It’s been a common refrain all season: if the Yankees are going to end the season atop the baseball world once more, it will be the bullpen that carries them there. The team itself admitted this but a week ago, with manager Aaron Boone telling Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci that he will take an “untraditional” approach to pitcher usage.
As Verducci notes, this is a strategy that makes a considerable amount of sense. Teams are increasingly reliant on their bullpen arms for the tournament these days. The 2014-15 Royals always come to mind for me, but it’s apparent that this is a new trend.
It’s also one that the Yankees themselves clearly believe, given their emphasis on high-powered bullpen arms. Now that we’re entering the final week of the season, it’s worth doing a bit of a dive into one of the Yankees’ biggest assets–and it turns out that the team’s pen is even more dangerous than it initially seems.
Season in Review
First, let’s just review the team’s 2019 as a whole. All relievers, no inning qualifications, etc. Just the bare bones “here is how the bullpen did” this season. Check it out, with league rankings in parentheses:
- Innings Pitched: 628.2 (7th)
- ERA: 4.04 (9th)
- FIP: 4.13 (8th)
- K%: 26.4% (3rd)
- BB%: 9.3% (9th)
- HR/FB%: 15.3% (16th)
- fWAR: 7.4 (1st)
That’s not a perfect summary of the team, of course, but it paints a pretty clear picture. The Yanks’ bullpen corp basically did its job all season; they racked up the strikeouts, generally kept folks off the bases, and limited the damage relative to their peers.
But looking at those numbers is kind of disappointing, isn’t it? At least in some respects. For a bullpen that was billed as one of the best in league history prior to the season, those numbers can seem facially disappointing.
Of course, there’s a catch: Luis Cessa (who has been good!) and Nestor Cortes Jr. rank first and third in innings pitched, respectively. Of the Yankees’ 628 relief innings pitched, 141 of them came with Cessa and Cortes on the bump. That’s just about 22%, which skews the numbers here in a significant way as we consider the postseason.
Again, Cessa has actually been quite good this season despite being a regular punching bag, but Cortes has not. And even though Cessa has been good, he is not going to be the Yankee reliever with the most innings pitched in the postseason. If he is, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
In other words: there is no back-end of the pen come the playoffs. There is no more saving relievers for October (obviously!). That means we’ll only see the Yankees’ very best arms–and that changes the game in a significant way.
High Leverage Usage
A good proxy for the arms we’ll see the most in October, of course, is how they were used during the regular season. The best way to see which arms Boone trusts the mosts is by looking at the situation when he turns to them–here captured by the average leverage index per appearance. The higher the leverage, the more important it is to the game’s ultimate outcome. Here are the Yankees who entered the game in the most important situations this year, per FanGraphs:
- Aroldis Chapman: 1.51
- Zack Britton: 1.41
- Adam Ottavino: 1.38
- Tommy Kahnle: 1.24
- Chad Green: 1.09
Pretty good, if you ask me! That’s about exactly how you’d draw it up. Those are the team’s 5 best relievers. For what it’s worth, those are the only 5 who entered the game with an average leverage index over 1.0 on the season. This should dispel the notion that Boone is bad with his pen management, but alas, it will not.
Also, it’s worth remembering that Kahnle had to work himself back into the so-called Circle of Trust™ given his atrocious 2018 and Green was basically unusable prior to his April demotion. Green has also been frequently utilized as an opener, which obscures this figure further.
Anyway, point is that the Yankees will get to rely on those five guys a lot come October–and very few others. That’s the whole point of resting relievers during the regular season, is it not?
High Leverage Success
Finally, let’s just take a look at how those guys did in the highest-leverage spots this year. Spoiler: it is quite good! Anyway, here is the triple-slash against all 5 in what FanGraphs classified as high-leverage appearances:
- Aroldis Chapman: .183/.282/.267
- Zack Britton: .218/.306/.364
- Adam Ottavino: .203/.324/.322
- Tommy Kahnle: .172/.250/.483
- Chad Green: .230/.324/.426
That is extremely encouraging stuff, even bearing in mind that Green was unfathomably bad in April (which likely hurts his numbers here). The Yankees have 5 big-time relievers who have excelled in the highest-leverage situation already.
There is more to this, of course, but I think all of us know just how impressive each of those guys has been this season. Come a few weeks, and the Yankees get to rely on them constantly without restriction. I look forward to it.
When the lights are the brightest, the Yankees will turn to their biggest arms for the biggest outs. There won’t be any more concerns about usage or saving pitches for later. Given the way that those arms have performed this year–and given how Boone has used them–that ought to make the rest of baseball feel very nervous, and the Yankees very confident.