Earlier this week, I wrote about the lasting power of bullpen roles and how the age of analytics hasn’t yet led to the expected dissolution of these roles. In writing this article, I failed to mention one area where the use of analytics has most certainly had an effect on the bullpen: reliever workloads. That’s what I want to talk about today because the Yankees’ bullpen finds itself in a very precarious state going into this season.
It’s no surprise that starters are pitching less and less. In an earlier article that I wrote this offseason, I mentioned that, on average, the innings pitched by starting pitchers per game has been falling for the last few years, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. In fact, there are still some old-school fans out there clamoring for the Yankees to get a starter who can throw upwards of 200 innings, not realizing that only four pitchers hit that mark last season. Gone are the days of the workhorse ace, and they likely won’t be coming back.
To eat up the rest of the innings that used to be reserved for starters, relievers have become even more prominent than ever. They are throwing more innings and, though I have no readily available data on hand to back this up, I think it’s safe to say that they are also throwing harder than they ever have. To reappropriate a phrase from everyone’s favourite manager, Kevin Cash, it seems like every team out there has a whole damn stable of guys who throw over 98 mph these days (with movement to boot).
In 2021 we saw historic levels of bullpen usage. And, given that the 2020 campaign was shortened, it made total sense. Suddenly, aces like Gerrit Cole, who threw 212.1 innings in 2019, only threw 73 innings the following year, so naturally they’d need to be eased back into things. In other words, their arms weren’t stretched out. This resulted in two things: a constant parade of “who’s-this-guy-again?” relievers from the minors (remember Sal Romano, guys?) and career-best workloads for relievers.
Here are the Yankees from last year’s bullpen who threw the most innings of their career (with their previous high for comparison):
|Reliever||2021 Innings Pitched||Previous Career High|
|Reliever||2021 Innings Pitched||Previous Career High|
|Nestor Cortés Jr.||93||66.2 (2019)|
|Chad Green||83.2||69 (2017, 2019)|
|Lucas Luetge||72.1||40.2 (2012)|
|Jonathan Loáisiga||70.2||31.2 (2019)|
|Michael King||63.1||26.2 (2020)|
|Clay Holmes||70||50 (2019)|
|Joely Rodríguez||46.1||27 (2017)|
As seen in the table above, the majority of consistent relievers in the Yankees bullpen saw career-highs in usage last year. In fact, the only bullpen mainstays who didn’t blow past their career-high in innings were Wandy Peralta (though it should be noted that 42.2 of his 51 innings pitched in 2021 came with New York) and Aroldis Chapman. All of these pitchers are set to return to the bullpen for the Yankees this season.
Entering 2022, there are a few issues facing this bullpen that have me nervous for the season.
First, because the owners locked the players out, teams are facing their second shortened exhibition season in three years, meaning it will be impossible to stretch starters out in time for Opening Day. Even Aaron Boone indicated that Gerrit Cole probably wouldn’t throw more than about 80-85 pitches on Opening Day.
As a result of this issue, MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to expand rosters to 28 until May 1st to account for the lost training time. I would expect the Yankees to go with a 16-12 or maybe a 15-13 pitcher/position player split for the first month, meaning we’ll likely see more relievers making their way to the majors to effectively mitigate the risk of blowing arms out early in the season. That is unquestionably a good thing.
But the precarity of their situation doesn’t magically stop after the first month of the season for the Yankees.
Beyond the mere first month of the season, the simple fact of the matter is that Yankees starters not named Gerrit Cole don’t throw a ton of innings. While this is not a problem unique to New York — their 829.1 innings pitched by starters in 2021 actually ranked 13th in baseball last year — it does mean that a team who typically relies on their bullpen to get a lot of outs will have to up that usage even more than originally planned while their starters stretch out.
While this already opens up a can of worms, we haven’t even talked about Luis Severino yet, who has thrown exactly 18 regular season innings over the last three years. While I hope he returns to form, I think it’s safe to say that he’s going to be quite limited for a big stretch of this season. In fact, ZiPS only projects him to throw 97 innings, while most other projections hover between 135-150. He’s currently slotted in as the No. 2 in the rotation, but as he’s gradually eased back into the game, he’s likely going to need someone to piggyback his starts to keep him healthy. With Nestor Cortés Jr. already slated to be the team’s fifth starter (and what happens if he reverts back to his career norms?), this responsibility will likely fall on Michael King, who threw a career-high in innings last year despite missing a big chunk of time due to injury.
And, speaking of rough track records for health, the injuries don’t stop with Severino and King. Jonathan Loáisiga, relief ace/heir apparent to the Yankees bullpen, has spent 146 days over the last three seasons on the IL. Yes, 14 of those were due to a COVID outbreak, but 118 of them have been shoulder related. Additionally, both Montgomery and Taillon are still just one full season removed from major injuries, and Domingo Germán is already on the 60-day IL. Hell, even Joely Rodríguez saw a concerning velocity dip in his first appearance this spring (though that appears to have sorted itself out for now).
For a bullpen that made a habit of setting new career-highs last season, it looks like they find themselves staring down the barrel of an even bigger workload this season. While this is not inherently a bad thing, I think it’s fair to wonder whether or not their arms can handle the expected increase in workload. For their sake, I hope so.