The Yankees have one of baseball’s deepest and most talented bullpens, there’s no denying that. But how good should we expect the Yankees’ relievers to be next season, and should we expect them to be better or worse than 2019? According to FanGraphs, the Yankees’ bullpen finished ninth in ERA, fourth in xFIP, and second in WAR among all MLB teams last season. A lot of teams would be happy with those results, but considering the investment the Yankees have made in their bullpen in recent years, there should be room for improvement.
The Yankees had eight relief pitchers throw 38 innings or more last season. Among those eight relievers, seven figure to be back in the fold come spring training, with Nestor Cortes Jr. being the only exception. Cortes pitched to a 5.60 ERA over 64.1 innings, quietly racking up the third-most innings in the Yankees’ bullpen. It’s hard to imagine they won’t be able to improve on that long relief production with some combination of Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga, Michael King, or even J.A. Happ. Luis Cessa, who led the Yankees with 81.0 IP in 2019, should factor into a similar role if he has a good spring. His 4.11 ERA feels like a bit of an overachievement, but Statcast suggests he was actually unlucky in terms of xBA, xSLG, and xWOBA. If they can get repeat production from Cessa and improve from Cortes, consider the Yankees’ long relief outlook a positive one heading into spring training.
When Dellin Betances went down with injuries last spring, the Yankees’ bullpen was forced to rely on Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green to become the bridge to the late innings. Kahnle, coming off a lost 2018 season, became a two-pitch changeup specialist and can safely be considered the Yankees’ greatest bullpen overachiever of 2019. He revitalized his career with a 3.67 ERA in 61.1 IP, and much like Cessa, Statcast indicates he should have produced even better results. Among MLB relievers who pitched at least 60 innings, Kahnle ranked fourth worst with a 23.1 HR/FB rate. His previous career worst HR/FB rate was 16.7% in 2015, and that’s when he was pitching his home games at Coors Field. Kahnle could be the relief pitcher who swings the pendulum one way or the other for the Yankees this year, but there’s reason to believe he could be just as good, or better, this season.
Green posted a 5.68 ERA in the first half and a 2.89 ERA in the second half, so place him in a similar wildcard category for the middle innings. Green’s consistency in the early going of 2020 could be a good indication of the work new pitching coach Matt Blake is capable of, as Green has proven his ability to dominate stretches of the season, but also lose his bearings for weeks at a time. Green’s career ERA stands at 3.16, so it’s entirely fair to expect him to improve upon the 4.17 ERA he registered in 2019.
Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, and Zack Britton are back in 2020 after combining for a 2.00 ERA in 184.2 innings of work last season. Asking for those three to combine for much better would be asking a lot, and Ottavino’s 4.32 xFIP and five losses might be more indicative of his overall performance. Both Ottavino and Britton struggled with command at times in 2019, but got out of jams with elite ground ball and strikeout rates. Both figure to carry a similar recipe over to 2020, but also have some room for improvement concerning their walk rates. Chapman was his usual dominant self last season, and there’s little indication he’s going to age poorly.. The closer posted a career low 98.0 mph average fastball last season, but he dominated by complementing the fastball with a career high 31.1% sliders, against which opponents batted just .159.
The band’s back together for the 2020 season, and there’s plenty of reason to believe the Yankees’ bullpen can be one of the best in MLB once again. The consistency of middle relievers like Green and Kahnle could be the ultimate difference maker that takes the Yankees’ bullpen from top 10 to number one, but an improvement over Nestor Cortes in long relief, and some fine tuning of command in the late innings could pay big dividends as well.