Last week, Brian Cashman compared the Yankees to a “fully operational death star.” Part of that metaphor likely includes a star-studded bullpen. In the past two years, the Yankees have had historically great bullpens, similar to the formula that the 2015 Royals used to win the World Series. In fact, according to Fangraphs, the Yankees bullpen last year had the highest WAR of any team’s bullpen since 1950. As for 2017? Third highest in that timeframe.
The key to great bullpens is, of course, great relievers. Last year, the Yankees had Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Chad Green, and midseason acquisition Zach Britton to help nail down the late innings. Two of those pitchers, Robertson and Britton, are free agents which means that the Yankees either need to re-sign them or look elsewhere to fill their bullpen holes.
There are four (five if you include Craig Kimbrel) high-end relievers on the free agent market. In addition to Robertson and Britton, there is also Adam Ottavino and old friend Andrew Miller. The Yankees will likely sign at least one of these pitchers, so let’s take a look at each of them.
Ottavino is a great story. After struggling for a few years, he fully embraced analytics and created a pitching lab for himself right in Manhattan. Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs (now with FiveThirtyEight) had a great piece on how Ottavino used high-speed cameras to help refine his pitching grips to improve his command. The results were impressive. Last season, Ottavino pitched to a 2.43 ERA and had a K% of 36.3%, which was top 10 in all of baseball last year.
Plus, his pitches look like this:
Adam Ottavino, 81mph Slider and 93mph Two Seamer, Overlay.
If that’s what his slider looks like pitching at Coors Field, imagine what he could do away from the altitude.
The downside is that other than last year, he has had limited success as a big league pitcher. Relievers are a volatile bunch, and you never know when they might lose it. That said, Ottavino is only 33 so he likely has a few good years still in him. MLB Trade Rumors projects Ottavino for a 3 year $30MM contract, which seems light based off what pitchers like Joe Kelly and Jeurys Familia got. At that price? I say go for it
Miller was one of, if not the best reliever in baseball for the past five years. From 2013-2017, he had the second best K% (41.1) and K-BB% (33.7) of all relievers. Those stats indicate just how dominant he was. Unfortunately, 2018 was a different story. Miller struck out less than 30% of batters faced, and walked just over 10%.
He went on the DL three separate times last year with three different injuries, and you could tell he just wasn’t the same. His xwOBA was nearly 50 points higher than it had been since Statcast started tracking data. That’s the difference between Nolan Arenado and Jed Lowrie, for example.
Here’s a plot of his pitch velocity from Baseball Savant:
You can clearly see how his velocity got worse this year, and if you sign him, you’re counting on a return to the Andrew Miller we know and love. MLBTR predicts 3 years and $27 MM for him, but you wonder if he might be open to a 1 year pillow contract to rebuild his value. If he’s open to a 1 year deal, then hell yes, go for it. If not, do a super thorough check on the medicals and make sure that there’s nothing too concerning in there.
Good ole’ Robo-K (yes, that is my preferred nickname for him and I will continue to call him that until it catches on. Robertson was his usual self last year, striking out over 11 K/9, walking about 3BB/9, and throwing his cutter right about 91-93mph. Interestingly, Robertson’s pitch velocities and spin rate have all increased in the past couple years. Maybe he’s seen the benefits of those two and figured out how to make his stuff play up more. Regardless, it appears that age related decline is yet to set in for him.
Also, last year you may have noticed that Robertson’s curveball was coming in at closer to 85mph, which is really high for anyone. According to Statcast, that’s actually a slider and he started throwing it in 2017. I guess it helps to have another speed when you’re a two pitch pitcher. Here’s a graph showing the uptick in “slider” usage:
The yellow line in the chart shows the increased slider usage over the past two years. Robertson made the unique choice to represent himself in free agency. What that means? Who knows. He has said that proximity to his Rhode Island home is an important consideration in choosing his next team. Presumably, that would include the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox as potential suitors. Robertson will likely look for a 3 year deal, somewhere in the $10-12 MM range.
Britton had a historically great year in 2016, pitching to a 0.54 ERA with a GB% of 80%. When right, his turbo sinker is one of the best pitches in the game. In a small park like Yankee Stadium, ground balls are super important, which makes Britton’s profile a great fit. Britton struggled through injuries in 2017, and started 2018 on the DL.
He was certainly rusty when he came back, and his walk rate was nearly double what it was in his stellar 2016 season. When he first came over to the Yankees, it was like every game was a struggle just to get the ball over the plate.
It seems we can chalk most of that up to rust, because Britton was excellent in September and October. The chart below from Baseball Reference shows you how great he was towards the end of the season, and hopefully that’s what you can expect from Britton moving forward.
In terms of contract, Britton is likely going to get more years and dollars than the other three because he is younger and has more recent closer experience. Both MLBTR and Fangraphs think Britton will get a similar contract to the other 3, but until proven otherwise, it appears that saves still pay.
So who do you want?
I went into this exercise thinking that I would come away with a clear favorite, but that did not happen. Each of these guys is elite when right, but there are legitimate concerns with each one. Ottavino only has one year of great success, Miller is coming back from three different injuries, Robertson could lose his stuff anytime, and Britton will likely be the most expensive. If I had to pick one, I would lean towards Ottavino because he was the most dominant this past season. I’m also a sucker for guys who fully embrace analytics and use them to make themselves better. Hopefully the Yankees sign at least one of these guys and we have another year of the Super Bullpen.