Nick Nelson Continues to Struggle in Big Spots

The Yankees bullpen is down a few men right now, but Nelson has proven unreliable since the early days of the season.
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Nick Nelson entered Wednesday’s game in the eighth inning with a 5-2 lead, the bases loaded, one out, and a 9.95 ERA. By the time he left the game, the Phillies had tied the score.

None of the runs scored during Nelson’s appearance were credited to him; the Yankees reliever actually lowered his ERA to 9.45 despite failing to extinguish the fire Zack Britton and Gleyber Torres set. 

Torres started Britton’s second inning of work with an error before the left-hander walked two. Nelson allowed those runners to score on a Luke Williams single and a wild pitch, but two runs were charged to Britton’s account. One was unearned.

The Yankees managed to escape with a 6-5 win in the 10th inning, but it was hard to see Nelson working out of that jam. Granted, the COVID-ravaged Yankees didn’t have many other choices—Aaron Boone said Chad Green was unavailable because he had thrown over 40 pitches in three days—but Nelson has proven unreliable since the early days of the season.

Still, Boone found a positive in his most recent performance.

“It’s been a while since he’s been out there, and that’s about as tough a spot as you can come in,” the manager said of Nelson, who last pitched in the majors on July 7 in Seattle. “The good thing about tonight is, at least he continued to make pitches. Because there was no help for him.”

While Green wasn’t an option, Boone could have gone to Aroldis Chapman early in that critical spot, or even Brooks Kriske. Kriske has not been reliable either, but he’s had fewer chances than Nelson and ultimately pitched a perfect 10th on Wednesday to earn the win. Nelson, meanwhile, has allowed six of 10 inherited runners to score this season, per Stathead’s Katie Sharp. In addition to his double-digit-encroaching ERA, opponents are slashing .357/.500/.571 with 12 runs scored against him in high-leverage situations.

Whoever your options may be, Nelson is not the guy you want coming in with the bases juiced in a close game.

Nelson has a high-octane arm, impressed in spring training and has thrown well when at Triple-A this season (2.73 ERA/29.2 IP). But, with other call-ups recently rising to the occasion, he has received and squandered far more opportunities. It calls into question the Yankees’ evaluations of the hurler—especially when Nelson had a seemingly cemented spot on the 40-man roster while Garrett Whitlock went unprotected. No team bats 1.000 when it comes to assessing players, but Whitlock is now thriving in the Red Sox bullpen (1.34 ERA) after being nabbed in the Rule 5 Draft. So is former Yankee Adam Ottavino (2.54 ERA), who effectively became a cap casualty when New York traded him to Boston over the offseason.

The Yankees could really use those guys right now, but they will instead likely face them in Beantown this week with the teams starting a pivotal four-game series on Thursday night.

The good news for the Yankees is that they expect to get Jonathan Loaisiga back from the COVID-19 injured list during the series. With Nelson, Asher Wojciechowski, Albert Abreu, and Brooks Kriske all having pitched on Wednesday, there are choices for the corresponding move. However, Nestor Cortes Jr., Michael King and Wandy Peralta still have uncertain timetables, and Darren O’Day is not coming back this year after a serious hamstring injury.

That could mean Nelson sticks around a little longer or returns at a later point. If that’s the case, the Yankees must avoid using him in tight games. 

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