Over the past three to four seasons, the teams have put more and more focus on their bullpens. The 2016 campaign is really when we began to see elite bullpens change the game. In the regular season that year, the Yankees had accumulated Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances as they easily boasted the league’s best bullpen. Later that year, Chapman and Miller would be moved to the two teams that eventually met up in the World Series, the Cubs and the Indians, who both found great value in each of their pitchers during their playoff runs.
We saw Indians manager Terry Francona utilize Miller as the game’s first super-reliever that would enter the game in the fifth or sixth inning and shut down teams until the eighth or ninth inning when the closer came in. It quickly became clear that this was a legitimate and potent strategy.
Ever since then, playoff contenders have gone to great lengths to create elite bullpens. Both the Cubs of 2016 and the Astros of 2017 had fantastic bullpens (both World Series Champions). The Red Sox of last year weren’t known for their bullpen at all, but if you followed their playoff run last year, you would know their bullpen found a new gear and the Red Sox wouldn’t have gone far without them. Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes specifically became nearly untouchable in October, and Nathan Eovaldi had his own star turn as starter-turned-reliever.
As the years have passed, a few elite relievers have bounce around the league, while some have stayed put. In the pursuit of premier relief units, teams have begun to internalize the general volatility of relievers. Look at guys like Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Zach Britton, and more recently Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia. All were either considered to be one of or the best reliever in the game at one point, and they have all failed to replicate their dominance over multiple seasons. Kimbrel came very close to blowing it for the Red Sox multiple times last year, Allen was good for a few years but was cut by the Angels this year, and Britton is still very solid but hasn’t come close to his historic 2016 season. On top of all that, we havae Diaz who was easily the league’s reliever in 2018 but has looked absolutely lost in 2019.
All of this is to say that it’s been remarkably difficult for teams to find consistency even among top-end relievers, and that’s where the Yankees have capitalized. Aroldis Chapman has been the complete opposite of his elite contemporaries. Since 2016, Chapman has maintained an earned run average of 2.27. His ERA’s over those seasons were 1.55, 3.22, 2.45, and so far this year 1.82. Besides a slight spike in 2017, he’s actually only gotten better. On top of that, he has averaged 76 strikeouts in 49 innings pitch over that span. This consistency cannot be found anywhere else.
I bring this up because this is something the Yankees must take advantage of before their luck runs out. We all just saw Chapman strike out the side to get the save in the All-Star game, and who knows how much longer that will last? Say the Yankees can’t find a way to their 28th championship this year, what if next year they come back to compete for a championship again but Chapman has fallen into an Edwin Diaz-like trap of struggling during every outing? This team would look a lot different.
Aroldis Chapman, ASG White Castle Special (3 nasty sliders). pic.twitter.com/VCUbJqe17v— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 10, 2019
Luckily, Brian Cashman has been good enough at his job to have created one of the best bullpens the league has ever seen with multiple relievers that have closing ability. But let’s not take Chapman for granted. His consistency has kept the Yankees bullpen atop the league for about four years now and we don’t know how much longer he can be this effective, especially when we see the effectiveness of other relievers zig-zagging all over the place across the league.