Pinstripe Preview: Bullpen
An electric bullpen. It’s something that Yankees fans have grown accustomed to over the last few years. Every season since 2014, the team has ranked top two in MLB in bullpen wins above replacement (WAR). In addition, the 2018 Yankees had the highest bullpen WAR (9.7) in league history. Need more proof? New York’s relief corps finished number one in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) in all five of those campaigns. It’s no secret that the Yanks have had the back-end of games covered for a while, and this year’s group could be the best yet.
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Let’s start with the closer, Aroldis Chapman. The flame-throwing lefty bounced back from a semi-disappointing 2017 by posting a 2.45 ERA and being named to his fifth career All-Star Game last season. Entering the third year of his five-year deal with the Yankees, and his age 31 season, Chapman is still one of the most intimidating relievers in the sport. He led all relievers in K/9 in 2018 (16.31) and converted 32 of 34 saves. However, there are some concerns. After putting up a 1.35 before the All-Star break, Chapman had a 6.35 in 11.1 innings after the break. The nine-year veteran also missed nearly a month with knee tendinitis after missing over two months in 2017 with shoulder inflammation. Chapman’s health will be key for the Yankees in 2019.
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Moving down the line, Dellin Betances is expected to reprise his role as the primary setup man for Chapman this year. The six-foot-eight reliever delivered a 2.70 ERA in 2018 and 15.53 K/9, which ranked third in the Bigs. Betances also had a dominating two-month stretch in June and July where he posted a 0.41 ERA in 22 innings. But perhaps the biggest step forward for the big righty was his improved control. After finishing with the third highest walks per nine (BB/9) in MLB in 2017 (6.64), Betances got that number down to a respectable 3.51 last year. If he can keep the free passes down, Betances should once again be one of the league’s best relievers this season.
Zack Britton pitched well over the final two months of the regular season for New York after coming over in a trade from the Baltimore Orioles. The 31-year-old had a 2.88 ERA and .196 batting average against in 25 innings. In doing so, he earned himself a three-year, $39 million contract in the offseason. And there’s reason to believe 2019 will be even better. Not only will Britton have a full season in pinstripes this time around, but he’s fully healthy after missing over two months to start last season following right Achilles surgery. The Southpaw is crucial to the balance of the 2019 bullpen. Britton could be the only lefty in the Yankees bullpen besides closer Aroldis Chapman. That makes him key for matchups. He also has the most closing experience among non-Chapman relievers with 142 career saves.
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The final member of the bullpen’s four-headed monster is also the newest addition to the group. Adam Ottavino came over from Colorado this Winter on a three-year, $27 million deal. That came after a career-year in which Ottavino pitched to a 2.43 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and .158 batting average against. He’ll be charged with replacing fan favorite David Robertson, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in January. After reinventing his slider following a disappointing 2017 campaign, Ottavino struck out 112 batters in 2018. The 33-year-old used his nasty hammer nearly 47% of the time last season, more than any other pitch in his repertoire. And if Spring Training is any indication (see below), Ottavino appears to be picking up right where he left off.
The middle relief gang features two key returners. Chad Green and Jonathan Holder are two relievers that would challenge to setup for most teams, but with the Yankees’ embarrassment of riches, they are able to be used in multi-inning, low-leverage roles most nights. Green followed up his 2017 breakout with a 2.50 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 2018. While his K/9, HR/9 and H/9 all regressed, it was still a very solid season to build off. However, allowing nearly a hit per inning (64 in 75.2 innings) is never good, so that will have to improve for Green to regain his dominance. As for Holder, he burst onto the scene with a 3.14 ERA in 66 innings last year. While he tailed off with a 5.00 ERA after the All-Star break, he’s still more than capable of filling the fifth or sixth inning roles for New York in 2019. It also makes sense for the team to view him as a trade piece that can be used to shore up some of the team’s weaker spots.Adam Ottavino, Electric Slider. ⚡️— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 7, 2019
Shane Robinson, Electric Slide. 🕺 pic.twitter.com/KK28qJE0Vc
As for the final one or two spots in the bullpen, it will likely come down to some combination of Domingo German, Tommy Kahnle and Stephen Tarpley. German struggled as a starter in 2018, but he had a 3.12 ERA in 17.1 innings out of the bullpen. With a fastball that sits around 95 MPH, and a solid curveball, German could turn into a nice long reliever. As for Kahnle, it was a disastrous 2018. The righty had a 6.56 ERA and spent most of the season with triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. However, Kahnle finished 2016 and 2017 with an ERA under 2.75 in both seasons. If he can regain that form, Kahnle could quickly turn into the biggest x-factor in this bullpen. Finally, there’s Stephen Tarpley. The 26-year-old was a September call-up and posted a 3.00 ERA in ten innings for the Yanks last season. His biggest value to the team is as a lefty-specialist, something the team doesn’t really have. Tarpley limited lefties to just a .151 batting average in triple-A last year.
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On paper, this group looks nearly unstoppable. On a team with many strengths, the bullpen might just be the club’s biggest. The Yankees have four relievers that could close for nearly every team in baseball, along with two other relievers that have proven to be near All-Star caliber, at their best, in their young careers. Add in the chance for a breakout from a couple of players, a potential bounce-back from another, and this should be a special year for New York’s late-inning gang.
Article by: Jake GrazianoFollow@JakeGraziano