The Great Yankees Bullpen… Sale

The New York Yankees aren’t completely out of the 2016 postseason race, but they’re also not trending up. The team has done little this season to make anyone think they’re playoff-bound or anything more than a .500 team. Masahiro Tanaka has been good and CC Sabathia is having a nice bounce-back season, but Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino and Ivan Nova haven’t been able to keep the ball in the park, giving up 52 homers in 274.1 innings. On offense, the only above-average hitter is a 39-year-old Carlos Beltran, and he’s having trouble staying on the field. The strength of the team is an historically great bullpen, and if the team is willing to give up on this season, they could get quite a return over the next month by dealing Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller¬†and maybe even Dellin Betances.

The Yankees are currently 37-39 with a negative-34 run differential*. They’re nine games back in the division and six games out of the last wild-card spot, needing to pass six teams to get there. Our projections have them going 44-42 the rest of the way, thereby ending the year at exactly .500. BaseRuns says the Yankees have played like a team that should be 33-43. While the team’s peripheral pitching stats suggest the team has outperformed their results a little bit (4.43 ERA and 4.00 FIP), we’re still talking about a team that might be .500 if things had worked out better, not a team that looks like a contender. The team’s best playoff odds are likely behind them and the team has a roughly 6% chance at the postseason right now.

*Numbers before play on Wednesday.

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So in all likelihood, the team should be sellers. That said, a team of veterans with long-term contracts doesn’t generally make for the most appealing trade partner. If he’s still healthy, Carlos Beltran should be in demand, and it’s possible that Nathan Eovaldi might bring something back, but the strength of the Yankees has been the bullpen, and if they’re going to sell, that’s where they’ll get the greatest return.

The Yankees bullpen has put up a 3.48 FIP, third in the majors to the Astros and Nationals, although the bullpen’s xFIP at 3.03 is first in MLB by a wide margin. The team had been led all season long by Betances and Miller, with the more recent addition of Aroldis Chapman making the bullpen a force with which to be reckoned. Right now, the Yankees bullpen has struck out more than 30% of batters while walking fewer than 6%. The MLB team record for strikeout percentage by a bullpen is 26.9%, set by the Yankees in the 2014 season, and that team’s walk rate was near 9%.

This is an era of increased strikeouts so perhaps the strikeout number, while impressive, is somewhat overstated by the raw figure. Even if that’s the case, though, it’s the walk rate which makes the current bullpen truly remarkable. Since World War II, only the 1984 Royals have recorded a lower walk rate than the Yankees’ mark of 5.9%, and the Royals posted a 13.1% strikeout rate to go with their 5.8% walk rate. (It should be noted the Astros are currently posting a 5.5% walk rate with a very impressive 26% strikeout rate.) Only 15 bullpens in history have posted a strikeout rate higher than the Yankees current K-BB% of 24.8%.

The scatter plot below represents the strikeout and walk rates of every bullpen since the strike in the 1994 season.


While the team is unlikely to keep up that pace over the course of the rest of the season, it’s won’t be impossible for them to stay above a 30% K rate if they keep the team together. If Betances (currently 47%), Miller (51%) and Chapman (39%) could combine for 100 innings and a 40% strikeout rate, they would need around a 24% K rate from the rest of the bullpen.

No team is more reliant on their bullpen for wins than the Yankees. Their starting pitcher WAR of 6.4 ranks 12th in the majors. Their position player of 3.3 ranks 26th, and their wRC+ for non-pitchers is an abysmal 86, besting only the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. Their bullpen WAR of 4.1 is second in the majors and accounts for almost 30% of the team’s total. The graph below shows the percentage of a team’s WAR so far this year that’s come from the bullpen. (I wasn’t quite sure how to classify the Reds, as their -4.0 bullpen WAR is technically 1,000 percent of their total -0.4 WAR, so I just put them at the end to indicate that their bullpen is really bad.)

bullpen war percentage

The A’s bullpen hasn’t been particularly good, but the rest of the team has also been fairly poor, creating a high number for Oakland. No other team is within 7% of the Yankees and 23 of 30 teams have percentages half of the Yankees.

So the Yankees bullpen is great, and the rest of the team isn’t. If the Yankees want to get better for the future, they need to sell bullpen arms for prospects. Fortunately for the Yankees, it should be a buyer’s market: many teams will be in search of bullpen help at the deadline, and the Yankees have arguably the three best relievers in baseball. Going by Depth Charts rest-of-season FIP, only Kenley Jansen slips ahead of Chapman, with Miller and Betances taking the top two spots.

The market will be loudest for Miller, who has faced 124 batters this season, struck out 64 and walked only three. The Yankees control him for two more years beyond this season for a relatively reasonable $18 million. Miller might not fetch the Craig Kimbrel or Ken Giles returns provided by Boston or Houston this past offseason, but with the lack of ace-level starters available, Miller is likely to be the best pitcher traded this season. Aroldis Chapman might be the second best.

Chapman, on whom the Yankees received at discount from Cincinnati before the season, might fetch a better return than the Yankees themselves sent to the Reds just a few months ago. It would be generous to Chapman and crass to humanity simply to say that he would bring baggage with him wherever he goes. Chapman’s suspension due to violating MLB’s domestic violence policy will likely cause some teams to bow out, particularly if the price is high, which it likely will be. Teams will weigh whether 20-30 elite innings are worth the cost, and some teams might choose less stomach-churning alternatives.

Whether the Yankees should entertain offers for Dellin Betances is another matter. Betances enters arbitration next year, and even if he takes over the closer role, he’s likely to earn “just” $20 million or so over the next three seasons. Relievers are a volatile bunch, and since the beginning of 2014, Detances has pitched 211.1 innings, nearly 20 innings more than second-place Jeurys Familia. The gap between Betances and sixth-place Mark Melancon is larger than the gap between Melancon and 55th-place Zach Duke.

The question becomes, if the Yankees are willing to entertain offers for Miller, who could help them contend in future years, why wouldn’t they do the same for Betances, whose salary will rise close to Miller’s and is controlled for an extra season. While the Yankees might prefer to retain Betances and make him their closer, if they move early enough with Chapman and Miller, there are teams that could still come calling for Betances and even make better offers as the deadline approaches. It would be a bold move for a team that might wish to contend in 2017, but the trade value for elite relievers is incredibly high. With so many teams contending and so few elite players available, the Yankees are in position to clean up. Their bullpen is great. The sale of that bullpen could be even greater for the Yankees’ future.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Baron Samedi
Baron Samedi

Please show this graph to the Toronto beat writers, fans and bloggers who can’t stop crying about the Blue Jays’ bullpen.


The graph shows the bullpen’s percentage of the Jays total WAR, not the bullpen’s total WAR. By FIP the Jays relievers are 20th in baseball (4.10) and by ERA 22nd (4.38).

Shirtless George Brett
Shirtless George Brett

They also have the 4th best K/BB, 6th best SIERA while recieving the 3rd lowest RS/9 (run support) in MLB. so they really have pitched pretty well overall and the offence doesn’t help them out much.

Most of their struggles are because they have the 4th highest BABIP in MLB at .318 and because John Gibbons is a terrible manager who waits too long to take his starters out.