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The relievers who shut down the Yankees, and how to make them pay

These relievers always seem to stymie the Yankees, but what if I told you that each has a fatal flaw?

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Over the last several days, I have been profiling the Yankee killers in each role. Beginning with hitters and starting pitchers, I now wrap up with the relief pitchers who the Yankees just cannot seem to hit.

You hate to see these relievers enter in close game, high-leverage situations. More times than not, they strand their inherited runners or close out the game without the Yankees putting up much of a fight.

As with my analysis of starting pitchers, I am using FIP to rank relief pitchers’ success against the Yankees. FIP’s ability to measure individual contribution (unlike how ERA can be skewed by defense) as well as ease of comprehension make it well-suited for such a purpose. I will also set the minimum innings threshold to 12, roughly simulating around four appearances per season, to limit the pool of relievers to those who consistently thwart Yankees hitters.

Roberto Osuna - 0.77 FIP in 15.0 innings pitched

Osuna has been far and away the best reliever against the Yankees since 2017. Yankees hitters have only three hits and two walks against him in the last three years, batting a pathetic .063/.100/.063 without managing a single run.

How has the Houston righty been so wildly successful against the Bombers? This is chiefly down to a 42% strikeout rate, .111 BABIP, and 18.5% hard hit percentage. The fact that Osuna has also given up a 42.3% fly ball rate without surrendering a home run contributes to his FIP being almost three times lower than his xFIP.

And while he has certainly had success against the rest of MLB, it does not come close to his dominance of the Yankees. This gives a clue as to how the Yankees might improve their outcomes against him. Batters perform far better against his fastball than his secondary offerings with a .331 wOBA off the four-seamer versus a .158 wOBA off the cutter, change, and curve. Combine this with the fact that Osuna throws a first pitch strike about 70% of the time over the last two years, and it seems the strategy is to hunt fastball early in the count.

Craig Kimbrel - 1.55 FIP in 13.2 innings pitched

Like Osuna, the former Boston hurler also fell into the category of closers against whom the Yankees did not stand a chance. The Bombers lost all but two of the games in which he appeared, while striking out 30 times. The corresponding strikeout rate of 55.6% and almost 20 K/9 is just absurd.

That is what makes the 2019 version of Craig Kimbrel so hard to believe. He became a home run-surrendering machine, giving up nine in under 21 innings pitched with the Cubs. The resulting 6.53 ERA, 8.00 FIP, 3.92 HR/9 and 36% HR/FB rates defy belief. The delayed start to he season certainly played a part in this precipitous decline, but the underlying metrics are not pretty. Against Kimbrel, opponents’ barrel percentage skyrocketed from 9.3% in 2018 to 21.2% in 2019 while their exit velocity jumped by almost four mph.

The Yankees probably do not have to worry as much about Spider Arms. Aside from the fact that he has apparently become a liability out of the pen, they will only face him in the odd interdivisional series or in the postseason, though his supremacy over the Yankees still merited mention.

Sam Gaviglio - 1.67 FIP in 12.1 innings pitched

It was surprising to find the Toronto reliever so high up the list considering how pedestrian he has been against the rest of the league. For his career, he sports a mediocre 4.84 ERA, 4.95 FIP, and 1.69 HR per nine rate. However, against the Yankees he somehow turns into peak Dennis Eckersley.

Gaviglio has not surrendered a home run against the Yankees as a reliever in the last three years, despite posting a 32.1% fly ball rate against them in that span. This helps explain why his xFIP is almost double his FIP when facing the Bombers. Additionally, his ground ball rate against New York is almost ten percent higher than his career average.

These findings lead me to two conclusions. First the Yankees need to try and elevate the ball more when batting against him. This leads to the second conclusion, which is that in doing so, his home run rate versus the Yankees will regress toward his career numbers.

Chaz Roe - 2.30 FIP in 16.0 innings pitched.

A former Yankee wraps up this investigation. Roe was a fairly average reliever until he was snapped up and refurbished by the wizardry of the Rays pitching department. In Tampa, he occupied one of their hyper-specialized roles, almost doubling his previous single-season fWAR. These improvements were even more magnified against the Yankees.

Yankees batters only hit .190/.277/.241, while at the same time, Roe’s K-BB% nearly doubled, from 14.8% against the rest of the league to 27.7% against New York. The Yankees struck out more and walked less when facing the Rays’ righty than did the rest of MLB, which contributed to their struggles against him.

What gave the Bombers more fits than anything was Roe’s slider. It was already one of the nastiest pitches in MLB, with the most horizontal break in the league in 2019. In fact, Roe’s slider broke three inches more than the next pitcher on that list.

The solution, it would seem, is simple: stop swinging at the slider. He throws the slider over 64% of the time, yet only throws a strike about 50% of the time, while batters make contact just over half the time when expanding the zone. Let Roe work himself into a count that dictates a fastball, and then do your damage.