Welcome to Yankees Year in Review. This is the fourth and final installment and to round out our year in review, we look at the bullpen.
The Yankees bullpen was arguably their crown jewel. Ask any baseball fan why the Yankees could make it to and win world series and they would immediately and emphatically point to the Yankees bullpen.
There were holdovers from the successful 2017 bullpen: Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Chad Green, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman. But relievers are somewhat unpredicatble and sustained year-to-year performance is not a guarantee. Let’s use Dellin Betances as an example.
Betances in 2017 was coming off a three-year run where he was worth at least 2.4 fWAR. So, it made sense that he was a key reliever for high-leverage situations coming into the season. Betances performed fine in the regular season, with his September and October signaling trouble. His walk rate spiked while his strikeout rate declined. He developed issues against righties, especially when it came to issuing walks. He was an unstable quantity in the playoffs, alternating between good and awful. There were concerns about 2018.
The truth was somewhere in the middle. Betances was not as bad as 2017, nor was he as dominant as that three-year run. He was more consistent, with a tight grip on the setup role and picking up saves when Aroldis Chapman went down with an injury.
Speaking of Chapman, he seemed to bounce back from a slightly disappointing 2017. Still, his walk rate continued to climb, all the way to 5.26 BB/9. His strikeouts were back up, with a 16.31 K/9, second highest of his career.
Two things, both probably related, to know about Chapman. His fastball velocity was down, maybe due to his injury during the year. His fastball pitch value was his lowest since reaching the MLB in 2010 at 5.3, almost half the value it was worth in 2017. His fastball has long been the most important pitch in his arsenal since he has never shown consistent command of his slider. He can still reach triple digits but last year seemed like the first time where 100mph was not a guarantee.
That last section in 2018 is not great. Sure, pitchers who throw 96mph still do fine, but every mph decrease gives hitters just a little bit more time, so Chapman’s margin for error is slowly shrinking. By the way, there are three more years left on his contract. There is real potential for the next few years to get ugly.
David Robertson finished his second stint with the Yankees with a strong year. His ERA of 3.23 may look elevated for a reliever and it is slightly higher than his career average, but he was still a valuable contributor. His fastball pitch value was -2.6, the 2nd lowest of his career but everything from K/9, HR/9 etc. were within career norms.
Then I found his left on base percentage. It was 67.5%, 11% lower than his career average. Meaning he was not stranding runners at nearly the same rate, which could explain the spike in his ERA. He enters the offseason as a free agent and will represent himself. I would predict the Yankees to stay in to contact and offer maybe a two-year contract but given his age (34 in 2019), it would be hard to see him getting much more in terms of guaranteed years.
Chad Green came up as a starter in the minors, but his 2018 solidified that he belongs in the bullpen. Green was the third most valuable reliever in terms of fWAR. Manager Aaron Boone regularly deployed him for more than one inning and Green was up to the challenge.
His K/9, BB/9 all stayed within his career averages. His home run per nine innings did double from 2017, but still stayed respectable at 1.07 HR/9. Given everything written above, it is hard to say Green is going to absolutely repeat this performance. But he is still young (28 in 2019) and could be in line to take over the later inning roles if Chapman or Betances falter.
Jonathan Holder was somewhat of a pleasant surprise, seeing several high leverage situations. His performance can probably be explained by his home run per nine innings getting sliced down to .55 in 2018 from 1.14 in 2017. That really is it. He does not induce groundballs, his strikeout per nine is good but not elite for a reliever.
Holder possessed a flyball rate of 50.5%, which is extremely confusing for someone who just posted an elite home run per nine innings rate. Here is a chart of all the relievers in the last three calendar years who have done what Holder just did:
Four relievers, that is it. On one hand, there is Kenley Jansen! On the other hand, that was Ryan Buchter and Brian Ellington’s best years as major leaguers. Ellington pitched seven innings last year in the minors, while Buchter pitched for the Athletics but was just okay.
The point is that this does not seem like the most sustainable profile for Holder. The best case is something like Jansen and he is an elite closer due to his ability to strike batters out, something that Holder does not do nearly as well.
This is where I would say something about Tommy Kahnle since in 2017 he was a reliable arm for later innings. But as is the pattern of this article, he had some issues that led to a step back in performance. He had shoulder tendonitis and when he returned there was a reoccurrence of some flaws from his earlier years like a higher walk rate and an increase in home runs allowed. His velocity was down as well. He will need to work back to be trusted with high leverage situations in 2019.
Zach Britton was acquired at the deadline and strengthened the back end of the bullpen despite returning from injury. He continued to post a ridiculous groundball rate but walked a lot of batters while not striking out as many. Still, he was trusted with high leverage situations down the stretch and could still be an above average reliever.
The rest of the bullpen will get more of a rapid-fire treatment: Adam Warren was effective but traded to Seattle for international bonus slot money. Luis Cessa was injured and shuttled between long man and back-end starter. A.J. Cole had a good run from May to July but reverted to being A.J. Cole with a 7.91 ERA in the second half. Chasen Shreve’s contribution would be that he was eventually packaged with Giovanny Gallegos for Luke Voit, for that Yankee fans everywhere are thankful. Lance Lynn handled some relief innings and was completely serviceable.
Robertson, Britton, and Lynn are all free agents. It is reasonable to believe the Yankees might pursue all three, given their importance to the 2018 team. Otherwise, the bullpen should be relatively set in stone and continue to be a strength going forward.
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