As the Yankees head to October, they’re in the process of feeling out how their roster will be composed. The starting rotation is being lined up, while the bullpen is feeling a bit chaotic at the moment. Veterans are coming off the IL, and some big names are struggling.
The uncertainty seems to have forced the Yankees to acknowledge that they’re better off without assigning specific, pre-determined roles to their relivers. To be more specific, we are talking about the closer role. Aroldis Chapman opened the season as the regular ninth-inning guy, then Clay Holmes occupied the position until he got injured. In recent weeks, manager Aaron Boone has been mixing and matching in the role.
That’s the best way to keep everybody involved and to maximize the team’s chances in each situation. There is a group of pitchers that know they may enter any game in any high-leverage situation, and that includes the ninth inning. Who gets called on when will depend on workload, which pitchers were used at other instances of the game, and other factors such as hitter handedness, but the Yankees appear to be going with the “closer by committee” approach. Better yet, they are doing just fine if we judge recent games.
Scott Effross saved Saturday’s game against the Red Sox, Jonathan Loáisiga was trusted with the last six outs of Friday’s contest (and also some high-leverage work on Monday), and Clay Holmes is just as likely to enter a tight ballgame in the eighth or ninth inning. Wandy Peralta, if healthy, can enter the mix when there are tough lefties up, or even righties, with the left-hander showing prowess against all hitters. Ron Marinaccio and Clarke Schmidt have also entered in close contests. The man who locked down the AL East title last night turned out to be Lou Trivino, recording his first save in pinstripes in a 5-2 win over Toronto.
The point is simple: the Yankees don’t necessarily need a traditional, designated closer to have a long playoff run. It’s been said before, but the committee approach can be just as effective as running with a capital “C” closer. If you want a recent example, the 2019 Washington Nationals defeated the Houston Astros with Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle sharing ninth-inning duties.
Modern analytics have helped managers and teams understand that the ninth frame is not always the highest-leverage situation of the game. Why have a pitcher tied to that inning? Why not avail yourself of all your options if a hairy situation presents itself in the eighth? In the sixth? Heck, even in the fourth?
Despite their inconsistencies, the Yankees’ bullpen is filled with very good pitchers, and very good pitchers can get outs in any situation and inning. Not only that, but the Yankees have a versatile group of relievers with diverse skillsets that can give opposing lineups different looks, giving Boone so many options to navigate games.
Baseball is, evidently, a game of traditions. Things that have been done for decades are hard to change. That’s why some fans don’t like Aaron Judge hitting leadoff, or the fact that starting pitcher rarely cover seven or eight innings anymore. They’d prefer to see a traditional closer handling the ninth, too.
However, the Yankees think their odds of winning games increase by keeping their options fluid, and that’s fine. The game circumstances, the opposing hitters and each pitcher’s form and workload at the time will dictate who pitches when, and that’s OK.
The Yankees are better off getting everybody involved in high-leverage situations, as opposed to having defined roles. They might even need pitchers to get specific lanes of outs and not innings, as bullpen roles and dynamics have changed a lot in recent years. It’s excellent to roster standout relievers, but the classic “closer” role might not be the best way to manage a bullpen anymore.