Too many aspects of the Yankees’ 2021 season have not gone according to plan. Thankfully, there is one element of the team that has not only met, but actually exceeded expectations – the bullpen.
The Yankees have made the bullpen a pivotal part of their identity for 25 years now. But the relief corps dropped the ball last season. 2020 marked the first campaign since 2013 that the Yankees finished outside the top 10 in reliever WAR, and it wasn’t even close, with the team finishing 20th. They were also 16th in bullpen ERA and 20th in bullpen FIP, and it all came to a head when skipper Aaron Boone was forced to ask Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton — the only two relievers he could trust — to get 11 outs in a winner-take-all ALDS Game 5. Of course, they finished one inning shy.
The Yankees subsequently restocked and diversified their bullpen this winter, adding submarine righty Darren O’Day and soft-contact specialist Justin Wilson on team-friendly deals while also dropping the wild Adam Ottavino. On paper, those moves haven’t worked, as O’Day joined Britton on the IL early this year and Wilson has crashed and burned, all while Ottavino has offset his wayward control by becoming as unhittable as he once was in Colorado. Nonetheless, the Yankees’ bullpen has done more than merely stay afloat – it’s thriving.
Just look at the first three games* of this week’s series with the Rays. The Yankees’ bullpen threw 13.1 scoreless innings, and every pitcher contributed to that total. The Yankees won two of those three games, and held a manageable deficit in the other one. Tuesday’s game even featured Lucas Luetge and Luis Cessa getting out of extra-innings situations with the automatic runner on second base. That’s not to say some of these innings weren’t stressful (looking at you, ninth inning on Wednesday), but a good bullpen keeps its cool in the tough situations.
*The ‘pen gets a reprieve for Thursday afternoon with its top three pitchers unavailable. Nick Nelson gave up runs left and right, but he’s way down on the depth chart and has spent most of 2021 in Triple-A Scranton anyway.
It would have been easy for the team’s relief corps to crumble without three key veterans. Instead, the remaining veterans at the top of the depth chart are leading the way, and the middle relief crew has stepped up. Chapman and Chad Green have rebounded with strong seasons, and the likes of Jonathan Loaisiga, Wandy Peralta, Cessa and Luetge have been better than expected. None of them have a higher opponents’ average than .220, an ERA over 3.86, or a WHIP above 1.30 – pretty good for the team’s top six options.
The bullpen has been worked pretty heavily lately, and with the injury to Corey Kluber, that’s unlikely to change. That week in May where the rotation pitched more than 35 consecutive scoreless innings and regularly worked into the seventh inning was probably a blip. As a whole, the Yankees’ bullpen has pitched the 15th-most innings in baseball this season, but that will go up. Fortunately, the impending return of Britton should help with that.
The Yankees’ bullpen has been an unexpected bright spot this season – its strikeouts are up, its walks are down, and – most importantly – it’s keeping the ball in the ballpark. The group’s 1.40 HR/9 last year was eighth-worst leaguewide, but this year’s 0.99 figure is 10th-best. It all adds up to one of the top bullpens in baseball, which could go a long way in helping the Yankees’ rotation as the dog days of summer approach.