When the Yankees decided to bring back Zack Britton for the 2019 season, it was clear they placed an emphasis on maintaining MLB’s most dominant bullpen. Then they added to their embarrassment of riches by signing Adam Ottavino, fresh off one of the league’s most dominant 2018 campaigns. With at least five pitchers that would be closers on the majority of MLB teams, Aaron Boone has had to make some decisions early on about how he’ll utilize these weapons. Here’s how it’s shaking out thus far.
Chapman, to nobody’s surprise, has maintained his role as the Yankees closer. He’s pitched the final inning in all of his appearances so far in 2019 and that won’t likely change any time soon, although the Yankees do have plenty of options if he struggles for a stretch. The left-hander’s fastball velocity is noticeably down in the early going, but according to Statcast, he’s still only seen one of his pitches barreled up in his first five appearances of the season. Chapman will likely remain a premier closer as long as the knee that gave him trouble last season remains stable.
Britton could have easily signed a multi-year deal to be the featured closer for a number of MLB teams, but he decided he wanted to be part of a potentially historic bullpen in New York. The left-hander has been used as the setup man in the early going this season and has performed admirably. However, with so many top-tier options to lean on, the Yankees will undoubtedly consider matchups if they want to use Britton in an earlier spot. Britton’s sinker, which he throws 92.6% of the time, is a ground ball waiting to happen and is a nightmare for left-handed batters. Britton is right around his career 78% ground ball rate so far this season, so all signs point towards Britton helping to mow the Yankee Stadium grass on a consistent basis in 2019. If the Yankees desperately need a ground ball Britton is going to be their guy, but expect to keep seeing him in the eighth inning if all goes according to plan and everyone’s available.
Ottavino made 64% of his appearances in the eighth inning last season for the Rockies. Early on, the Yankees have utilized Ottavino as more of a high leverage reliever to put out fires, regardless of the inning. Boone has to feel good about his usage of the right-hander so far, as Ottavino has dominated high leverage situations early this season. The first 12 batters Ottavino has faced in high leverage situations are a combined 0-for-9 and opponents have yet to barrel up a single pitch he’s thrown through his first five appearances, according to Statcast. If Ottavino continues to show that level of composure in high leverage situations, he’ll be worth every penny of the three-year, $27 million contract he signed in the offseason.
With the addition of Ottavino, the unsung hero of the Yankees bullpen the past two seasons will likely see a few less high leverage situations and will pitch to keep the Yankees in games, rather than to preserve leads. However, Green is hardly the Yankees’ new long reliever. His first four appearances of the season have come in the sixth inning or later and all have come in a game separated by two runs or less. The combination of Green and Ottavino is a luxury Boone will cherish in the middle innings before unleashing Britton and Chapman.
The Yankees bullpen faced its first test of the season right from the start with Betances hitting the injured list right out of spring training, but if any team is equipped to handle an injury to a top flight reliever it’s the 2019 Yankees.