The bullpen: A great stable of arms [2021 Season Preview]

Newbie Darren O’Day sure knew how to endear himself to a fanbase, huh? There clearly was some intent in that comment early this month. As you may recall, Rays’ manager Kevin Cash touted his stable of guys who throw 98 last year in response to the beef the Yankees and Rays had. It sounded a bit threatening after Aroldis Chapman threw some chin music to Mike Brosseau. Granted, the Rays got the last laugh. It’s a new year though, and this bullpen is clearly pretty good, as O’Day said.

The locks

Although Aroldis Chapman‘s high octane fastball is no longer unique among his peers, he’s still one of the league’s best closers. He’ll continue to blow his upper-90s heat by hitters in 2021, but that might not be his only big threat anymore. Sure, his slider has been effective at times in the past, but this year, Chapman plans to incorporate the splitter he teased last season. It’s looked pretty nasty in camp.

As tantalizing as that split looks, there’s one ultimate goal for Chapman this season: to record the clinching out of the World Series rather than end his year like the previous two postseasons. One last note: Chapman will serve a two-game suspension to start the season as a result of this aforementioned incident against the Rays last season.

Chad Green will be the team’s primary set-up man until Zack Britton returns from the injured list. Britton will miss 3-4 months while recovering from elbow surgery to remove a bone chip, as you know. Green is more than capable of sliding into Britton’s shoes as the eighth inning guy. We know he’s got the tough to hit fastball — but will this be the year Green finally figures out a go to secondary offering? We’ve seen him try the splitter, slider, and most recently a curveball. He’s certainly proven that he doesn’t need a second pitch to dominate, but at the same time, it wouldn’t hurt.

After Green comes the new faces: Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson. Their responsibilities have also increased in wake of the Britton injury. O’Day is going to be the funky and unusual look out of the Yankees pen that’s loaded with hardthrowers. And despite the submariner’s mid-80s fastball, he’s capable of getting tons of whiffs against it up in the zone (30.2 percent whiff rate last season). Yes, he really does feature it upstairs:

O’Day is effectively the replacement for Adam Ottavino, who was traded to Boston. Wilson, meanwhile, is a new and somewhat unexpected addition to the team. 2021 will mark the beginning of his second stint in pinstripes. The lefty thrives on soft contact against his mid-90s fastball paired with a low-90s cutter. His control is a bit suspect, but it usually doesn’t do him much harm because he misses barrels with ease.

With the high leverage relievers out of the way, we get to the next tranche: the long relievers. Luis Cessa has handled this role admirably for a few years now even though he’s drawn ire from the fanbase at times. He’s got an 86 ERA- and 99 FIP- since 2019, which is pretty darn good for your long guy.

Jonathan Loaisiga is the team’s other multi-inning option. At times, it feels like Loaisiga should be a dominant short-inning reliever given his arsenal, but he has a hard time finishing his opponents. Perhaps Britton’s absence will give Loaisiga an opportunity to finally breakout.

Here’s how PECOTA’s preseason projections look for this crew:

NameIPERADRAWARP
Aroldis Chapman552.853.351.1
Zack Britton553.744.300.6
Chad Green612.873.451.3
Darren O’Day443.063.680.8
Justin Wilson503.674.210.6
Luis Cessa504.254.750.3
Jonathan Loaisiga503.874.250.5

The Scranton Shuttle

Optionable relievers are pivotal throughout a 162 game season. Injuries, long extra inning affairs, and doubleheaders necessitate the ability to summon relievers at a moment’s notice. Fortunately for the Yankees, they have three intriguing arms to fill this role: Nick Nelson, Brooks Kriske, and Albert Abreu. This assumes that Abreu indeed has a fourth option, of course. That situation still isn’t totally clear, and as Mike Axisa noted in his most recent RAB Patreon post, it’s somewhat odd that they didn’t option him with the first round of cuts. Maybe he doesn’t have that option after all, or maybe the determination has yet to be made. But for now, I’ll make the assumption that he can be optioned.

At least one, maybe two, of Nelson, Kriske, and Abreu will break camp with the Yankees while the other(s) assemble at the Alternate Site. All three of these guys have swing-and-miss stuff and have some upside in relief roles. However, they all come with warts.

As impressive as Nelson’s four pitch arsenal looked in his stint in the Bronx last summer, he tends to struggle with control and missing bats. Last year, his whiff rates dropped with two strikes:

PitchNumber Thrown (%)Whiff Rate, Two StrikesWhiff Rate, All Counts
Fastball 214 (57.2)14.822.3
Changeup92 (24.6)23.132.8
Slider44 (11.8)23.134.8
Curve24 (6.4)100.066.7

That’s something he’ll need to resolve to be effective regardless of his role in the majors. That, and his 12.2 percent walk rate last year. Still, it’s hard not to like the combination of a high-90s fastball paired with a good changeup and high spin breaking ball.

Abreu has the best stuff of this group, but doesn’t seem to know where it’s going all too often. He’s also gotten lit up in Grapefruit League play, for what it’s worth (7 hits and 6 runs allowed in 3 games). He really could use a little more time in the minors to harness some semblance of control, especially now that he may actually have a minor league option remaining. At one point, it seemed like the Yankees were going to roll the dice with him in the majors this year. Now, they can buy some time and work on getting him around the plate more often.

Unlike Nelson and Abreu, Kriske is a relief-only option. But similar to those two, the righty’s strikethrowing ability is questionable. He walked 7 of 22 batters faced with the Yankees last year and posted an 11.6 percent walk rate in the minors in 2019. He gets strikeouts with ease though, and it’s not too hard to see why.

