We’re a little over two weeks into the 2021 Major League Baseball season. Some things have gone as expected for the Yankees, and some, well, have not. The offense has been stale, the starting rotation has struggled, and the Bombers sit towards the bottom of the AL East. While it’s obviously incredibly early in the season, this is not the way most people saw the month of April going for New York. Although there have been a lot of negatives, there has been one major positive — the bullpen.
The strongest part of the team from 2017-2019 has seemed to return to its dominant self once again. The Yankees bullpen leads all of baseball on a ton of major categories including: FIP, xFIP, SIERA, K-BB%, WHIP, and K%. To put it simply — that’s insanely impressive. Let’s not jump over the fact that they are second in the majors in BB% and lead the American League in ERA.
The group as a whole has been lights-out, but they wouldn’t be where they are numbers-wise if it weren’t for their anchor, and closer, Aroldis Chapman. He has been so unreal that you’d think his stats were from your MLB Road to the Show player. He’s faced 15 batters and rung up 11 of them. He’s allowed just two hits, but he’s left those runners stranded as he has not allowed a run in his four innings pitched. If you thought the 33-year-old was going to lose a step, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, his fastball has topped out at 102 mph this year, all while paring it with his deadly slider. Good luck with that, hitters.
The rest of the ‘pen has been excellent as well. Only five of the 10 relievers this year have given up a run, those being Lucas Luetge, Nick Nelson, Albert Abreu, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Chad Green. Darren O’Day has been a spectacular replacement for Adam Ottavino: the submarine pitcher has faced 18 batters, surrendering just four hits with five strikeouts. As for the 35-year-old Ottavino whom the Yankees shipped to Boston, he’s hurled 3.1 innings, but has given up three runs and has walked three.
Chad Green and Luis Cessa have really been Aaron Boone’s go-to arms through the first two weeks, and rightfully so. They sit one and two in terms of innings pitched so far and have both been strong options in relief. It seems like Cessa has moved into the team’s “circle of trust,” and he’s proven why. Michael King bailed the team out of burning the ‘pen too early by going six strong innings in relief, and should be back on the staff soon after getting sent down for a fresh arm.
One of the last names we haven’t hit on yet is Justin Wilson. He started the year on the Injured List, but has since made his return to the mound. The southpaw has only thrown two frames this year, but he’s looked good, especially coming off a little injury blip involving his throwing shoulder. Wilson hasn’t allowed a hit in either of the innings he’s thrown, while picking up two strikeouts and only one walk. We should expect him to have his role increased moving forward.
Even with all the dominant arms this Yankees bullpen bolsters, they will get even better when Zack Britton makes his return to the rubber sometime in late May, as he has already started to get back into the groove and has begun a throwing program.
As the starting rotation has sputtered in the early going, it’s been the bullpen that has bailed them out and attempted to carry the team along. We know the offense will eventually click. Jay Bruce and his 54 wRC+ will matter no more once Luke Voit returns, or maybe even sooner than that. Once the bats wake up, this team will be the dangerous squad we all know they can be. The bullpen will continue to abuse opposing hitters, but the starting rotation will need to step it up behind Gerrit Cole.
If they don’t, the bullpen may continue to be forced into games earlier than expected, which will tax their arms. If and when the Yankees are playing October baseball, it’s possible that the team will be once again asking for a heavy workload from their relief corps. We’ve seen the difficulties of doing so in past postseason runs though, so while a stretch in April is acceptable the non-Cole members of the rotation need to start carrying their weight eventually. That’s obviously a long time from now, but the sooner the better for preserving a resurgent part of the Yankees.