In the first half of last season, the Yankees’ bullpen looked like a bona fide weapon. Prior to the midsummer classic, the relief corps put up the second-best WAR mark (4.5) and ERA (2.89) in addition to being tops in FIP (3.05). But some question marks began to emerge in the second half, as their ERA (3.08) fell to fifth place and their FIP (3.74) ballooned to 15th. Already down second-half staples Lou Trivino, Scott Effross, and Jonathan Loáisiga to begin this year, not to mention offseason addition Tommy Kahnle, I wouldn’t blame you for anticipating a continuation of the bullpen’s downward trend.
Yet, to begin the season, the unit has a minuscule 2.17 ERA, second in the league, backed by a 3.30 FIP, good for fourth place. There are some familiar faces propping those numbers up: Ron Marinaccio has more than held his own after I predicted he would stave off a sophomore slump, Michael King has returned to form despite diminished velocity, and Wandy Peralta is continuing to build on last season’s success. New contributors Ian Hamilton — backed by his unique slider-changeup hybrid, the “slambio” — and Jimmy Cordero have also been productive.
But this is “this week in Statcast,” and there are two arms that stand out as the only Yankees’ pitchers to avoid yielding any barreled balls this season. One is Clay Holmes, who despite subpar surface-level results so far this year looks to be back on track after a tough second half of 2022. The other pitcher might surprise you.
Through his first five appearances on the season, Albert Abreu has amassed eight scoreless innings with eight strikeouts against three walks. The strikeout and walk numbers aren’t eye-popping, similar to his swinging strike rate (below average at 9.8 percent), but the right-hander has really limited hard contact. In addition to not allowing a single barrel, his expected weighted on-base average — how well Statcast would have predicted hitters to perform against him given the exit velocity and launch angle of their balls in play as well as their strikeout and walk rates — is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 19 balls in play against (Abreu has yielded 22 balls in play).
On the surface, given his pitch mix changes this year, you might expect a downturn in performance; he’s relied more on his four-seamer and changeup, both of which actually cost him according to Statcast’s run values last season, at the expense of his best pitch — the sinker. The four-seamer still hasn’t looked great, as it’s allowed the hardest contact of all of Abreu’s offerings. But he’s been able to command his changeup much better so far this year.
The changeup, especially one with above-average arm-side run like Abreu’s, is a pitch best spotted on the lower arm-side corner. Last season, Abreu’s change frequently floated up, leaked out over the plate, and/or missed glove-side:
This year, while all of the usual small sample caveats apply, the distribution of changeups has been much more tightly clustered around that lower arm-side corner:
Here’s a good example of the change freezing Brandon Crawford earlier this year:
Further, backing up my eye test, Eno Sarris’ Location+ metric — which evaluates pitches solely on the run-prevention values of their locations — sees Abreu’s changeup command as 10 percent better than league average changeup command this season. That’s on par with noted control artist Zack Greinke this year, and it’s a marked improvement from last year, when Abreu’s change command was four percent worse than league average.
In his major league career, Abreu has primarily thrown his changeup to lefties: he’s tossed 180 to southpaws and just 24 to righties. Perhaps relatedly, his command has been much worse against lefties: he’s walked a whopping 16.1 percent of the southpaws he’s faced compared to just 10 percent of righties. Improved changeup command could be what the 27-year-old needs to truly neutralize opposite-handed hitters and take the next step toward becoming an anchor in the Yankees’ bullpen.
Stats given were recorded prior to Wednesday’s games.