Heading into the 2021 season, questions hovered over the Yankees pitching staff. The high-variance starting rotation dominated the conversation, though concerns lingered around a bullpen that looked perilously thin in the 2020 ALDS. However, thanks to some shrewd winter business by Brian Cashman and a stellar job by the player development staff at the Gas Station, the Yankees’ relief corps has its best depth in years.
The early results bear this out, as the Yankees’ relievers lead baseball in strikeout rate, FIP, and fWAR among other categories. The high-leverage arms like Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and Darren O’Day have performed as advertised. Flying under the radar though, the less-heralded relievers like Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Nick Nelson have been equally impressive.
As Josh detailed in the first week of the season, the Yankees will need to lean heavily on the above-named long-relief types. Brooks Kriske is one forgotten name who had a chance to join that group. However, whether through ineffectiveness or injury, he has failed to establish a spot among that second tier of relievers
2020 Stats: 3.2 IP, 14.73 ERA, 8.10 FIP, 5.61 xFIP, 19.64 K/9, 17.18 BB/9, 2.730 WHIP, -0.1 fWAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 4.0 IP, 4.80 ERA, 5.00 FIP, 9.53 K/9, 5.07 BB/9, 1.490 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR
The Yankees drafted Kriske out of USC in the sixth round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Only two months later, he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all the entire 2017 campaign. He threw 89.1 innings of relief across the following two seasons, averaging a 1.91 ERA and a smidgen under 12 strikeouts per nine.
Facing major league hitters during his cup of coffee in 2020, results weren’t as rosy. The strikeouts carried over, but he found too many barrels while the walks skyrocketed. Let’s look at facets that still intrigue big league evaluators as well as those that hold him back from being an effective major leaguer.
As mentioned above, Kriske’s raw, wipeout stuff is his calling card and the tool that gives him his best shot at moving beyond the minors. His 94.8-mph fastball is better than league average and exhibits good rising movement thanks to both above-average and effective spin. His slider also carries an above-average spin rate, while his changeup induced a 70-percent whiff rate in 2020. Thanks to his stuff, he has struck out over a third of the batters he has faced in the last three years across all levels, and notched a 39.1 percent whiff rate in his major league cameo.
Unfortunately, raw stuff is not enough to be an effective big league pitcher. One needs to have control of his pitches and command to the edges of the zone.
Kriske possessed neither. He frequently missed his spots, either losing the zone entirely (walking almost a third of batters faced) or missing over the heart of the plate. When he did catch too much of the zone, he got dinged to the tune of a 42.9-percent hard-hit rate, 14.3-percent barrel rate, and 90.9-mph average exit velocity — all significantly worse than average.
Kriske is probably never going to be a high-leverage arm within the inner circle of trust. That does not eliminate the possibility that he can contribute valuable innings at the major league level. Unfortunately for Kriske, his route to the major leagues appears blocked, with many players ahead of him in the pecking order for a 26-man spot, and at age 27, the sheen is fully off this once-touted prospect.