The Yankees Bullpen Could Be Something Unbelievable

The Yankees are stuck in a tailspin, being tied for last in all of baseball in wins since June 13. And if I change tabs real quick, then I can confirm that…right…now, the Yankees just lost again, this time to the Twins by five runs. That’s the bad, and the bad colors the interpretation of the present. Recency bias tells us to downplay the fact that the Yankees remain in a playoff position. Their story, for now, remains a good one, and the Yankees are still very much alive as a contender.

Even a week ago, they were a contender with some questions about the starting rotation. Then Michael Pineda was found to require Tommy John surgery, opening another hole. It seemed like the Yankees needed a starter, and a first baseman. Tuesday, they made a trade! They got a possible first baseman, in Todd Frazier. And they got two pitchers — just, two pitchers who are relief pitchers, in Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson. Additions, sure, but not the ones you might’ve expected. The Pineda gap is still there.

And the Yankees, for their part, will continue to entertain the thought of dealing for a starter. But they might’ve just indirectly addressed that very need. Starters are required to handle innings before the bullpen. The Yankees bullpen now looks like a potential deep absurdity.

Kahnle, this year, has been absolutely fantastic. I’ve written about him a couple times, including just yesterday, on a hunch. A short while ago, he made his Yankees debut, throwing 15 of his 17 pitches for strikes. He got two strikeouts and a grounder. Kahnle did Kahnle things. Robertson didn’t pitch on Wednesday, but he’s also been terrific. The Yankees already had Aroldis Chapman. They already had Dellin Betances. They’ve had down years, by their own standards, but they remain as good as almost anyone else. Adam Warren? He’s good. Chad Green? He’s really good. And so on.

The Yankees didn’t invent the deep and dangerous bullpen. It’s been one of the things I love about this year’s Astros. But now the Yankees might have the best bullpen around. The easiest way to see that is by looking at our team WAR projections. They’re not perfect, certainly when it comes to mapping out reliever usage, but as a quick and dirty estimate, here’s how all the team bullpens project the rest of the way:

There are the Yankees, in first by themselves. Pity the poor remaining White Sox, who lost from a strength. But then, that’s the whole point. The Yankees gave the White Sox young talent, and the White Sox gave the Yankees older talent. Tyler Clippard also changed hands. There are good bullpens to the left and bad bullpens to the right, and there’s no other team to the left of the Yankees.

Projections look forward, based on the past. They’re good, and useful. Based on the projections, the Yankees look like they could be the best. Let’s also just play with 2017 statistics. There have been 218 different relief pitchers this year who’ve thrown at least 20 innings. Here are all of them, by strikeout and walk rates. The current Yankees are in yellow.

The eight Yankees are the six mentioned above, along with Jonathan Holder and Chasen Shreve. Seven of the eight are in the upper half in terms of strikeouts, with five in the top 25 and three in the top 10. All eight are in the upper half in terms of K-BB%, with five in the top 35. You think about Betances and Chapman, for good reason, but by K-BB% this year, Kahnle, Green, and Robertson have been even better. God help the opponents should Betances and Chapman improve.

I decided to have a little fun. I exported a spreadsheet containing the 2017 relief statistics for Kahnle, Chapman, Warren, Green, Betances, Robertson, Shreve, and Holder. I calculated some unweighted averages, as if they were to all get equivalent playing time. Let’s go through that. Those eight pitchers have an average strikeout rate of 33.2%. That would be better than the league’s best bullpen. The eight pitchers have an average K-BB% of 23.9%. That would be better than the league’s best bullpen. The eight have an average ERA- of 60. That would be better than the league’s best bullpen. The eight have an average FIP- of 58. That would be better than the league’s best bullpen. The eight have an average xFIP- of 74. That would be better than the league’s best bullpen.

Of course it’s not a completely fair comparison. I’m comparing just eight current Yankees to the entireties of other bullpen assortments. But the point is to offer you some perspective. Keep a few of those numbers in mind. I looked at all team bullpens since 1950. The lowest ERA- was 61, by the 2003 Dodgers. The lowest FIP- was 68, by the 2003 Dodgers and the 1964 Reds. We only have xFIP- going back to 2002, but, since then, the lowest xFIP- was 73, by those now very familiar 2003 Dodgers. The Yankees could be something like that good. It’s possible they could be better. That would set arguably too high a standard, but the collection of talent now in place is undoubtedly impressive.

The depth chart reads even longer. The Yankees have Giovanny Gallegos, who presently leads his Triple-A league in K-BB%. The guy in second place — Tyler Webb — was just traded away by the Yankees the other week. Domingo German has looked good in the minors, and the same could be said for guys like Ben Heller, Caleb Smith, and Bryan Mitchell. Tyler Jones, in Triple-A, has 11 walks and 60 strikeouts, and he’s not even on the 40-man roster. I’ve mostly focused on eight guys. Those are the eight guys who’ve thrown the most often in the majors. The Yankees could pull from a pool of 10 or 15. A guy like Gallegos deserves a bigger opportunity than the Yankees have been able to provide. His time could still be coming.

The Yankees still have questions, sure. They’re still not guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. The reality, as well, is that Betances hasn’t looked like himself, and Chapman has been strangely hittable. If Kahnle loses his magic somewhere in transition, the bullpen might not feel that reliable, and all kinds of things could go south. Maybe the safest thing is to rely on that projection. It makes a guy like Betances better, and it makes a guy like Kahnle worse. Whatever. There are error bars, as there are with any projection. But the depth here is such that Yankees starters, in a hypothetical playoff situation, might not have to do very much. The hell with that. Even in a regular-season situation, they might not have to do very much. At any one time, there are seven or eight pretty good relievers out there, which gives Joe Girardi an awful lot to work with. He doesn’t need to push his starters. He doesn’t need to push anybody. There are weapons, for every middle and later inning.

Max Scherzer joined the Nationals in 2015. So far he’s been a tremendous success. He’s struck out a third of his opponents, running an ERA- of 65, and an FIP- of 72. When you combine and average the current Yankees relievers, it comes out looking like a bullpen full of Max Scherzers. Some of them are better, and some of them are worse. That’s how a distribution is. But the potential for dominance here is obscene. Leads in New York just got an awful lot safer.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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free-range turducken
5 years ago

I guess there is zero chance we see Dean Anna pitching for the Yankees in 2017.

Doug Lampertmember
5 years ago

But just wait for them to trade for Chris Gimenez!