For nearly two decades, the Yankees enjoyed immense comfort in knowing that the greatest closer of all time was standing by in the bullpen, waiting for the opportunity to enter the game late and help the team nail down a win. Year after year, management went to great lengths to surround him with a supporting cast of outstanding setup men, all tasked with the singular responsibility of getting the ball to Mo. Once Mariano Rivera retired, talk among fans immediately shifted from celebrating the game’s greatest reliever to discussing how the club could build the best bullpen.
Building the perfect beast
After the Bombers saw their season end with a defeat in the 2015 American League Wild Card Game, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman acquired closer Aroldis Chapman in a buy-low trade from the Reds. Former closer Andrew Miller joined Dellin Betances in a setup role, and “No Runs DMC” was born. This configuration was short-lived, however, as both Miller and Chapman were traded for prospects in a mid-summer fire sale.
Chapman returned to the Bronx via free agency after helping the Cubs win the World Series, and White Sox reliever Tommy Kahnle and closer David Robertson joined the fold via mid-season trade. The trio, along with upstart Chad Green, formed a dominant bullpen which helped propel the Yankees to a postseason surge that took them to within one win of the Fall Classic.
The 2018 campaign saw the return to form of Betances, who had struggled mightily the previous year and was effectively benched during the playoffs. Cashman also acquired former superstar closer Zack Britton in a trade-deadline deal with the Orioles, who re-signed with the team as a free agent over the winter. Ninja Cash also let Robertson depart via free agency, instead opting to ink Rockies setup man Adam Ottavino to a deal.
Together, Chapman, Betances, Britton, Ottavino, and Green are expected to form the big five at the back end of the Yankees bullpen this year. Other talents, like Kahnle, Jonathan Holder, Stephen Tarpley, Luis Cessa, Domingo German, and Jonathan Loaisiga will vie for supporting roles, with the latter three also serving as rotation depth. Could the Yankees bullpen be considered the best ever assembled? That may very well depend on how you define “best.”
Bullpen usage has changed dramatically
Other than the shift from small-ball offense to home run power, no other aspect of the game’s strategy has changed as much as bullpen usage. Throughout most of the 20th century, MLB teams deployed nine-man pitching staffs. The top four or five arms formed the starting rotation, while the rest were relegated to the bullpen. Roles were not always clearly defined, as starting pitchers were often used in relief, and relievers frequently made spot starts.
The 1927 Murderer’s Row Yankees featured a righty-lefty, one-two punch at the top of their rotation in future Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock. Hoyt led the club with 32 starts, while Pennock, Urban Shocker, Dutch Ruether, and George Pipgras each started at least 20 games. The quintet also combined to make 17 relief appearances, and were credited with four saves. Five other pitchers combined to make 107 appearances, including 23 starts.
Wilcy Moore starred as the team’s closer. He led the majors with 13 saves and placed third in the AL with 19 wins. He won the major-league crown with a 2.28 ERA, racking up 213 innings to easily qualify. Moore finished 30 games for the Bombers, started 12, and led New York’s pitching staff with 6.6 WAR. Only four pitchers in baseball outproduced Moore in 1927 — all of whom were starters.
Saves changed everything
Exactly fifty years later, Yankees closer Sparky Lyle became the first relief pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award, with Mike Marshall having won the NL award in 1974. Saves became an official stat in 1969, and baseball bullpen strategy changed rapidly. The Yankees were already on the leading edge of this revolution when they heisted Lyle in a lopsided trade with the Red Sox right before the start of the ‘72 season.
After capturing the 1977 championship with Lyle’s help, the Yankees front office set out to build a dominant bullpen around him. First, they signed free agent Rich “Goose” Gossage to a then-record $3.6 million contract. The future Hall of Famer led the league with 26 saves pitching for the White Sox in ‘75, when he finished sixth in the Cy Young voting after producing 8.3 WAR — a record for a reliever which still stands. Goose pitched to a 1.62 ERA and notched 26 saves for the Pirates in ‘77, and carried a streak of three straight All-Star Game selections with him to the Bronx.
A month after landing Gossage, the Yankees inked Rawly Eastwick to a five-year, $1.1 million pact. The righty closed for the Big Red Machine during their back-to-back 1975-76 championship runs, leading the league in saves both years, and winning the Fireman of the Year Award in 1976. Unfortunately, Eastwick quickly turned into a bust in New York, and was traded to Philadelphia in June. Still, this was the first deliberate attempt by a MLB team to build a three-headed bullpen monster by acquiring talent from outside the organization.
From that point on, teams attempted to create bullpens with multiple power arms, but those efforts largely fell short. In 1989, the Yankees even traded future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to Oakland for relievers Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk in an effort to create a super bullpen headed by closer Dave Righetti and setup man Lee Guetterman.
The following year, the Reds won a title that was largely credited to their dominant “Nasty Boys” troika in the bullpen. Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers combined to throw 339 innings, finish 101 games, and notch 44 saves. They posted a 24-18 record, with a 2.28 ERA and 1.16 WHIP.
Joe Torre finally succeeded in developing a three-headed bullpen weapon for the Yankees. They won the World Series in ‘96 with primary setup men Jeff Nelson and Rivera supporting closer John Wetteland. Mariano finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting, and subsequently inherited the closer mantle the next season.
Mike Stanton joined Nelson to set up Rivera, and that trio remained together for years. After that, other setup men came and went, while the goal was always to have two primary relievers getting the ball to Mo.
The modern bullpen emerges
Nowadays, three power arms at the back of the bullpen isn’t enough. With sabermetrics revealing obvious deficiencies when starters attempt to go more than twice through a lineup, the emphasis now centers on possessing dominant arms to enter games during the middle innings. Minor-league player development has finally caught up to this evolutionary curve, and now most teams boast one player after another coming out of the bullpen throwing 95 mph plus.
