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One thing the Yankees can learn from the Rays

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May 2020 be the last year of bullpen roles.

American League Wild Card Game 2: Toronto Blue Jays v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

“If a basketball team loses by two points, everyone thinks the entire team needs to be torn down. If a basketball team wins by two points, nobody thinks anything needs to change. A four-point difference is the fate of the team” — Sam Miller.

The Yankees are out of the playoffs, and we’ll spend a good deal of the winter autopsying the organization. The team still has a strong roster, albeit one with some issues that will need addressing, but I don’t ever like to just point at the team that beat you and say, “we need to be like them.” In one particular instance, though, the Yankees should adopt the “no bullpen roles” approach of the team that beat them, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Aroldis Chapman just had one of his best seasons of his life. His 40% strikeout minus walk rate, in my opinion the single-most important pitching stat, was the second best of his career. Nick Anderson, the Rays’ best pitcher, posted a 39.7% K-BB%, so the two of them were basically equal in this important building block of pitching.

Even in a short season, Anderson only threw five more innings than Chapman, which largely reflects the time Chapman missed at the beginning of the season due to his COVID-19 diagnosis. They are very similar pitchers, and you would imagine that both are their team’s closers. Yet more than half of Anderson’s appearances came outside of the ninth inning — 60% of his innings this year, and last year he worked in five different innings. Chapman? 80% of his innings in 2020 came in the ninth, and 9% in extra innings. Last year was even more stark, with 94% of his innings coming in the final frame.

The Rays had 12 different players record a save, and five that recorded more than one. The save isn’t really an important stat except when you use it to indicate who is throwing when — the Yankees only had five players record a save, and only Chapman and Zack Britton recorded more than one. If you want to step back and look at a larger sample, 11 Rays had a save last year with six having multiple, compared to eight and six for the Yankees.

If your best reliever is conventionally the closer, the next-best is conventionally the setup man. The Rays’ second-best reliever — by ERA+ — was Diego Castillo, who appeared in six different innings. Zack Britton appeared in four, with 16 of his 18 innings coming in the eighth or ninth.

The closer is the closer because he’s the closer, and the setup guy is the setup guy because he’s the setup guy. Yet the best, most overpowering bullpen in baseball has largely done away with bullpen roles, using their top arms when they’re needed, not simply because they’re penciled in for the eighth and ninth innings. The Yankees have been among the most cutting-edge organizations in baseball, yet still adhere to a lot of the conventional thinking about when they use their best arms.

FanGraphs tracks a metric called Game Leverage Index, which measures the leverage index when a particular player is brought in. 1.0 is average - the “importance” of the moment. Anything higher than 1.0 is a more “important” moment, a bigger spot.

Anderson and Castillo aren’t just great pitchers — they’re brought in when the team needs them the most. They’re consistently called upon in higher-leverage spots, Kevin Cash doesn’t wait around for the eighth inning when two men reach in the sixth.

Of course pitchers are creatures of habit, and we hear in the postseason that a given pitcher is working in an uncomfortable spot because it’s not the ninth. Well, it’s a good thing we’ll have an entire offseason and spring training to get these guys comfortable with the idea. If the bases are loaded with a one run lead in the seventh, and you really need a strikeout, you bring in the pitcher who has been arguably the single-greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history. Don’t leave him for a ninth inning that might be a completely different game, just because the closer is the closer is the closer.