The Yankees have placed a premium on bullpen performance for most of my lifetime, with some of the crown jewels of the player development machine showing up in relief roles. Names like Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Dellin Betances quickly come to mind. The team has made relief pitching even more of a priority over the past few years, with the club shelling out money for the biggest and brightest relievers on the open market every winter.
This used to be a no-no; analysts thought that relievers proved too volatile to lock up free agent contracts and fungible enough that teams could produce them in-house. The Yankees still do manufacture great relievers, but over the last few offseasons, they have paid top dollar for the best and biggest bullpen free agents.
It’s clear now that this strategy works.
The Yankees’ bullpen ranks first in fWAR, as well as top five in K-BB% and average fastball velocity. Additionally, they have logged right around the league median in innings pitched. That’s an encouraging total, as the Yankees’ rotation isn’t exactly known for working deep into games.
Interestingly enough, the Yankees aren’t leaning on their bullpen more than most teams. Since fWAR is a stat that measures both quality and quantity, the Yankees’ average-or-so bullpen innings reflect just how much better the collective group is than the rest of the league.
It’s well known that starters are being called upon to throw fewer and fewer innings. Over the past two years, the Yankees have outpaced the league average in terms of splitting the work between starters and relievers. As a team asks more of its bullpen, expenditures on relief pitching have to go up as well.
It certainly has for the Yankees, even as league-wide spending on relievers has remained mostly stagnant over the last five offseasons. Just the past winter, the Yankees committed a guaranteed $66 million to Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino over the next three seasons, and just those two combine for more than the average MLB team’s entire bullpen payroll.
That investment is paying off too. Ottavino is striking out more than 11 men per nine, while Britton boasts a ludicrous 76% groundball rate, as his sinker appears to be back after some rocky work with the pitch last year. Meanwhile, the biggest free agent reliever signing in history is working out as well: Aroldis Chapman has a career-low ERA and walk rate.
The Yankees have flipped the old analytical adage on its head. They’ve seen a value every winter in signing big name relief pitchers, and it’s worked well. Signing relievers in January might not be the sexiest move a front office can make, but for the Yankees at least, it probably boasts the best return on investment of the position groups.