It’s a fascinating time in baseball strategy. We’ve reached a point where it is widely acknowledged that the highest leverage situations may come at different times in the game. Sure, the ninth inning may prove to be the most important frame, but sometimes, high-leverage moments crop in the eighth, or seventh, or even earlier. Modern bullpen usage in the postseason is indicative of this phenomenon.
However, the team’s best reliever is still usually its closer. Names such as Josh Hader, Devin Williams, and Emmanuel Clase are all defined closers, and by far, the best relievers on their respective clubs.
However, what do you do when you’re in a situation as the Yankees, with one of the better bullpens in the sport, but a question mark in the ninth inning? Clay Holmes was supposed to be that guy, but his season is off to a rocky start as the 2022 All-Star has actually been one of the worst relievers on the team in 2023.
Recently, our own Joshua Diemert discussed the Yankees’ closer situation here, particularly focusing on how Michael King would be the most logical choice in a vacuum, but also the various downsides of moving the valuable right-hander into that role. There’s not an obvious solution at play here.
When life gives you lemons, though, make lemonade. I believe Aaron Boone and the organization should lean into this unit’s strengths, and punt the idea of having a defined ninth-inning man.
Having said that, there is something to be said about established closers being successful in that schedule, and struggling to adapt. Many fans recall how Craig Kimbrel, back when he was still in his prime, struggled mightily to adjust to a setup role with the White Sox. If peak Kimbrel, or if Liam Hendriks or Josh Hader were on this roster, it’d make sense to just hand them the ninth, and work around them, but there’s no reason for the Yankees to try to force someone into that role when that player doesn’t exist on the team right now.
The Yankees have a closer problem, but they have a bullpen strength. Lean into the latter, and the former will work itself out.
Boone said he's open to using Ian Hamilton as a closer in the future but there are "five guys" he could entrust with that role.— Laura Albanese (@AlbaneseLaura) May 8, 2023
Often, statements such as these are hollow in a way, serving primarily as a morale boost for the team. But if you look at the current bullpen, Michael King, Ian Hamilton, and Ron Marinaccio are all having marvelous campaigns (Hamilton notched his first career save on Saturday, too). Wandy Peralta and Jimmy Cordero have opposite issues to work on, with too many hitters reaching base against the lefty, and a poor LOB rate hurting the righty, but both are also doing well in 2023 and have strong profiles.
Overall, with King being so valuable in his current, versatile role, and with none of those other names desperately calling out to be penciled in as an exclusive ninth-inning guy, the best approach is simply to go closer by committee. The way this bullpen is set, in tight games whether it is King at his best, or Marinaccio continuing his tremendous development into an All-Star-caliber reliever, or Peralta showcasing the form he had all of 2022, Boone will go to those guys for the toughest part of a lineup, in the seventh, eighth, or ninth.
Josh ended his article with the following statement:
The Yankees are better off deferring the Josh Hader Problem entirely, putting one of their ready-made one-inning relievers into the closer’s spot and letting King keep doing what he’s done so well.
I’d like for them to take it even a step further. Rotate all of Boone’s strong late-inning options and deploy them on a matchup-by-matchup basis. It’s asking the whole group to Be Water, but so far, the unit looks like it can handle it.