Now PECOTA’s projections for these three:

NameIPERADRAWARP
Albert Abreu226.046.14-0.2
Nick Nelson444.855.200.1
Brooks Kriske394.985.290.0

One NRI has emerged

The Yankees invited a sleuth of relievers with major league experience to camp, but none other than Lucas Luetge has stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Adam Warren has already been assigned to minor league spring training and is dealing with shoulder soreness. Others like Kyle Barraclough, Tyler Lyons, Nick Goody, and Luis García have looked fine and are still around, but again, no one has impressed like Luetge.

Luetge has been ridiculously good in Grapefruit League play. He’s faced 17 batters, struck out 11, and has allowed two hits and a walk. Opponents have whiffed on 22 of 38 swings (57.9 percent), which is absurd. Now, we’ve seen fluky spring training performances before and know better to make too much out of March numbers. But Luetge may be the exception. The Yankees have tried to get him for a couple of years and have helped him boost his spin rates. I touched on his spin rates last Monday, but here are the updated figures:

Pitch TypePitch Count (%)Whiffs/Swing (%)Spin (RPM)
Four-Seamer30 (38.5)3/9 (33.3)2735
Slider39 (50.0)16/26 (61.5)2824
Curve9 (11.5)3/3 (100.0)2902

Luetge’s struck out some big name hitters too. As you can see in the video above, he fanned Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius, and Bryce Harper in order. He’s also punched out Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He’s seeing more big league caliber hitters of late and continues to pass each test with flying colors.

So, I think it’s pretty clear we can count Luetge in for the opening day roster. Quite the story for the lefty who’s been out of the majors since 2015, and substantially since 2013. Adding Luetge to the 40-man does lock the Yankees into keeping him in the majors all year long though, unless they want to pass him through waivers (he’d get claimed, I think). Luetge is out of options.

Now, the other NRIs are somewhat interesting too, though they haven’t stood out in camp. Barraclough had some dominant seasons with Miami early in his career (137 ERA+ from 2015-2017). The Yankees must like Lyons because he’s been brought back to the organization for three consecutive years. Goody is an ex-Yankee who’s returned to the fold and has had some success with Cleveland in the past, namely 2017 (164 ERA+) and 2019 (135 ERA+). García may have been a one-hit wonder, but that one hit was good: a 163 ERA+ in 2017 thanks to a 55.5 percent ground ball rate.

The prospects

Relief-only pitchers typically aren’t big prospects. The best bullpen arms we see in the majors are guys who may have been top prospects in the past when they were still starters. Or, they were big league starters who simply didn’t work out in the role for whatever reason. From Chapman to Britton to Green, the Yankees already have a number of ex-starters as dominant relievers. So, that’s one big reason you aren’t going to hear anyone call the likes of Addison Russ or Trevor Lane top prospects.

Russ barely pitched in Grapefruit League play. Just to two batters, in fact (both retired, one via strikeout). The righty, acquired for David Hale last summer, has been reassigned to minor league camp. Russ actually got some help from Bryce Harper in Phillies’ spring training last year, who told him that the righty reliever was tipping his splitter. I guess that didn’t really matter much in 2019, when Russ carved up the Eastern League (81 strikeouts in 56.2 innings). I think we’ll see Russ mostly in Scranton this year.

Lane, a lefty who was the team’s 10th round choice in 2016, pitched in three games this spring. He was also reassigned to minor league camp. Lane put up some big numbers in Trenton back in 2019 (1.99 ERA in 68 innings), but probably had a better future before the three batter minimum was instituted. Expect Lane to join Russ in the Railriders’ bullpen.

Again though, Russ and Lane aren’t exactly prospects. They might have some utility in the big leagues someday, but it’s unlikely that they’re much more than middle relief arms. If there are any minor leaguers in the Yankees’ system who will wind up as big time relievers down the road, it’s the starter prospects who either can’t hold up to a starter’s workload or just don’t have the control handle that role. Think guys like Nick Nelson, Clarke Schmidt, Luis Medina, et. al.

Depth Chart

Going to keep this pretty brief considering the difficulty in projecting relievers below the Triple-A level. Here goes:

  • MLB: Chapman, Green, O’Day, Wilson, Loaisiga, Cessa, Luetge, Abreu/Nelson/Kriske
  • IL: Britton
  • Triple-A: Abreu/Nelson/Kriske, Russ, Lane, Warren, Barraclough, Lyons, Goody, García
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3 Comments

  1. Mungo

    For Luetge, a comparison to his prior spin rates (I’m guessing they have those) when he last pitched in the majors, plus a column showing average MLB spin rates might provide context. While we all know spin rate is important, I’m not sure all of us (ok, me!) instantly know what a good spin rate is for a four-seamer, curve, etc.

    I’ll take the under on Britton’s ERA is he’s healthy. In the seven years he’s been a reliever, he has a 1.84 ERA and a 231 ERA+. He’s actually had one of the most dominant seven year runs of any reliever, but FIP doesn’t love him because, like Mariano, his signature pitch delivers weak contact but not a high K rates. Surprised FIP hasn’t developed a more effective formula to encompass the success of different pitchers, meaning those with great cutters or sinkers. I’ll take the Britton on what he delivers, not what FIP thinks he should deliver.

    • Derek

      Good point on Luetge. So in ’15, Luetge had spin rates of 2578 on his fastball, 2329 on his curve, and 1975 on his slider. So we’re talking about massive jumps here. And league average fastball spin last year was 2306, 2531 for curves, and 2442 for sliders. So he’s way above average now too.

      • Mungo

        Great and helpful information. Thanks. Those are significant increases and also well above the league average. Even more reason to keep an eye on him.

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