The Yankees could have a bullpen problem on their hands for 2021 and beyond.
There are several questions in their bullpen including whether to exercise a team option for the 2022 season on Zack Britton in the off-season before the 2021 season. Will they get any meaningful innings out of Tommy Kahnle if/when he comes back from Tommy John Surgery? Can Adam Ottavino get back to looking like the pitcher he was in 2019? I think it’s safe to say the Yankees will pick up the option on Britton seeing as he was easily their most reliable bullpen arm. Even if Kahnle comes back strong in the second half of the season and Ottavino returns to being an elite arm, both of them are slated to become free agents after next season.
As of right now, the only relief pitchers you can count on being here come 2022 are Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman. That would mean high leverage innings are going to be up for grabs. Do we really feel comfortable with what the Yankees currently have in the organization to handle those innings? Let’s take a closer look at three of those pitchers from last year.
Nick Nelson didn’t impress anyone with his baseline statistics in 2020. Those are mop-up numbers for sure. However, if you take out his 1.2 inning appearance against the Phillies on August 5th when he gave up seven earned runs, his numbers don’t look as bad. Forgetting about that one bad outing, Nelson would have had a 2.63 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP. His BB/9 of 4.74 and K/9 of 8.5 still aren’t good but would have been satisfactory for a 4th or 5th guy in the bullpen.
Is there room to improve? His repertoire includes four pitches. He’s got a four-seam fastball, a slider, a curveball, and a change-up. His fastball was thrown 56% of the time sits between 95 and 97 MPH. It was also an above average groundball generator last year. He threw his curve and slider 6.6% of time and 11.4% of the time respectively. His real out pitch was his change-up that he threw 26.37% of time. He throws it harder than the average change-up with his off-speed pitch sitting around 89 MPH. Like his fastball, the change-up was an extreme groundball pitch for Nelson. It shows armside fade and distinct, natural sink.
If Nick Nelson can get his walks under control and continue to employ a worm killer change-up to get hitters out, there is potential for a high celling as a late inning reliever.
Jonathan Loaisiga began his career moving between the rotation and the bullpen. He continued that trend this year and was used three times as an opener. His 2020 numbers looked pretty good. In fact, they represent his best numbers so far in his young career.
His strikeout rate took a step back for sure though. For the second year in a row his K/9 dropped after posting a 12 K/9 in 2018 and a 10.5 K/9 in 2019. The difference this year was that he shaved off 2 BB/9 in 2020 posting a rate of 2.7 BB/9 after finishing 2018 and 2019 with a 4.4 and 4.5 respectively. As a result, his K/BB rate last year was a career best at 3.14. Why did this happen? Looking at his pitch usage we might have a reason. Loaisiga has five pitches. He throws a four-seam fastball at 97 MPH, a sinker at 96 MPH, while mixing in a curveball at 84 MPH, a change-up at 89 MPH, and a slider at 89 MPH. He made a change in 2020 in his usage though but throwing his curveball and four-seamer less and upping the usage of his sinker and to a lesser extent, his change-up. In 2018 and 2019 he threw his curve more than 30% of the time. When he first came up in 2018 he threw his four-seamer 55.5% of the time before switching to using a sinker more in 2019. His usage of his four-seamer and sinker in 2019 were 46% on the four-seamer and 11.6% on the sinker.
In 2020, he more than doubled the usage of his sinker to 25% while decreasing the usage of the four-seamer by about 4 percentage points. What about the curveball? That pitch went from being used over 30% of the time to just 16.3% of the time. This translates into the on field results we saw last year. By throwing more sinkers and less curveballs he was able to avoid the walks by throwing more strikes and forcing hitters to put the ball in play. He avoided the long counts that lead to either strikeouts or walks and he clearly benefited from it. As he gets used to his new approach next season, he may be able to rediscover his strikeouts as well.
He’s a flamethrower with a heavy sinker which means he could be a go-to-option with runners on base late in games.
Just like Loaisiga, 2020 was a career year for Luis Cessa. He also started his career flip-flopping between the rotation and the bullpen to begin his career. Making his debut in 2016, Cessa’s number of games started has trended down each year until he became a full-time reliever in 2019. Last season, his numbers had some good and some bad. The good was that he posted the lowest ERA and second lowest WHIP of his five-year career. The bad was that he posted a K/9 that was 1.2 points lower that it was in 2019 (7.1 vs 8.3). It had been trending up since his debut and given the small sample size that the 2020 season was, it could just be an anomaly.
Cessa has a pretty standard repertoire for a pitcher with a four-seam fastball that sits around 94 MPH with his out-pitch being an 84 MPH slider. He also mixes in a hard change-up sitting at 88 MPH, a sinker at 94 MPH, and rarely used curveball sitting at 81 MPH. What’s interesting is that as Cessa was used more as a reliever, the less he was using his curveball. When he debuted in 2016 making nine starts that year, he threw the curveball 15.7% of the time. In 2020, he threw the curveball just 1.6% of the time. His four-seam usage trended down in a similar way. He threw it 50% of the time in 2016 but only threw it 20.7% of the time last year. As his curveball and four-seam usage dropped, his slider usage shot through the roof. Throwing it 23.5% of the time in 2016, it was risen each year and was thrown 54% of the time in 2020. He threw a first pitch slider 51.3% of the time in 2020 and it was his put away pitch 70.8% of the time.
Cessa’s obviously transitioned to someone who pitches backwards and uses his best weapon, the slider, to get ahead of hitters. His walk rate isn’t terrible either so this might be something that can work moving forward.
It remains to be seen what will happen with the current bullpen configuration next season with so many questions still lingering. However, with the lack of impact options on the free agent market this offseason, the Yankees might be better off developing some of their young arms into long-term bullpen pieces similar to how they’ve done with Chad Green. It was painfully obvious this past season that the highest paid relievers aren’t always the best options and that you can never have too many arms that can step up when the injuries occur.