The Yankees narrowly missed sweeping their fourth series in a row as they dropped the final game of the series against the Blue Jays to cap their winning streak at 11 games. They managed to retain their MLB-best 18-7 record heading into the off-day before welcoming the Rangers to Yankee Stadium. And with wins in the previous two games, they assured themselves of an early 4-3 lead in the season series against the division rival Jays.
It was always going to be this kind of neck-and-neck battle between the consensus top-two teams in the division. Already, the pair have separated themselves from the chaff of the bottom-two Red Sox and Orioles, though the Rays lurk in the shadows not far behind. On a broader scale, that the preseason projection listed the Blue Jays and Yankees as joint favorites for the best record in the AL is looking prescient.
The factors that motivated such optimistic preseason outlooks differed between the two teams. Toronto boasted one of if not the most feared lineup in the game — studded 1-through-7 with sluggers capable of taking over a game — and revamped their starting rotation. The Yankees on the other hand possessed a high-floor offense and solid starting rotation, anchored by a lights-out bullpen capable of shortening any game. Through the first two clashes of these AL East juggernauts — the Yankees bullpen vs. the Blue Jays bats — the former has held the clear advantage.
Yankees relievers have held the Toronto offense to just three earned runs across their first seven meetings. They’ve faced 106 batters across 27 innings, with the Blue Jays slashing .206/.267/.278 with only five extra-base hits while striking out almost a quarter of the time and almost half their batted balls going for grounders. In fact, the Yankees bullpen has not allowed a run in the last 16 innings against Blue Jays batters. Most impressively, it’s a different guy getting it done each night.
The first time the teams faced off in the Bronx, Michael King and Ron Marinaccio combined to throw four innings of one-run ball to keep their team in it until the very last out of an eventual 3-0 loss. The next night, Clay Holmes, Miguel Castro, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Aroldis Chapman combined to throw 4.2 scoreless innings allowing just two baserunners.
The only slip-up in the entire season series came the night Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went god-mode on the Yankees, and even then the bullpen managed to keep it a close game until the end. In the series finale, Chapman walked the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, but newly-elevated fireman King cleaned up his mess to save the game.
The relievers then turned it up to another level during the series at the Rogers Centre. Chad Green — perhaps the shakiest Yankees reliever at the moment — earned the save in the Yankees’ 3-2 series opening victory. Wandy Peralta, Castro, and Lucas Luetge made quick work of the Toronto lineup the following night. The bullpen pièce de résistance came in the series finale, with King throwing three scoreless to keep the Yankees’ hopes alive until the very end.
And for all that’s been said about the Yankees churning out high-velo arm after high-velo arm in the bullpen (to which there is certainly some truth), when you really sit down and look at the way the Yankees relievers have attacked Toronto hitters, you realize how varied their approaches have been.
Chapman can still dial it up to triple digits if he needs to, but he’s evolved to get guys out in more than one way, as evidenced by the growing confidence he has in his splitter:
Luetge threw three progressively more nasty sliders to embarrass Raimel Tapia:
Lucas Luetge with one of the Greatest White Castle Specials of All Time. pic.twitter.com/JGlv1oONPY— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 15, 2022
Here’s King making Bo look silly on the patented Kluberball:
Michael King, Wicked 83mph Breaking Ball. pic.twitter.com/NN792UYFPQ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 5, 2022
The following inning, Clay Holmes dismantled Vladito with three straight sliders:
Clay Holmes, White Castle Special. pic.twitter.com/31mYc67ruY— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 5, 2022
I think it’s this diversity of approaches to pitching that’s really given the Yankees bullpen the edge over the Blue Jays offense. Obviously it helps that each of these guys possess top-end raw stuff, but the variation from pitcher to pitcher makes it that much harder to game plan for the opposition. For the Yankees, being able to silence their biggest divisional threat in the sixth inning and beyond with reasonable reliability has been such a weapon, and could be the difference-maker come the end of the season.