One of the defining features of the New York Yankees over the past decade or so has been a strong bullpen. Almost every year, the Yankees’ manager has had at least one reliever who wasn’t the closer put together an electric performance, putting out fires in the middle innings and bridging the gap to Mariano Rivera, Andrew Miller, or Aroldis Chapman. Despite injuries to high-priced relievers Zack Britton, Justin Wilson, and Darren O’Day, 2021 proved to be no exception, as Jonathan Loáisiga led a assortment of misfits to once again give the Yankees an elite bullpen.
But where does Loáisiga’s performance rank amidst the other relief aces of the last decade? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Zack Britton, 2019 (2.4 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR)
After the lefty reliever pitched well for them after coming aboard at the 2018 trade deadline, the Yankees brought Zack Britton back on a three-year deal with a “swell-out” that would either make it a two-year or four-year contract. While the final two years of the deal are essentially lost due to a plethora of injuries, Britton showed in 2019 why the Yankees were willing to shell out $13 million annually for a reliever.
In 61.1 innings over 66 appearances, Britton allowed only 13 runs on 38 hits. While his walk rate was high (13.1 percent) and his strikeout rate low (21.6 percent) for a reliever of his caliber, he induced an immense amount of ground balls — 76 percent of batted balls against him went on the ground, more than anyone else in the league. That led to a .195 xBA and .296 xSLG, both top-10 marks in the league.
Jonathan Loáisiga, 2021 (3.3 bWAR, 2.4 fWAR)
Over the first three seasons of his career, the only thing consistent about Loáisiga’s performance was inconsistency: filling in as both a starter and as a reliever, the young righty flashed a high strikeout rate but allowed a ton of walks, and on top of that, he spent a ton of time on the injured list. He put together a solid season in 2020, with a 3.52 ERA in 23 innings across 12 appearances, but given the short sample size of that season, it was unreasonable to expect a significant jump — although there was plenty of reason to hope.
In 2021, however, “Johnny Lasagna” became one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Just look at his Statcast percentile rankings.
If there was an award for middle relievers, Loáisiga would be on the short list to receive it.
Chad Green, 2017
If Loáisiga’s performance in 2021 seemed like déjà vu to you, that’s because Chad Green had done almost the exact same thing four years ago. Brought over, alongside Luis Cessa, in the trade that originally sent Justin Wilson to the Detroit Tigers, Green spent his rookie season as a swingman, making eight starts and four relief appearances, a role that he was good but not great in.
Working almost exclusively out of the bullpen in 2017, Green quickly established himself as one of the premier relievers in the league, relying on a plus fastball that had one of the highest spin rates in the league and a breaking ball that Statcast and FanGraphs call a slider. With a whopping 40.7 strikeout percentage and just a 6.7 walk rate, Green was able to work around a 43.3 hard hit percentage (a figure in the bottom one percent of the league) to limit opposing hitters to a .180 xBA and .315 xSLG. He was indispensable as a fireman for the Yankees, capable of going multiple innings on a regular basis — most notably in the AL Wild Card Game, limiting the bleeding in the first inning as the Yankees bullpen threw 8.2 innings to overcome an early 3-0 deficit.
Dellin Betances, 2014 (3.7 bWAR, 3.0 fWAR)
Once upon a time, Dellin Betances was a member of the “Killer B’s,” a trio of starting pitching prospects that the Yankees hoped would front their rotation for years to come. Of the three, only Betances had any sort of Major League career, and that was merely as a relief pitcher — but as relief pitchers go, he was one of the best of the decade.
Since the Yankees were a bad team in 2014, it’s easy to forget just how dominant Betances was. In 90 innings across 70 appearances, he struck out 39.6 percent of the batters he faced and allowed just 14 earned runs (a 1.40 ERA and 274 ERA+). He was named to his first All-Star Game, one of four he would attend in his career, and he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting — a statement of a rookie year for the tall right-hander.
Dellin Betances, 2015 (3.9 bWAR, 2.4 fWAR)
So, naturally, how does Betances follow up that incredible rookie season? With a sophomore campaign that was, by some measures, even better than his first year. In 2015, Betances struck out 39.5 percent of the batters he faced, and although the command issues that he battled most of his career began to rear its head (he had a 12 percent walk rate), he nonetheless struck out enough batters and allowed enough soft contact that opposing hitters managed just a .163 xBA and .248 xSLG, numbers that ranked in the league’s 99th percentile.
Not surprisingly, Betances was named to his second All-Star Game and earned a down-ballot Cy Young vote. While he never quite returned to this peak, he remained an important part of the Yankees bullpen through the 2018 season. Unfortunately, injuries have derailed his career since then — he has combined for only 13.1 innings over the last three years, 11.2 of which came in 2020.
David Robertson, 2011 (3.7 bWAR, 2.3 fWAR)
Remember how good David Robertson was after returning to the Bronx at the 2017 trade deadline? In 30 appearances from the end of July on, he allowed only four runs (two of which came in one game), and after August 25th, he did not allow another run the rest of the season. Back in 2011, Robertson was just as electric for the entire season as he was in those two months four years ago, ending the season with a miniscule 1.07 ERA and down-ballot MVP votes. He struck out 36.8 percent of the batters he faced, limited opponents to just a .169 batting average (as this is pre-Statcast, we unfortunately don’t have xBA), and left 89.8 percent of baserunners stranded.
Despite his elite performance that year, nobody really talks about Robertson’s best season, overshadowed by the eternal greatness that was his teammate — Mariano Rivera, who was still at the top of his game in 2011. But that season from Robertson was arguably the best season by one of Rivera’s many setup men, and one of the best seasons of a reliever of all time. Had manager Joe Girardi not still been constrained by the traditional manners of bullpen usage — the league was still operating in the “seventh inning guy, eighth inning guy, closer” mindset — he might have been even more valuable.