Among the many unheralded arms that found success in the bigs working in the Yankees bullpen last season, such as Ian Hamilton and Nick Ramirez, the work done by Keynan Middleton might have gotten lost in the tracks. With the Yankees falling well short of their goals, Middleton’s contributions came as the Yankees fell far out of the race.
Middleton, now a free agent, came over on August 1, courtesy of a very low-profile trade with the Chicago White Sox. Anyone who had checked out by the stretch run with the Yankees fading may have missed it, but the right-hander left enough of an impression that a return to the Bronx has been rumored.
Middleton had a solid rookie campaign with the Angels, finishing the year with a 3.86 ERA in nearly 60 innings. However, subsequently, things unraveled for the right-hander. Between 2018 and 2022, Middleton went up and down like a yo-yo through multiple organizations, splitting time between the majors and the minors, failing to pitch at least 18 innings in four out of the five campaigns during that period.
Things were looking good in ‘18, but the right-hander dealt with shoulder issues and eventually had to cut short his season, undergoing Tommy John surgery. Middleton had a 2.04 ERA in 17.2 innings that year. Last year, Middleton got a shot with the White Sox, and amidst the chaos that was the season in the south side of Chicago, was a reliable albeit unspectacular option.
Middleton had a 113 ERA+ in 36.1 innings pitch in Chicago and showed enough with a strikeout rate above 30 percent to catch the eye of the Yankees’ front office. Coming over virtually cost-free, Middleton allowed only three earned runs in his 14.1 innings with the Yanks, though he did miss a chunk of time with shoulder inflammation.
Middleton found success using his changeup as his primary offering, using it 43.8 percent of the time, and in a different way than usual. The right-hander tossed the off-speed pitch in the zone over 50 percent of the time, reaching one of the highest rates in the big leagues (the average zone rate for the changeup is 33.4 percent).
Despite throwing it in the zone so often, Middleton got batters to swing and miss on the change very often, earning a swinging strike rate of 22.4, putting him in the 88th percentile. Although he naturally used the changeup more against left-handers, Middleton still relied on it heavily against righties, tossing it nearly as much as his slider. It’s clear that making the change a more primary feature of his arsenal paid dividends, which should portend good things for his future as long as he keeps up this change in approach.
While Middleton impressed enough to warrant a short-term investment, the injury concerns plus the shaky track record suggest he’ll hardly break the bank on his next deal. He should be gettable on a one-year deal, and neither FanGraphs nor MLB Trade Rumors ranked him among their top 50 free agents, suggesting something between $5 million and $10 million could be enough to coax him back for a full season in the Bronx.
Middleton wouldn’t be as flashy a bullpen addition as the Astros adding Josh Hader, or even the Angels signing Robert Stephenson, but a return to New York would still move the needle for the Yankees. Their top four or five relief arms look strong, but there’s a need for depth after the Juan Soto trades thinned things out. An arm like Middleton could do the trick.