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The Yankees' bullpen has not been clutch

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But that's probably less worrying than you think.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
Dammit who's recapping this game
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the year, the Yankees' bullpen was thought by many to be the biggest strength of the team. It's probably safe to say that a good number of Yankee fans don't feel as confident in the pen as they did then. Although the bullpen received a huge makeover in late July, they've still had a number of ugly outings. All told, Yankees relievers this year have been responsible for 23 blown saves, 3rd most in the majors, and are dead last in FanGraphs' Clutch statistic. These stats aren't good. They also aren't as damning as you think. Bear with me for a few paragraphs and I'll try to show you why.

Let's start off by looking at the Yankees' 23 blown saves. Firstly, it's important to remember that the bullpen of late isn't the bullpen of April-May-June, which featured way more Tyler Clippard than is permitted in the Geneva Convention. Seventeen of the Yankee bullpen's 23 blown saves were accumulated before the All-Star break. Since then, the Yankees are 18th in baseball with six blown saves in 20 save attempts. Not exactly lockdown, but manageable.

Secondly, blown saves isn't really the ideal way to measure bullpen performance. The stat wrongly assigns responsibility to the pitcher for factors out of his control, such as questionable usage, defensive miscues, and inherited runners. If you want to gauge how the bullpen has actually pitched on average, your usual rate stats do much better — and the Yankees' post-trade deadline bullpen passes that test with flying colors (73 ERA-, 71 FIP-, 80 xFIP-, 31.4 K%). Looks like a really good 'pen to me!

This is where some of you might object, and say that context does matter — and you'd be right in this case. By FanGraphs' Clutch score, which attempts to capture how much better (or worse) players perform in high leverage situations compared to their usual selves, the Yankees' bullpen ranks dead last for the whole season and 20th for the 2nd half. In this sense, Yankee relievers have failed to save their best for when it really matters. They have been, for lack of a better word, unclutch.

What the Clutch statistic does not tell us, however, is how the Yankees actually performed in high leverage spots — it only tells us whether they've been better or worse than usual. This means that, provided your normal performance level is really high, it is possible to have a negative/mediocre Clutch score and still be good in high-stake situations relative to other players/teams. Does this hold true for the Yankees' relief corps? It appears so. Their 3.80 FIP in high-leverage situations ranks 10th in MLB, suggesting that their 10.05 ERA in such situations is due for some positive regression. If you prefer looking at their numbers with men in scoring position, Yankee relievers look even better — they rank 1st in FIP and 4th in ERA. Depending on what your definition of a “clutch” situation is, the Yankees' bullpen has been, relative to the rest of the league, either solid or excellent.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness of Clutch score is its inability to predict future “clutchness”. In the words of the FanGraphs Sabermetrics Library, “Simply because one player was clutch at one point does not mean they will continue to perform well in high-leverage situations (and vice versa).” This isn't to say that the Yankees' bullpen will become the clutchiest of relief corps in the coming weeks to make up for lost trust. It simply means that clutch is fickle — it ebbs and flows throughout the season. When it comes to predicting how Yankee relievers will do in do-or-die spots from here on out, it's probably better to rely on how they normally perform. Me? I'll take my chances with a staff that's struck out a third of the batters they've faced since the All-Star break.

So, yes, the Yankees' bullpen has been unclutch. Yes, it's cost them games. But there's no way of knowing if their unclutchness will continue, and it's not like they've been terrible in high-leverage situations anyway. I'm not going to tell you to stop reaching for that bourbon flask every time the 'pen is asked to hold on to a one-run lead. Just know that probably every fan of every team feels the same about their team's bullpen.