Throwing hard isn’t enough, though, and that’s where the Yankees once again find themselves ahead of the curve. The team boasts an unusually large number of pitchers who have what it takes to close for virtually any team. They have the repertoire and usage flexibility to pitch in various high-pressure situations.
We saw this on display during each of New York’s last two postseason runs. During the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, starter Luis Severino got knocked out in the first inning after allowing three runs and only recording one out. Green, Robertson, and Kahnle each pitched multiple innings to get the ball to Chapman with the Yankees leading. The quartet combined to hurl 8.2 innings of one-run ball, and helped catapult the Yankees into the Division Series.
One year later, a different manager used the same approach. Betances was called upon with two on and no one out in the fifth inning and the Yankees clinging to a 2-0 lead. He recorded three quick outs, and then returned to the mound in the sixth to retire the side in order. It was the earliest that Betances had entered a game since May of 2014.
These two examples best illustrate the return of the fireman, a role made famous by flamethrowers like Lyle and Gossage four decades ago. Back then, the team’s best reliever would enter as soon as the starting pitcher tired — often in mid-inning with guys on base. He would put out the fire, and then stick around to finish the game. The fireman/closer ultimately gave way to a one-inning closer supported by seventh and eighth inning guys. But now the fireman is back, to help bridge the gap to the back end.
The Yankees have assembled an impressive bullpen consisting of guys who can serve in multiple roles, whether it be as a fireman, setup man, or closer. Plus, they have guys who are flexible enough to fill different needs from day to day. This allows manager Aaron Boone to feel comfortable letting players rest as needed, and avoid pitching relievers three and four days in a row (as we’ve seen other managers do).
The 2019 Yankees bullpen and high-ceiling talent
In 2016, Britton produced one of the greatest campaigns by a reliever in baseball history while closing for the Orioles. He set a MLB record with an astounding 803 ERA+ (minimum 60 innings). He also led the league with 47 saves, 63 games finished, and placed fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Green produced a historic campaign of his own the following year. His 0.739 WHIP over 69 innings was the tenth-lowest in baseball history among pitchers with as many innings. He sports a 0.895 WHIP and .546 OPS against in his career as a reliever.
Five-time All-Star Chapman notched 30 plus saves in seven of the last eight years. He boasts a 1.01 WHIP, 1.98 FIP, and has averaged an even 15.0 strikeouts per nine over his career.
Betances has four All-Star nods on his resume, along with 36 saves, a 2.32 FIP, 1.045 WHIP, and 14.6 strikeouts per nine over his career. He seems to have bounced back fully from whatever plagued him in 2017, as evidenced by his stellar season last year.
New arrival Ottavino parlayed a career year into a nice free agent deal with the Yankees. In 2018, his 2.74 FIP, 0.991 WHIP, and .509 OPS against across 77 frames placed him among MLB leaders, while his 13.0 strikeouts per nine was a career high.
Ottavino, Green, Chapman, Betances, and Britton combined to produce 16.9 WAR during the single best years of their careers. To put that in perspective, the entire Yankees pitching staff created 21.8 WAR last season. That was a 100-win team, which finished with the third-best record in all of baseball. So clearly, the Yankees bullpen houses some high-ceiling talent.
The Yankees bullpen set a record in 2018
The Athletics relief corps notched a record 45 wins last season, the 1942 Cardinals boast the lowest ERA (1.75) and OPS against (.530), the 1965 White Sox set the mark for lowest WHIP (1.003), and their 1990 squad saved a record 68 games.
The 1920 Yankees bullpen holds the record for the highest single-season winning percentage (.933) during the Live Ball Era. But that group also sported a rather pedestrian 3.41 ERA and an awful 1.52 WHIP over only 234 innings, as starters hurled 88 complete games and logged 1,134 frames.
Perhaps my favorite bullpen record is the one set last year by the Yankees. Their relievers struck out a whopping 11.4 batters per nine, which broke the team’s own MLB mark of 10.9 set in 2017. And that was the whole bullpen, not just the top guys. Wow.
So why is that particular record my favorite? It’s simple, really. When the starting pitcher gets knocked out of a close game with the bases juiced and no one out, we all want the guy coming in from the ‘pen to strike ‘em out and leave the runners stranded, don’t we? Not only is it thrilling to watch, but it also wins games. It’s certainly nice to know that the Yankees are the best in history at getting the punch out.
I’d love to see the Yankees relievers break their own strikeout record yet again this season. We’ve already documented how the dominant bullpen has helped the club win in the playoffs over the last two years. Maybe the Bombers can ride that train a little further this season.
How does one measure bullpen greatness?
In all honesty, I don’t think that any one stat — or group of stats — can effectively measure a bullpen’s greatness. For me, the best part about getting the ball to Mo was knowing that once he climbed the hill, the game would be won. Sure, he blew a save once in awhile. But it happened so rarely, that one never bothered pausing to contemplate the possibility.
In order to consider this year’s Yankees bullpen truly “great,” I need my confidence to approach a Mariano-like level. Boone should be able to pull the starter one batter early, rather than one batter too late. One of the bullpen studs should be able to enter a game as early as needed, with guys on base and the outcome on the line (like those Wild Card Games), and put out the fire. That first man in should then be able to pass the baton to the next guy, and so on down the line, until the game is won. And Boone should be able to use that approach game after game, all season long.
I don’t expect absolute perfection over 162 games — that’s simply not realistic. But fans should feel confident from day to day, rather than bracing for the game to slip away once the bullpen door opens, as we frequently have since Mo retired.
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.