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Yankees bullpen checkup: ‘The Cuban Missile’ is inbound

Chapman makes his way back, as Britton and company anchor the ‘pen.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

This season, the Yankees’ bullpen have covered most of their innings pitched. As of Friday afternoon, 53% of all Yankee innings this year have been handled by relievers, compared to a 2020 MLB average of 46%.

Despite leaning heavily on their relievers, manager Aaron Boone has taken an egalitarian approach to shouldering the increased burden. Through ten games, the 2020 Yankee relievers have a strong 3.31 ERA (8th), but their elite relievers have been weighed down by a number of replacement-level arms. The Yankees’ traditionally deep pen has quietly shrunk over the past couple seasons, with the departures of Dellin Betances, David Robertson, and Adam Warren noticeable. And that’s not to mention the loss of Tommy Kahnle for the season due to Tommy John surgery.

The remaining studs are just Zack Britton, Chad Green, and Adam Ottavino, and studs they remain: this group hasn’t given up a run in 18 innings of collective work. Britton’s done what he does best—induce weak groundballs via his patented sinker-slider combo. His 18.2 hard-hit percentage and 36.4 soft-contact percentage are both in the top-20 among all relievers this season. Green’s been arguably even better with a minuscule 2.01 xFIP and 1.40 SIERA. He’s only given up one intentional walk to his 11 strikeouts in eight innings of work, posting the tenth best WHIP among relievers (0.25). Advanced metrics aren’t quite as enamored with Ottavino, but it’s hard to complain about a 0.00 ERA from your third best active reliever.

The middle tier of the corps has also been excellent—Jonathan Holder, Luis Cessa, David Hale, and Luis Avilan have a combined ERA of 1.62 over 16 and two-thirds innings. Holder’s been the stand-out from the midsection, not yet allowing a run in five innings on the bump supported by a 2.91 xFIP and SIERA. At age 27, he’s theoretically just reaching in his prime, and if he can at least reproduce his 3.43 ERA over 2017-2018 instead of the 6.31 ERA he posted in 2019 (mostly some bad home run luck), he can approximate Warren’s former role as a reliable fourth or fifth option out of the pen. To date, the performances from these Yanks have been good enough to hope at least one of them might emerge as a reliable arm in a playoff series before the season’s end.

Alternatively, Quad-A innings-eaters Ben Heller, Brooks Kriske, Jonathan Loaisiga, Michael King, and Nick Nelson, have put together an untenably bad combined 8.47 ERA in 17 innings of work. If the Yankees offense continues to steamroll teams, they should be able to cruise to the front of the AL East even with a terrible back-end of the bullpen. In the playoffs, none of these guys should need to see the field anyways.

The elephant in the Yankees’ bullpen is Aroldis Chapman’s impending return to play after recovering from COVID-19. This week, he submitted his second negative test, but is still a ways away from seeing any game action as the Yankees want to stretch him out conservatively, allowing ample time for him to make a smooth transition back to the big leagues. As of now, the plan is for Chapman to throw a few bullpens at Scranton, then face live hitters multiple times before reentering at the front of the Yankee bullpen.

When Chapman returns, he should take some pressure off of the rest of the staff. Boone, so far, has successfully avoided bumping up either of the one-inning studs’ workload beyond the previous season’s rate. Britton and Ottavino have pitched in about 40% of the games this year, just a couple percentage points off of their 2019 campaigns. They would each be on pace to pitch between 60 and 70 innings during a 162 game season, typical for relievers of their caliber.

Green however, hasn’t pitched on back-to-back days, but has gone multiple innings on three separate occasions, leading to eight total innings pitched. As of now, he’d be on track to pitch over 100 innings in a full season. Though he’s been phenomenal, he’s going to need to slow down even in the shortened season. It is unlikely that he pitches 40 innings in a 60-game season, especially as someone with an elbow injury in his chart. Chapman’s eventual return should help redistribute Green’s excess workload amongst the rest of the staff.

With Chapman back, the high leverage innings afforded to Green, Britton, and Ottavino will become less so, along with less mop up work for the back end. If Holder can evolve into a valuable contributor that would be a nice add, but ultimately inessential to the team’s World Series aspirations with the front-end already looking so sharp. Come playoff time, it shouldn’t matter how the rest pitch because, ideally, they won’t need to.