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What’s going on with the Yankees’ bullpen?

High-profile meltdowns are obscuring a strong relief corps, but the losses still count.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Few certainties exist in baseball. Over the course of a full season, however, patterns emerge. They give meaning to otherwise random noise, and allow us to impose order on chaos. Sometimes these narratives strike awfully close to the truth. When that happens, it’s possible to make generalized statements with a large degree of accuracy. After 138 games, it’s clear the Yankees wield a double-edged sword in the form of their bullpen.

In the last calendar year, Brian Cashman assembled one of the most formidable relief corps in baseball history. He paired an endgame trio of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and David Robertson with a pair of emergent ace relievers in Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle. That’s not to mention the steady workhorse presence of Adam Warren. On talent alone, that collection sits in the upper echelons of dominant bullpens.

So far this season, the Yankees’ relief staff has pitched to a 3.44 ERA across 457.2 innings. That ranks fourth best in all of baseball. The peripheral numbers have been strong as well, with a 3.49 FIP and a 28.6% strikeout rate. The results have been even better in the second half, with a combined 3.11 ERA over 179.2 innings. As a whole, the bullpen has been as good as advertised.

Individually, however, the results don’t shine as brightly. This group managed to blow 23 saves on the season to date. Even after trading away Tyler Clippard, who cost the team five blown saves, the bullpen continues to have meltdowns. Just earlier this week Betances served up a walk-off home run to Manny Machado. According to FanGraphs, the Yankees had a 95.1% win expectancy after Pedro Alvarez struck out in the ninth.

Now, one must remember that not all blown saves are created equally. At this point, it’s helpful to consult Baseball Reference for their definition:

“A blown save (abbreviated BS) is charged to a pitcher who enters a game in a save situation but allows the tying run to score...Middle relievers often compile many more blown saves than saves, since they get the former every time they fail, but rarely get the chance anymore to finish the game and earn the save when they do their job well. As a result, ignorant commentators will often say that a middle reliever is not cut out to be a closer since he has such a poor save percentage, even though those numbers are not at all comparable to those of closers.”

This explains a lot when it comes to the Yankees’ eye-popping number of blown saves. Betances leads the team with six, but not all have come during traditional save situations. The bullpen isn’t a complete liability once it turns to the ninth inning. The club can close out games. The goodwill from this nuance, however, only extends so far.

With 24 games left to play, the Yankees are running out of real estate. Each bullpen implosion represents a game that got away. These losses have a direct impact on the team’s ability to make the playoffs. That’s especially true when it comes to the division.

Credit: FanGraphs

The Red Sox have yet to run away with it. In fact, the Yankees could have overtaken them on multiple occasions. In many of these instances, though, the bullpen stood in the way. There’s still a chance the Bombers catapult themselves atop the AL East, but a lot of that is contingent upon the relief corps avoiding blowups.

How does such an impressive collection of relief pitchers manage to be equally dominant and vulnerable? It’s quite the enigma. Once the season ends, the bullpen will make for a fascinating case study. Now, however, isn’t the time for academic analysis. In a game where nuance and perspective rules interpretation, one thing is abundantly clear. If the Yankees want to win the division, they need their elite bullpen to stop acting like a mediocre one.