Not many mop-up relievers are popular among a team’s fanbase. Their jobs are relatively thankless. They pitch with very little on the line, usually in blowouts. So if they get the job done and push the game closer to the finish, no one really cares. But if they let the opposing team back in the game or fail to give other relievers a breather, the boo birds come out in full force. Luis Cessa has faced the brunt of this for a few years now.
In the grand scheme of things, what Cessa does on the mound doesn’t really matter. But admittedly, it can be annoying to watch him struggle. Surely, the Yankees can find a better pitcher to roster, right? Well, yes. But even a guy like Cessa serves his purpose. And really, he does a pretty good job for the gig he’s got. The Yankees didn’t ask much of him this year, but he delivered nonetheless. In 81 innings across 43 appearances, Cessa had a 4.11 ERA (89 ERA-) and 4.87 FIP (104 FIP-). That’s great for any long man.
A new slider-heavy approach
In terms of runs allowed, this was Cessa’s best season. It was the first year of his career that his ERA was lower than the league average, though he had a better FIP last year (87 FIP- in 2018). That said, runs are the currency of baseball, and Cessa did his best job of preventing them in a year when offenses ran rampant. How did he do it? Seemingly with an increased emphasis on his slider.
Cessa’s gradually increased his slider usage over the years, finally eclipsing his fastball usage in 2018. But this year, he dramatically boosted the amount of sliders thrown. It was a wise decision — Cessa has had good numbers on his slider in the past and the Yankees like to shy away from fastballs if possible. Here’s a good one:
In 2018, Cessa’s slider generated an excellent 38.0 percent whiff rate. Opposing hitters had a low .218 xwOBA and .176 batting average against the offering too. So it only made sense to increase its usage this year, and once again, Cessa found more good fortune with it. Opponents whiffed 40.7 percent of the time and hit .204 against the pitch (.246 xwOBA).
Even with good results on the pitch, Cessa’s slider won’t overwhelm you with spin or movement. Per Statcast, its spin rate (2491 RPM) was a little higher than league avereage (2428 RPM) and in terms of movement, it has good drop (one inch better than average) but doesn’t get good side-to-side movement (3.9 inches below average).
Even though Cessa throws hard, all signs pointed to him needing to throw his slider more often to stick around. He did just that and was more effective.
Getting the job done in low leverage
Although the 27 year-old righty improved this season, his performance wouldn’t be palpable in any role other than mop-up duty. As such, Aaron Boone rarely pitched him in close games. 29 of Cessa’s 43 appearances were in situations with a leverage index lower than 1.0. For reference, 1.0 is average. So unless it was an absolute necessity, Cessa pitched most often with the game not on the line. And far more often than not, he got the job done in that role.
Of those low pressure outings, Cessa only had two meltdowns. A meltdown is any outing during which a pitcher has a win-probability added of negative 6 percent or worse. Frankly, what more can a team ask of its mop-up guy? It’s not a glorious role, but it’s a necessary one. Cessa aptly filled it.
To no one’s surprise, Cessa had a much harder time in tighter games. In games with medium or high leverage, he had a 4.73 ERA in 26 1/3 innings. Obviously, using him in those situations wasn’t ever part of Boone’s plans, but there are times when there’s no choice. If the bullpen was exhausted or the game was in extra innings, sometimes Cessa was the only guy to call for.
In spite of his struggles in important situations, Cessa actually did some of his best work when it mattered most: the playoffs, when he threw four shutout innings against the Astros in the ALCS. He pitched the eighth and ninth innings of Game 3’s 4-1 loss, which really wasn’t a high pressure spot per se. But in game 6, Cessa came in with the Yankees season on the brink.
Down 3-2 in the series and the game’s score also 3-2 in the Astros favor, Cessa came in to face Houston’s 5-6-7 hitters in the bottom of the fourth. Impressively, Cessa induced back-to-back groundouts against Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa. Then, he struck out Yordan Álvarez. He preserved the one run deficit in by pitching a scoreless fifth inning too. Obviously, the Yankees did not win that game, but Cessa keeping the Yankees in the game was an unsung performance.
Cessa is still on the Yankees roster and was offered arbitration, but his status on the 2020 team is tenuous. A few things make him expendable: he’s out of minor league options, he’s nothing special on the mound, and he’s due for a decent raise. It’s the first time he’s arbitration eligible and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to earn $1.1 million next year. That may be a little more than the Yankees would like to spend on a long man, especially when someone like Jonathan Loaisiga could take that role for less (and likely be better).
All that said, I expect Cessa to stick around only because he’s avoided removal for so long now. And that’s fine: he’s more than capable of serving as the Yankees’ mop-up guy.