Despite some concerns coming into the season, the bullpen has been one of the biggest strengths of the New York Yankees in the early part of the season and the most important backbone of the pitching staff not named Gerrit Cole. Leading the league in K-BB% (21.5%), WHIP (1.04), and fWAR (2.1) and in the top five in hard hit percentage (27.1%, tied-fourth), ERA (2.98, fifth), FIP (3.23, second), and xFIP (3.46, third), it would be impossible to describe the Yankees’ relievers as anything but elite in the first five weeks of the season.
For two straight days this week, however, the normally-reliable Yankees bullpen melted down. On Thursday, Chad Green squandered a 3-2 lead over the Houston Astros by allowing two runners on and giving up a big three-run home run to Jose Altuve, with Justin Wilson following that up in the next inning by surrendering a two-run shot to Martin Maldonado. Friday, meanwhile, saw Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa unable to work around three errors in a six-run eighth inning that broke open a game that had been tied at three when the inning had begun. In particular, the performances by Green and Loaisiga were concerning, as they have been among the best relievers in all of baseball in the early goings.
Now, bad games always happen, even for the best of relievers; two consecutive bad outings by different pitchers, however, could represent some underlying, deeper problem.
Let’s start with Green, who, as the fireman, arguably has the most important role in the bullpen when everybody is healthy.
His Statcast data, at first glance, reveals a trend that could potentially be alarming: Green has a hard contact and barrel problem. This, however, is in line with his career norms. With the exception of the 2020 season — an outlier in so many ways — batters have been able to make solid contact on Green’s pitches on the condition that they were able to hit them. Considering he has struck out batters at a 30 percent clip over the course of his career, that’s easier said than done. And while his strikeout percentage is down a bit so far, with his current 29.7 mark below his career 32.9 percentage, he’s been generating swings at his highest rate since 2017 (34.6 percent).
While watching the game, my initial impression was that Green didn’t have any command of his curveball. The pitch charts somewhat reflect that, as he did plant one above the strike zone (typically he lives in down-and-away to righties).
Over the course of 162 games, that’s going to happen from time to time — there does not seem to be a major concern here.
We see something similar with Loasiga on Friday night. So far this season, he’s been among the best relievers, as his 21.6 hard hit percentage is in the top percentile in baseball and his 2.38 xERA is within the top 10 percent. However, he simply struggled to throw strikes against the Nationals, which, compounded by defensive woes, helped lead to the big inning.
Each of these outings, on their own, could simply be bad luck; the short-outing nature of relievers means that, every once in a while, they simply won’t have good command or their best stuff. In truth, there’s nothing in either of their stat lines that should give anybody any significant reason for concern.
Well, almost nothing. Going into Saturday afternoon’s game, the Yankees have played 32 games, and their pitchers have thrown 286.2 innings. Green and Loaisiga have each had 15 appearances to date, throwing 18 innings apiece: at this rate, they will each finish the season with 76 appearances and approximately 90 innings. From 2010 to 2019, only 13 pitchers have thrown 90 innings in relief — 85 have had 76 or more appearances, but this number includes several LOOGYs, an extinct phenomenon in baseball.
Although it’s clearly not unprecedented for pitchers to throw this many innings, Green and Loaisiga have been used at a pace that is bordering on unsustainable. Those two rough outings by each of them might very well be a byproduct of how often they have been used in the early going. Although the Yankees should not be too concerned about their performances on any given day, they should nonetheless attempt to lighten the load on their most important relievers.
If they don’t, these types of meltdowns might occur with much more frequency.