The Yankees’ bullpen has been, by and large, the best in baseball this year. While other teams have tried to assemble super-bullpens, most have failed miserably. In kind, the Yankees’ bullpen has the most holds, the second-highest WAR and saves, third-best K/9, and ninth-best strand rate in the league.
However, some of those numbers have been marred by a recent rough spat for the relief crew. A stint in London, which featured a tiny ballpark (and potentially juiced baseballs), played a part in the statistical decline, but it seems some of it has carried back over stateside. The Yankees’ bullpen blew three leads this week – one at the Mets, and two at the Rays.
This isn’t an isolated problem for one or two relievers. Take a look at the Yankees’ bullpen’s stats since June 25:
No one has been good! Even the guys with good ERAs on that chart have seen their share of difficult innings over that stretch. Aaron Boone hasn’t been able to trust anyone out of the bullpen for the last two weeks or so, which results in the team having to turn to David Hale, Nestor Cortes, and Luis Cessa in high-leverage spots against the second-place Rays, which is not a good recipe.
Some of this bullpen downturn can likely be attributed to overwork. There are two primary reasons the bullpen has been overtaxed – poor starting pitching, and the concept of bullpen games.
The 2019 Yankees’ rotation is not known for its durability or ability to pitch deep into games. As a result, Boone often turns to the bullpen after five or six innings, rarely pushing a starter past 100 pitches and warming the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. Over the course of a full season, this adds up. You’re seeing the results now when Adam Ottavino’s breaking balls aren’t breaking, Aroldis Chapman’s fastball loses life, and Zack Britton isn’t missing bats.
This bullpen stress has also been expedited by the Yankees’ (over)reliance on bullpen games in the first half. Yes, the Yankees were down to four healthy starters at several times this season, and the team has not lost a “bullpen game” all year, but the London Series proved the faults with planning on a bullpen game.
After Masahiro Tanaka got shelled on Saturday, the bullpen basically had to pitch the whole game. The problem is, there wasn’t a scheduled starter for the next day, which was an allotted bullpen game even though CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ were on regular rest. As a result, the Yankees had to dig even deeper into their relievers, and the game was a sloppy mess that wore the bullpen out into this week.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the team’s bullpen. Two factors will help reset the relievers – the return of Domingo German and the timing of the All-Star break.
German’s return means two things. It gives the Yankees back their most impressive starter this season, and one who can go reasonably deep into games. It also returns the rotation to full strength – there won’t be any more bullpen games for the Yankees until someone gets injured again. Getting German back will not only benefit the rotation, but also the bullpen.
Additionally, the All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Yankees’ relievers. Four days of rest will help recharge their batteries and hopefully heal some nagging injuries. After a stretch of overuse, the mini-vacation will make sure that everyone comes back fully energized for the stretch run.
Even with a recent hiccup, the Yankees’ bullpen has been the best in the league this year. It’s one of their unique strengths that other teams can’t counter, and will influence how far this team goes into October. For the team to reach its full potential, the bullpen will have to get back on track. In that respect, here’s to hoping that the return of German and a few rest days will do the trick.