The Yankees have been early adopters in the league-wide shift towards the bullpen, but they’ll need to restrategize to win a ring.
The count is 2-0. With the ALCS on the line and Altuve at the plate, Aroldis Chapman is one of the few men on this planet you want on the mound. I would say this is the most stressful at-bat of his career, but Cubs fans know that’s a lie. Chapman deals and lands a nasty slider; strike one. It didn’t look easy. Diehard fans know when their closer is laboring. Chapman takes the first sign from Sanchez, winds up and delivers. It’s another slider, no break.
Going into 2019, the bullpen looked like the new Murderer’s Row. In the regular season, Yankee relievers boasted the second-highest WAR (7.5) and second-best FIP+ (112). They leaned on their bullpen exceptionally hard. They weren’t alone in this approach; the Yankees had only 7th most bullpen innings in 2019.
To get a better look at what’s been going on with not just the Yankees, but baseball as a whole, we need to zoom way out. Below is a chart of the percentage of team innings pitched by starters and relievers throughout each of the last 100 seasons.
It doesn’t take a statistician to tell you that this gap has been steadily closing since World War I, but look at that drop-off in the last 5 years. For most of this century, starters have been hovering around the 66% mark. This season, it was down to 58%. We are dramatically hurtling towards a season in which pitching duty is evenly split between starters and relievers.
This trend can be partially attributed to the data nerds like me declaring this the most effective strategy. Starters lose effectiveness the third time through the order, so teams are expanding their reliever arsenals. “Bullpenning” and “opener” have recently found their way into our vernacular thanks to clubs ditching the idea of five traditional starters entirely.
By late October, the Yankees ‘pen resembled the Toon Squad’s bench at the end of Space Jam. Drilling down to the 5 big arms (Green, Ottavino, Kahnle, Britton, and Chapman), we get a regular-season ERA of 2.81. In the ALCS, that skyrocketed to 5.24. When the world needed them most, they vanished.
I believe this deterioration can be attributed to two main factors. The first is derived from the workload these guys took on throughout the regular season. It’s not just the number of innings or appearances, but the intensity came with them. High-leverage at-bats take a bigger toll on your arm then mop-up situations.
To quantify this, let’s use Holds. To be credited with a Hold, a reliever must enter a game in a save situation, record at least one out, and depart without having given up the lead at any time. In other words; high-leverage.
Otto, Kahnle, and Britton were usually tasked with preserving the game starting in the 6th until Chappy was unleashed for the 9th. The three of them finished season top nine in Holds in all of baseball. No other team even had two guys in the top nine. One of them was bound to crack (it was Otto).
The second factor; the Astros just knew what was coming. This isn’t any breakthrough analysis. In fact, Britton made this point after the loss. He and Kahnle faced a combined 45 batters in the ALCS. Also, the Astros are good at reading pitchers. When we ran the same guys out there day after day, diminishing returns were inevitable.
The key to fixing both of these issues is disruption. If Sevy (and/or another ace) gets built up to 120 pitches, he can disrupt that cycle not only throughout the regular season, but in the playoffs as well. When you have two pitchers that are legitimate threats to go 8IP 1ER – as the Astros and Nationals did – the opposing offense has to base their entire strategy around them. That leaves room for the bullpen to get creative.
This year, if Happ or CC had the lead going into the 5th, it was probably going to take 4 Holds and a Save to win the game. I remember wanting to put my head through a wall watching the Yankees punt games simply because their top relievers weren’t available. Their strategy just wasn’t sustainable day-to-day, and certainly not over a seven-month season.
The Yankees need the starting pitching that allows them to spread the wealth of relievers across more games. Once they have that, they need a bullpen strategy that keeps opposing managers guessing, and keeps our guys sharp and rested. This seems like a tall order, but with such a stockpile of top tier arms, there’s no reason it can’t be done
That top tier – also known as the Four Horsemen and the Goose – is returning in 2020. Given how their seasons ended, my guess is they’ll be hellbent on redemption. With the right strategy, they’re going to get it.