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The Yankees’ bullpen shouldered the load for as long as they could

They finished with the best ERA in baseball, but they couldn’t carry the monstrous task given to them for all 162 games.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

With the calendar now fully flipped over from September to October and most teams’ locker rooms all packed up, we can start to look at the Yankees’ season as a whole and try to piece together a sense of where things went wrong. And boy, did things go wrong.

Consider the bullpen and their more-than-admirable performance while the rotation struggled. First of all, this year’s relief corps was both cheap and effective. At the start of 2023, the Yankees had just $6 million tied up in their bullpen options — that number put them at 25th in the big leagues with respect to bullpen payroll. They shuffled pitchers significantly, as all bullpens do, but all options came with an inexpensive price tag, either from Triple-A or the waivers scrap heap. We can quibble with what the Yankees actually did with these payroll savings, but it was at least a better strategy than their most recent contracts for Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton.

After one last day of solid work in Kansas City, the bullpen finished with a sterling 3.34 ERA in 619 innings, the best in baseball. A home run rate of 0.86 per nine (second place) isn’t too shabby either, and limiting the late-inning momentum-swinging dinger is essential to a bullpen’s success. Unfortunately, the Yankees’ veteran position players more than offset the thrifty bullpen with their albatross contracts and underperformance, negating both the money saved and the excellent performance. Time and time again, however, the Yankees’ relief corps stepped up and frequently bailed out their teammates. Our upcoming Report Cards series will get into the performance of the bullpen contributors themselves, so here let’s focus on usage and deployment of relief pitchers as a whole.

The ‘pen propped up a shoddy starting rotation all year, stranding inherited runners at an excellent 75.2-percent clip. A depleted rotation bites a bullpen in two ways: one, it increases the workload overall, and two, productive relief pitchers may be asked to start games, and the guys behind the plexiglass in right-center have to make due without them. For the Yankees, both proved true. Michael King’s ascension to the rotation and the time missed by both lone free agent addition Tommy Kahnle and NRI surprise Ian Hamilton left a gaping hole with plenty of innings to be had.

The collapse of 2022 standout Ron Marinaccio’s absolutely hurt, but Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez, to some degree, proved they could be successful major-league pitchers. They both had their moments in the second half filling King’s former role, with plenty of rookie lumps mixed in.

If we separate the stats by half, though, we see a concerning trend. The bullpen covered 344 innings in the first half and posted a stellar 3.09 ERA. The rotation provided a few more innings in the second half, so the bullpen was only needed for 275 innings in the late summer. Across the board, they pitched to a much less impressive 3.67 ERA post-All Star Break. Even the high-leverage guys saw their ERA balloon a full run in the second half, namely Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta, and the aforementioned Hamilton. It’s no coincidence that the team leaned hard on all three in the first half.

By the final couple months of 2023, the Bombers weren’t really remotely close to any playoff race. But if they were, worn-down relievers in pivotal games would’ve been a huge problem. The problem is, pretty much everything else was a huge problem instead and it ended up not mattering as much. (You can only trust very narrow leads to the bullpen so often, and the offense was relentless in offering minimal run support, particularly while Aaron Judge was out.) Pure workload definitely deserves some scrutiny in the sense that it illuminates how poorly the team was constructed. Gerrit Cole is the exception to all of this, obviously, but even the projected rotation past him was either injury-prone or unproven.

The resources behind Cole, including those procured this past offseason, ideally would’ve slotted in on the depth chart in roughly the following order: Carlos Rodón, Luis Severino, Nestor Cortes, Frankie Montas, Domingo Germán, and Clarke Schmidt. Things looked solid on paper. Unfortunately, baseball games aren’t played on paper. Rodón’s reputation for fragility precedes him, just like Sevy’s and Montas’. Unsurprisingly, Severino found himself on the IL in the season’s initial months (and ended it there), Montas was on the shelf until literally Game 161, and Rodón was sidelined until July. Because of their ineffectiveness — and in Rodón’s case, attitude — fans may wish they’d have stayed home the whole season.

Cortes’ 2022 was the largest workload of his career and ended with an injury, not to mention his status as a still-uncertain commodity. Because of all this context, it wasn’t surprising when all three missed significant time. What was surprising, though, was that Brian Cashman had no plan for the extremely predictable* phenomenon of injury-prone pitchers being injured other than throwing rookies into the fire and wishing them luck. Brito and Vásquez fall into this category, and understandably, neither provided much length in a bulk role.

*Even if one is willing to offer a pass on Germán given his real-world troubles, there’s no excusing the rest of the IL bunch.

One silver lining is that durability wasn’t an issue for Schmidt, who finished with 32 starts to Cole’s 33. Of course, while his performance was generally solid enough (4.08 ERA from mid-May onward after an awful beginning to 2023), it didn’t quite take quite a big enough step forward to fully cover for his teammates. The rotation other than Cole ended up being a disaster, but not an unpredictable one at all. Unfortunately for them, the bullpen had to cover the fallout of Cashman’s paper-thin depth.

Overall, the bullpen’s 4.4 Win Probability Added indicates that they generally came up big when leaned upon in clutch situations. Their second-half numbers proved that the Yankees may have leaned too much. They never complained about the weight of their task though, and instead deserve plaudits for making the most of the opportunity in yeoman’s work. Of all the things that went wrong in the Bronx this season, the bullpen wasn’t one of them.