Aroldis Chapman tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend. He’s experiencing “mild” symptoms, though “mild” often is a misnomer when it comes to this illness. In any case, it’s incredibly unlikely that the Yankees’ closer will be ready for Opening Day next Thursday. He’ll need two negative tests within a 24-hour period to return, not to mention getting his arm back to full strength. The Yankees wisely aren’t speculating when Chapman will return, but rather, Aaron Boone has noted that the lefty will be out for the foreseeable future. That means changes are coming to the team’s bullpen.
Earlier this month, I cobbled together a 30-man roster. Obviously, things are going to look different without Chapman (and potentially Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Cessa, and DJ LeMahieu). Whichever way the team decides to go in terms of filling out the roster, it’ll also have to reassign bullpen roles. Boone didn’t waste much time indicating that Zack Britton will take the reign as the team’s closer, which makes sense. The lefty sinkerballer has plenty of closer experience (145 career saves) and is an excellent reliever in his own right. There’s really not much more to it, though I’ll add some rationale to why he makes more sense over other options.
Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, and Adam Ottavino are all arguably better relievers than Britton, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better fits as the team’s interim closer. And it’s not just about Britton’s closer experience, either.
Britton has the lowest strikeout rate of the group by far, though he did fan 28.7 percent of opponents in the second half of 2019. Still, he hasn’t had a full season punchout rate north of 21.6 percent since 2016 when he was with Baltimore. So, what’s my point? I’d rather have Britton start with a clean ninth inning rather than needing to be a potential escape artist in the mid-to-late innings. He walks too many and strikes out too few for that sort of role to work for him.
Obviously, clean innings will be available in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings at times. It’s just that I’d rather not have one of the team’s elite strikeout relievers pigeon-holed into the closer role. It wouldn’t be ideal to, say, not use Kahnle in a strikeout situation in the seventh because he’s needed for the save in ninth.
What about closer by committee? That’s one of those things that works well in theory, but isn’t necessarily easy to implement. Baseball players, particularly relievers, tend to be creatures of habit. Certain pitchers can handle not knowing exactly when they’ll be needed, but many others like to have a better idea of when to be ready. Plus, with such a deep bullpen, are we really that concerned about deploying the best reliever possible in the highest leverage situations? I don’t think so. Boone really can do no wrong with all the options he has at his disposal, so assigning innings to certain pitchers is fine to do.
Ultimately, it’s no surprise that the Yankees will go with Britton for saves while Chapman is down. Not only does he have the most experience in the closer role, but he’s also better off entering without baserunners. It’s not that he can’t work out of trouble — ground balls for double plays are Britton’s best friend, of course — it’s just that the others seem to be better bets to do so in earlier innings. In any case, this is only temporary. Britton may only get three or four save opportunities before Chapman is healthy again.