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On bullpen volatility and managing the unmanageable

The bullpen has been struck with injuries and ineffectiveness, but the Yankees have still managed to keep games close.

Tampa Bay Rays v. New York Yankees Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Yankees have built a reputation for bullpen excellence. Ever since Mariano Rivera rose to prominence decades ago, the team has almost always sported a strong relief unit. This year has been no exception: Over 501 reliever innings, the Yankees have only 164 earned runs. This is good for an excellent 2.95 ERA, and contributes to the Yankees being third in the league with a total ERA of just 3.30 (Dodgers at 2.82 and Astros at 2.91).

That the Yankees have a great bullpen is not shocking in itself, but the fact they have been able to do so with THIS bullpen is a surprise. Even just using the eye test, some of their relievers look like they are a hair away from catastrophically imploding at all times. Part of this probably comes from recency bias (favoring recent events over events longer in the past), but I am not alone in remembering quite a few times where the bullpen has failed spectacularly. How have the Yankees been able to cobble together an effective bullpen?

Clean health and efficient pitching most likely do not account for their dominance. Just some of the brand names currently on the injured list include; Zack Britton, Scott Effross, Chad Green, and Michael King. Before he went on the injured list, Michael King was sitting at a 2.29 ERA over 51.0 innings. Effross flashed huge potential in his limited run before getting hurt, and Green and Britton have been stalwarts over the years.

New York Yankees v Cleveland Guardians - Game Two Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

At the same time, the pitchers who they expected to be a large part of the bullpen have largely pitched ineffectively or have been injured (or both). Take Jonathan Loáisiga, for instance. He’s looked better recently, but his overall ERA for the year sits at a fairly middling 4.43 ERA over 40.2 innings pitched. This is a far cry from last season (2021) when he pitched 70.2 innings to the tune of a 2.17 ERA. Aroldis Chapman has a similar story, with only 30.2 innings pitched and an ERA at 4.70.

The Yankees have seen their best-laid plans regarding the bullpen go to waste this year, with their most dependable arms over recent years struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness, and many of their replacements also getting hurt. But the Yankees have been able to sustain a good bullpen despite all the volatility because of their willingness to pull struggling pitchers and to adapt.

We can see this in action by looking at average innings pitched per relief appearance (Innings pitched/games played). Longer average innings pitched per relief appearance would indicate that the team is willing to stick with a pitcher over more than just the minimum number of batters. In contrast, having a lower number would indicate that the Yankees want to limit the exposure of a pitcher.

Taking Michael King as an example, he averaged 1.5 innings per appearance (51.0/34). The Yankees trusted King to keep a game close, so they had no problem keeping him out for multiple innings at a time. The same could not be said of Aroldis Chapman or Jonathan Loáisiga. Chapman has appeared in 36 games, but he has only pitched 30.2 innings, which gives him less than an inning pitched per appearance (30.66/36=.85). The same goes for Loáisiga (40.66/44=.92). This would indicate that the team has had a quick hook with struggling pitchers to limit the damage that they can do.

All of this is to say that the Yankees have shown a willingness to play to their advantages and limit their weaknesses by using their relievers effectively. When a pitcher is struggling (like Chapman or Loáisiga), they take him out of the game. Instead, they pivoted to pitchers with less of a track record, but with the potential to perform at a high level. They’ve been rewarded, as King was lights-out before going down, and less-heralded players like Lucas Luetge, Wandy Peralta, Clay Holmes, and the like have ascended to the Circle of Trust, not because they were brand names entering the year, but because the Yankees were flexible enough in their bullpen usage to trust them like brand names.

By placing more responsibility on less-heralded but better-performing pitchers and reducing the onus on struggling pitchers, the Yankees have been able to maximize a tumultuous bullpen. Their relief situation has been more tumultuous than ever in 2022, and yet the team’s trademark shutdown bullpen has remained. It’s owed to the Yankees’ ability to change plans in the bullpen, as well as the excellent play of the pitchers thrust into the spotlight.