: FanGraphs

This felt like a short hook for Holder. It wasn’t like the two base hits were loud ones. With a five run lead, I think that allowing Holder an opportunity to face a high quality hitter like Longoria with a couple of runners on base would have been good challenge. At worst, a three-run home run makes it 5-3. At that point, bringing Betances in would have been fine.

I’m sure Girardi’s idea to summon Betances was to prevent the game from getting close in the first place, and I suppose there’s some validity to that. However, at some point, he is going to need to trust more than just Clippard and Betances before reaching the ninth inning. Given his minor league dominance, Holder could become one of those guys. Why not give him a chance in a situation that wasn’t make or break?

Another aspect of my argument is to keep Betances’ workload down. The positive news is that the Yankees are clearly aware of this, as Dellin’s inning totals have decreased in each of the last three years: 90 in 2014, 84 in 2015, and 73 last season. He’s worked in roughly the same amount of games each campaign (between 70 and 74), but the overall workload hasn’t been as large.

Betances has struggled in September quite a bit in his career, particularly last season. He has a career 3.98 ERA in the month of September (9.64 last year). June is his second “worst” month (2.76 ERA) on record. In all other months, he has an ERA of 1.88 or lower. It’s no coincidence that Betances’ worst month comes at the end of the year. That’s why avoiding appearances in games without immediate danger, especially early in the season, is important.

Again, I like how Girardi approached the eighth inning at its outset. Going to Holder was the right call because it simply wasn’t a situation that called for utilizing Betances, who the Yankees don’t want to overwork. My qualm was his reluctance to give Holder a chance to work out of a jam that was only existent because of some bad BABIP luck. Some more patience with other relievers like Holder in games with large leads would allow Girardi to save Betances for when he’s needed most, and would hopefully keep him strong through the final month of the season.