A team’s closer is the pitcher whom the manager wants on the mound with the game on the line. They always enter in high-pressure situations, and thus for every seven or eight times they tightrope out of danger, there’s usually one or two blown saves. Guess which outcome fans remember more?
No closer is perfect, and Aroldis Chapman is certainly far it. He’s thrown the pitches that sunk the Yankees’ season in 2019 and 2020, and those are the moments that he’s most remembered for by Yankees fans and outsiders alike, fairly or not. Add in his blown save with the Cubs in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series, and admittedly, Chapman has had a few prominent missteps in postseason games.
Still, there’s no one better to keep closing out games for the Yankees. Few relief pitchers are as dominant or consistent as Chapman, and there’s no one I’d rather ride or die with the game on the line than the best reliever on the team.
Need some proof? Chapman has been pretty great as a Yankee. Since 2016, only one reliever (Kenley Jansen) has a higher WAR than Chapman, and it’s literally only by a tenth of a point. He has the fifth-best strikeout rate, fourth-best home run rate, third-best ERA and best FIP of all relievers over that span. With bullpen arms being historically volatile, it’s a luxury that Chapman has been so good year in and year out, even with some rocky moments here and there.
In the postseason over that time, he has blown some games. But, he also has a 1.71 playoff ERA as a Yankee, has thrown multiple innings in several outings, has a ridiculous 16.7 K/9, and has allowed just two home runs (yes, they were those two home runs).
Two dingers don’t change the fact that he can still help the Yankees. Who else would you rather have on the mound in those situations against Jose Altuve or Mike Brosseau? The only argument that could be made is for Zack Britton, but the Yankees might not have even kept those games tied in the late innings if Britton hadn’t come in earlier and bailed them out.
The Yankees, who used to have the “Super-Bullpen,” have no bullpen depth right now, and that’s the problem. There are two, maybe three relievers on the Yankees that Aaron Boone can seriously trust in a playoff game right now. That sounds more like an average relief corps than a dominant unit, and isn’t that the real problem here, especially for how heavily the Yankees have invested in the bullpen?
So, Chapman is now the closer in an average bullpen. Comparing the Yankees’ bullpen to the remaining playoff teams still has the Bombers coming out mostly ahead, somehow. The Dodgers are having trouble trusting Jansen in the ninth after he too had a few two many notable blown games, but none of his replacements (and they’ve tried three) have been capable of getting outs in the ninth. They might as well go back to Jansen at this point. Meanwhile, the Braves’ bullpen gave up seven runs in three innings on Tuesday and almost blew the game, and the Astros have more blown saves this year than all but one team (the lowly Angels). Only the Rays have a truly dominant playoff bullpen right now, and it’s a big part of why they’re where they are right now.
Even in 2018, the Dodgers’ relievers were a huge reason why they lost the World Series, despite Craig Kimbrel’s best efforts to mess things up for the Red Sox with his 5.91 playoff ERA and 7.1 BB/9. The point is, with relievers being so historically volatile time and time again (including All-Stars like Kimbrel and Jansen), teams might as well trot out the guy with the best stuff. For the Yankees, Chapman is that guy, even as he’s slipped from his peak. His velocity still garners strikeouts and his batted-ball data shows that he still gets plenty of weak contact.
Yes, Chapman has had a bad track record in three huge situations. But, that doesn’t mean that he’s no good anymore. With the rest of baseball having a hard time figuring out how to close playoff games, let this be a warning sign to the Yankees to improve their bullpen depth. When you only have two pitchers you can trust in the bullpen, you’re going to have to over-rely on them, and bad things happen then. When the Yankees are in their next close playoff game, I still want Aroldis Chapman out there closing things out. Hopefully he won’t be asked to get seven outs this time around.