Let’s play a little game. Below are the 2022 stat lines of two relief pitchers, one of whom is a member of the New York Yankees. What role would you give each of them in your bullpen?
Player A: 25.1 innings, 3.55 ERA, 4.92 FIP, 4.44 xERA, 26.3 K%, 18.4 BB%, -0.2 fWAR
Player B: 14 innings, 3.86 ERA, 5.00 FIP, 5.33 xERA, 22.7 K%, 15.2 BB%, -0.1 fWAR
Going purely off these stat lines, neither appears to be somebody that you want to employ frequently in high-leverage situations. Both pitchers, after all, strike out batters at roughly the league average rate for relievers, while simultaneously handing out a large amount of free passes. Although they have done a relatively decent job at keeping runs off the board, as can be seen by their ERA, their FIP and xERA indicate that the metrics expect some form of regression is due. As low-leverage relievers, they’re acceptable, but you’d like to avoid putting them in with the game on the line if at all possible.
Player A is Dylan Coleman, a 25-year-old rookie for the Kansas City Royals. Injuries and the Royals’ inept pitching staff — they are allowing 5.31 runs/game, worst in the American League — have forced Kansas City to let him find his way at the big league level in fairly high-pressure spots. However, when the opportunity has presented itself, as it did on May 22nd, the Royals have sent him back down to Triple-A to work through his command issues (even if injuries forced them to recall him just four days later).
Player B, as you may have figured out from the headline, is Aroldis Chapman.
For the past decade or so, Chapman has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. His 20.2 fWAR since the start of the 2010 season ranks second among relievers in that stretch, behind only Kenley Jansen. His 40.6 K% trailed only Josh Hader and Craig Kimbrel. His 1.06 WHIP was tied for 21st (out of 574 qualifying relievers). No matter what category you use, Chapman ranked near the top.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Chapman is no longer that pitcher. His walk rate (15.2 percent) is the second-highest of his career, behind only last season’s 15.6 percent, but he’s no longer striking out batters at a sufficiently high rate to make up for it — his 22.7 K% is the lowest of his career by a full 10 points. That gives him a K-BB% of just 7.6 percent. Not only is it the worst of his career by far (his previous low was 14.5 percent back in 2011), it’s also among the worst in the league: out of the 301 relievers with 10 or more innings so far this season, he ranks 242nd. To put it bluntly, this is not a pitcher who should be anywhere near the ninth inning, and truth be told, any reliever with a shorter track record than Chapman would have been removed from the role months ago.
At this point in time, we’re not quite sure exactly how the Yankees will approach the closer role once Chapman returns from the IL. Aaron Boone has been fairly cryptic when discussing the back of the bullpen in recent weeks. Last week, when asked about it, Boone simply said that Chapman will be a “a big-time, back-end reliever”— presumably a very deliberate choice of words. On Wednesday, speaking about Clay Holmes, who has been serving as the closer since Chapman went on the IL, he said that he intended to use the sinkerballer in high-leverage situations that would include “closing some games.”
At the end of the day, I don’t particularly care about how the Yankees employ Holmes. If they decide he’s best used against the toughest part of the lineup, similar to how Cleveland used Andrew Miller in 2016, then I’m not going to complain — using your best reliever against your opponent’s best hitters is a fairly sound move. If they decide instead to keep him in the ninth inning as a “Game Over” button once the team has a lead through eight innings ... well, that’s how Joe Torre’s Yankees did it, and it worked out pretty well for them.
No, what matters here isn’t Holmes, it’s Chapman. Even if the Yankees don’t want to keep Holmes in the closer’s role, they have other relievers not named Chapman who can take the ninth inning. He may have once been a top closer, but those days are long past. And unless Chapman rediscovers himself — or rather, reinvents himself, since he no longer has the overpowering fastball he once did — then the Yankees need to do what must be done, and make him the middle reliever that he ought to be.