The Yankees’ bullpen as a whole underwhelmed in 2020, but Luis Cessa wasn’t one of the reasons why. He wasn’t relied upon as one of the relievers in Aaron Boone’s circle of trust during key late-game situations, but he handled modest-leverage middle-to-long relief duties without much stress.
Although his successful body of work might suggest a larger opportunity is in order for Cessa next year, it would probably be best for the Yankees to keep Cessa in his current role as the fifth or sixth reliever who can keep games close and eat innings.
2020 Statistics: 16 games, 21.2 IP, 3.32 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.2 fWAR
2021 Contract Status: Entering first year of arbitration eligibility
Cessa has hit his stride as a Yankee since becoming a full-time reliever in 2019. He changed his approach, using his slider more than half the time and barely throwing 30 percent fastballs. Cessa’s slider has a high spin rate, and it’s the pitch that he got all but one of his strikeouts on this season. Batters only hit .180 off it in 2020.
Embracing a breaking-ball-heavy approach has led to fewer baserunners and a lower home run rate for Cessa, traits that the Yankees’ bullpen obviously could use more of. Even though batters hit plenty of fly balls off Cessa, he was able to keep them in the ballpark this year. With the home run rate in control, Cessa was better than ever before. He also recorded his highest chase rate and first-pitch-strike percentage of his career, along with an excellent 4.4 percent barrel rate.
That said, Cessa is what he is at this point entering his age-29 season. His Statcast numbers are not particularly special in any way, and he faced a pretty low leverage index when he entered games this year (his leverage index was 0.22 lower in 2020 than 2019, which indicates that he entered games in less important situations). The Yankees have to use middle relievers a lot because their starters don’t go deep into games, but they’ve had trouble actually finding capable arms. Cessa is one of the few that Boone can generally trust in these situations.
The Yankees got Cessa way back in 2015 (along with Chad Green) for Justin Wilson, and the trade sure has paid off. Green has become a trusted late-inning arm, while Cessa has turned himself into a serviceable middle reliever. The Yankees tried hard in the past to make Cessa a starter or an impact relief arm, and he has proven to be neither of those things. However, he’s a contributor to this team that can provide length and is generally low-risk. The Yankees need to renovate their bullpen in 2021, but Cessa should still be a part of the lower end of it.