With Chapman's return and Holmes' dominance, what is the future of the ninth inning?
Happy July! As the season nears its halfway point, the Yankees have exceeded even the highest of expectations at 56-21 and I for one am having fun. The Bombers were baseball’s best team in the month of June, cruising through just about everyone in their path en route to a 22-6 record. Even after a head-to-head loss last night, they stand seven games above the Houston Astros for the American League’s best record.
Rolling into Cleveland to meet the Guardians for a weekend set, they’ll be joined by none other than Aroldis Chapman, who’s been sidelined with left Achilles tendonitis since May 24. Oh, how we missed him. When asked about the team’s plan for the ninth inning moving forward, Aaron Boone reiterated that Chapman is the closer. Clay Holmes will become the “fireman” – entering as necessary in the highest leverage spots against the toughest parts of the lineup.
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It’s hard to find words to describe how good Holmes has been this season. His xBA ranks in the 99th percentile of all major league pitchers, his fastball velocity the 93rd, and his chase rate the 98th. Through 36.2 innings, his 0.49 ERA / 775 (!!!) ERA+ is just straight up laughable. Since assuming the closer role five weeks ago, he’s pitched in 15 games, saving 10 of them and allowing just one earned run along the way – everything the Yanks could have hoped for and more. On a related note, Hoy Park’s wRC+ is 82.
Now, on the other hand. Before landing on the IL, it hadn’t been the most inspiring of seasons for the Cuban Missile. His 1.643 WHIP and 8.4 H/9 are up dramatically from 1.314 and 5.8 in 2021. What’s most telling is that Chapman’s fastball velocity, perhaps his greatest asset, is also down 5%, leading to a drop in K/9 from 15.5 to 9.6 and K% from 39.9% to 22.7%. Of course, you can attribute some of this to him pitching hurt for who knows how long, but at 34-years-old, it’s fair to wonder how much of it is truly cause for concern. Despite going 9-for-9 in save opportunities thus far, it’s never a sure thing when Chapman takes the mound in the ninth – something we’ve unfortunately grown more and more accustomed to.
There’s no denying Chapman’s importance to the team in recent years. His 153 saves in pinstripes are good for third all-time, having recently eclipsed the great Goose Gossage. However, even with a comfortable 12.5 game lead in the division, the Yankees cannot afford to mortgage wins on his return to dominance – and with Holmes throwing like he is, why should they? An interesting perspective that more teams around the league seem to be taking to is that the one closer strategy is antiquated, instead favoring a matchup-based approach to decide who gets the ninth. I think it’s something at least worth considering that could greatly benefit this team, especially with these guys throwing from opposite sides. Regardless, it’s a great problem to have if you’re Boone, and it’s a situation worth monitoring in the coming weeks.