The 2019 Yankees bullpen has the potential to be the best bullpen ever assembled. They’ve got veteran relief aces, budding starsm and enough variety in approach to create a veritable bullpen beast.
With so much firepower at his disposal, how should manager Aaron Boone best use this gift? Let’s take a look at the Yankees’ top relievers and figure out what they do best, so that we can create a hierarchy for this super bullpen.
First, the numbers. Here’s how the Yankees’ top six relievers compare, first based on last year’s stats alone (the pitchers are sorted here in descending order of WAR, as that’s FanGraphs’ default ranking tool):
And now, over the past two seasons combined:
First off, let’s get one thing out of the way early on – Aroldis Chapman is this team’s closer. Some have floated concerns that he’s regressed, due to some nagging injuries and a mild drop in velocity. The numbers don’t particularly paint a picture that matches this narrative; Chapman has still been an elite reliever in New York.
Since becoming a Yankee for the first time in 2016, Chapman has the third-best WAR among all relief pitchers, the fourth-best K/9, the fifth-best batting average against, and the 11th-best ERA and WHIP. Chapman is making the big bucks, but he’s still earning them. He’s the guy Boone will trust in the end game.
Dellin Betances has served as the eighth-inning guy for much of his Yankees career, and there’s no real reason for that to change. “Dealin’ Dellin” put together the best K/9 of his career and his third-best BB/9 in 2018, and went 17.2 innings over a month-plus span without allowing a run. When you assess his performance relative to his peers, Betances is still the best Yankees reliever at missing bats, the second-best at stranding runners, and easily the most durable. Despite the new additions, Betances should still be the eighth-inning guy, too.
So where do the rest of the relievers fall in the pecking order? Situation could have a lot to do with how Boone elects to use the rest of his relievers. Adam Ottavino had arguably the best 2018 of any current Yankees reliever, and is a perfect fit on his new team. His high walk rate could suit him best as a full-inning setup guy rather than a middle-relief fireman. Ottavino’s greatest strengths are the constant break he gets on his pitches and his ability to generate whiffs.
Just because Chapman is closing games and Betances may see the bulk of eighth-inning reps doesn’t mean that Ottavino is chopped liver. He would easily be the best seventh-inning reliever in baseball, and could probably serve as a closer for up to half of the 30 MLB teams. There will be a fair share of innings headed Ottavino’s way this summer.
One guy whose stats don’t seem to line up with his expectations is Zack Britton. Now, Britton’s numbers took a hit these last two years as he was dealing with forearm and achilles injuries. While he’s still a valuable reliever, he just hasn’t been as good lately as the other three guys. Britton is probably fourth on the totem pole to start, but his excellent career numbers against lefties, as well as his unique fastball-heavy approach, will make him the right guy for plenty of scenarios.
Chad Green does one thing better than any other Yankee reliever: get out of trouble. He has an extremely high strand rate, a very low walk rate and a solid K-rate. Given these strengths, and the depth of the Yankees’ bullpen, Green should be the first guy that Boone turns to out of the bullpen if a starter is in trouble. He is an absolute luxury on this Yankees team, someone who can cover multiple middle innings if needed.
As for the rest of the bullpen, Jonathan Holder will likely play an Adam Warren-style role, soaking up middle relief innings and providing length when needed. The last two spots could go to Tommy Kahnle, Luis Cessa, Danny Farquhar, Stephen Tarpley or several other candidates, but they likely won’t see many important innings. Still, some of these options are far better than many other teams’ last men on the depth chart.
Given the state of the Yankees’ rotation (well above average, but not exactly durable), Aaron Boone will be using his super bullpen early and often during the season. The best part about it? He has someone for everything. Lockdown closer? Check. Two reliable setup men? You got it. A lefty that lives by generating grounders? Yup. Fireman? Present and accounted for. Brian Cashman has assembled the game’s finest collection of relievers. Now, we get to sit back and watch them do what they do best.