For a few years now, the Yankees' greatest asset has been their bullpen. This is especially impressive considering that they lost Mariano Rivera, the best relief pitcher in baseball history, to retirement following the 2013 season. The next year, long-time setup man David Robertson stepped into the closer's role and did a fine job as expected. The real difference maker, though, was the emergence of rookie Dellin Betances, who dominated as a multiple inning bridge between the starting rotation and Robertson.
When the Yankees let D-Rob walk as a free agent in 2015, most fans were justifiably upset that the homegrown relief ace wasn't even offered a contract. However, the team proved it was a smart move by signing Andrew Miller to replace him for less money. Miller inherited the ninth inning job and turned out to be even more effective than Robertson was while Betances continued to dominate.
On the strength of these arms, the Yankees' bullpen was so good in 2014 and 2015 that they set records for relief strikeouts in both years. The 2014 unit set the all-time mark for K/9 by a bullpen while the 2015 group set the standard for total relief pitcher strikeouts:
|Rank||Team||Relief IP||Relief K/9|
|7||2011 White Sox||438.1||9.83|
|Rank||Team||Relief IP||Relief K's|
It's clear from these tables that bullpens with prolific strikeout capabilities are a relatively recent phenomenon as each of these lists are comprised entirely of teams that played within the past 15 years. There are two main reasons for this. First, baseball's decision makers are far more tolerant of batters who strike out at a high clip than they ever were before. Second, those same decision makers are instilling innings and pitch count limits on their starting pitchers, leaving more innings to be absorbed by their bullpens. Still, even in this high strikeout environment, the Yankees are standing out from the rest and establishing new standards.
With some of the most appealing players on the Yankee roster sitting in the bullpen, it was assumed that they would attempt to improve other areas of the roster by using someone like Andrew Miller as the centerpiece for a trade. The Winter Meetings proved that nothing was doing on that end for Brian Cashman, so rather than taking aim at roster balance, he did a 180 and decided to embrace his team's greatest strength. Enter Aroldis Chapman, who will team with Miller and Betances to form a King Ghidorah bullpen, the likes of which baseball has never seen before.
Cashman controversially acquired Chapman off the clearance rack from Cincinnati. Given Chapman's checkered recent past, Yankee fans are still unsure as to how they feel about it. However, the Yankees are making a clear statement when it comes to their on-field strategy. They'll rely on their bullpen more than ever in 2016, They're fully prepared to keep the status quo in regards to their starting rotation so that the bullpen can effectively absorb more innings. This might not be such a bad idea because they've now bolstered a unit that included two of the best strikeout artists in the game with perhaps the greatest strikeout artist in baseball history.
Chapman's career K/9 of 15.4 is by far the highest rate for any major league pitcher logging at least 300 innings in their career. Last year alone Chapman, Miller, and Betances ranked first, second, and third in K/9, respectively, among pitchers who threw at least 60 innings. That should all add up to a whole lot of opposing batters making a slow walk back to the dugout in the late innings against the Yankees.
Even if a lengthy suspension is levied against Chapman as expected due to his issues with domestic violence, it's still feasible that he can give the Yankees 40-50 innings in 2016. That should be enough to bump the already impressive strikeout numbers for the Yankee bullpen to nearly 11.0 K/9 and well over 600 total strikeouts. Both values would shoot them to the top of the tables above and provide the Yankees with baseball's biggest, baddest nail in the coffin to end games with.
Now, let's hope the Yankee lineup builds enough leads to make their work meaningful.