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Can the Yankees’ super bullpen strategy close out a championship?

What past World Series winners reveal about Brian Cashman’s unprecedented gamble

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

At a time when the majority of Yankee hitters find themselves on the injured list, perhaps now is the right moment to take a step back and evaluate the team’s long-term strategy. At the very least, it’ll spare all of you my rant about their training staff.

During this current postseason window that began in 2017, Yankees GM Brian Cashman has doubled down on the revolutionary tactic that the Royals used to win the 2015 World Series: build an unhittable bullpen. After inking closer Aroldis Chapman to an $86 million contract — the largest ever given to a relief pitcher — he traded for David Robertson and his $13 million annual salary. When Robertson departed for Philadelphia this offseason, Cashman more than compensated for his loss by signing $80 million worth of setup men in Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton, rather than splurging on everyday players like Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. These relievers represented an all-in wager on Cashman’s part — an unprecedented bet on the value of what was historically the game’s least valued position.

This strategy has given the Yankees an absolutely devastating relief corps on paper. But the pen has not, at least to this point, been anything close to unhittable — as many fans, myself included, believed it would be. Indeed, before the season started, MLB.com speculated that the Bombers’ 2019 bullpen could be the greatest ever assembled “by far.” There was no shortage of evidence to justify that prediction: the 2018 Yankees bullpen posted the highest WAR in baseball history, edging out the 2017 Yankees ‘pen. Through 21 games, however, the team’s bullpen ERA of 4.17 is only good enough for sixteenth in the sport, while its three combined saves is tied for fifth worst in the league with the Miami Marlins.

You could easily argue that it’s too early to evaluate these statistics, particularly because Dellin Betances has yet to take the mound. On the other hand, serious concerns abound for this group, despite the relief corps otherwise remaining immune to the Yankees’ injury bug. Between Chad Green’s 12.27 ERA, Jonathan Holder’s 6.55 ERA, and the six runs the ’pen surrendered in today’s game, it already seems unlikely they’ll match last season’s record performance. And while Tommy Kahnle has recovered much of his velocity, his poor 2018 campaign nonetheless reinforces the key takeaway — relievers, even the very best ones, are unpredictable.

Of course, if a superstar closer puts up a 2 WAR season, as only eight managed to do last year, they’re worth big money. But of the top 15 relievers by WAR in 2018, only one — Felipe Vazquez of the Pirates — was also among the top 15 in 2017. For comparison, seven starting pitchers made the top 15 in WAR during both seasons, while six batters did the same. Ultimately, relying on upper-90s heat, as most high-leverage relief pitchers do, does not seem conducive to durability or to consistency. In fact, that’s part of why Mariano Rivera became the undisputed best closer of all time. Rarely the number one reliever during any given season, Rivera’s unusually precise command and ability to get outs without elite velocity nevertheless allowed him to dominate year in and year out for longer than anyone else, before or since.

Perhaps in search of the next Mo, the Yankees are in uncharted territory when it comes to their big bullpen gamble. Although Spotrac.com only lists salaries since 2011, I would venture to guess that no team has ever paid $52 million for relief pitching, as the Bombers will this year. Case and point, here’s a chart showing how much the Yankees spend on relievers as a percentage of their overall payroll, compared to the last eight World Series winners. These bullpen payrolls do not include starters who were used as relievers in the playoffs:

Keep in mind, I’m not denying that bullpens have historically been undervalued and underutilized; as I pointed out in my piece on “openers,” relievers should probably be used even more often. Still, I’m not sold on the type of deals Cashman gave to Chapman or Britton. Owed more than $30 million combined every year through at least 2021, the pair totaled just 2.4 WAR in 2018, suggesting those resources might have been better spent. And because they are each 31 years old, decline is statistically quite likely.

However the Yankees perform this season and beyond, Brian Cashman’s decision to invest so heavily in the ‘pen will be put to the test. Clearly, he’s made a number of brilliant acquisitions, from Didi Gregorius to Luke Voit to Gleyber Torres. But as GM of the most storied franchise in all of sports, a team that’s taken home just one title in its last 18 tries, the pressure is still on — and there’s no relief in sight.