The Yankees figure to have one of the best (if not the best) bullpens in baseball in 2018, as they boast four relievers in Fangraphs’ top-15 in projected strikeouts per nine innings. The quartet consists of Dellin Betances (2nd), Aroldis Chapman (3rd), Tommy Kahnle (13th) and Chad Green (14th). That is an impressive group in itself, even without David Robertson, who continues to be one of the most reliable bullpen arms in the league and still projects to be in the top-30 in K/9.
Given the powerful arms at first-time manager Aaron Boone’s disposal, why not maximize those assets and break from tradition? Does each of Boone’s powerful bullpen weapons have to have an inning attached to their name, as some rigid assignment that can’t be altered given a unique in-game situation?
The Yankees would be wise to have their relievers head into the regular season with a blank slate, and simply have them ready for whenever the situation best suits their abilities. Chapman has been a closer for the majority of his career and has expressed a desire to be a ninth-inning guy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to go to Chapman earlier in a close game if multiple lefties are due up in the next inning?
The southpaw has eye-opening numbers against hitters on both sides of the plate, but lefty opponents are slugging just .179 against him in his career. That number was inflated in 2017 thanks to a horrendous August where Chapman couldn’t find his way, but lefties still hit just .172 on the season, compared to .209 for righties. Again, he has had success against almost any hitter in the league, but if last season sparked any concerns about a possible decline in dominance, he would be maximized against lefties, whether it’s in the ninth inning or not.
Meanwhile, a similar approach can be taken for Kahnle should a heavy dose of righties be due up. Kahnle, a righty, fared far better against right-handed hitters in 2017, holding them to a .232 OBP and a .229 wOBA. Those numbers increased to .360 and .317 against lefties. Kahnle’s strikeout numbers are also considerably better against right-handed hitting, which is status quo for almost any righty reliever. Still, whether it’s normal or not, Kahnle is a powerful weapon to have ready when the righties are lingering on deck.
Oh yeah, that status quo I just mentioned? That doesn’t necessarily apply to Green, at least it didn’t last year. Green’s ridiculous rookie season showed that he actually was more dominant against lefties, holding them to a .170 OBP and .180 wOBA, good for seventh-best in baseball among righty AND lefty relievers. Those numbers increase slightly to .233 and .216 against righties. In short, you can basically bring in Green whenever you need a big strikeout, or during a balanced stretch of the opponent’s batting order.
Then there’s Robertson. Yankees fans have seen enough of D-Rob to know his effectiveness with runners on base. They were reminded of that again in game five of the ALDS, when he bailed out CC Sabathia and sent the Yanks on their way to their first playoff series win in five years.
Robertson can be the guy to come in and mop up a mess, like if Betances loses the strike zone and walks a batter or two. Due to Betances’ struggles with holding runners on, he would be better suited to arrive to a clean slate at the start of an inning, with arms like Robertson or Adam Warren (who also had great numbers with runners on last season) standing by if needed.
The Yankees’ bullpen is full of electric, All-Star caliber arms, but can also be used in specific ways to make them even better. If there was a time to try the Terry Francona strategy, this year would be it. After all, we’ve seen the Yankee bullpen maneuver through a big game in nontraditional fashion before, and it worked out pretty well.