Brian Cashman, if you’re reading this, thank you.
Early this January, I wrote a piece breaking down why I thought Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton would be huge additions to this 2019 Yankees team. Our beloved GM delivered in full, signing both guys within the month and solidifying the Yankees bullpen juggernaut.
This series against the Red Sox was a case study in how valuable those moves were, and the ways that the Yankees distanced themselves from competitors with these two elite arms. Though their bullpen was arguably already among the best in the bigs, locking down these two relief aces has set the team up for success both throughout the season and into October.
But Britton and Ottavino were far from the only options available to the Yankees when they went shopping this offseason. The free agent class was littered with high end relievers. One of them, Craig Kimbrel, still remains inexplicably unsigned more than a third of the way through the season. But of the many bullpen arms to find new homes this past winter, it’s not hard to make the case that the Yankees got the best of the bunch.
Zack Britton: 3 years, $39 million (with 2020 club option, 2022 player option); 26.1 IP, 2.05 ERA (3.00 FIP)
Adam Ottavino: 3 years, $27 million; 27.2 IP, 1.30 ERA (3.62 FIP)
Forget comparing these guys to their free agent counterparts for a second — these guys have been two of the best relievers in the entire MLB so far this year. After struggling with command during his return from injury last year, Britton has rekindled the ground ball magic that has made him one of the best throughout his career. And Ottavino is quickly proving last year’s breakout was no fluke, with stellar strikeout numbers and a slider straight out of a video game.
The fascinating thing about the Yankees double-barreled duo is that their success could hardly be found in more different ways. Britton touts a fairly pedestrian 24.3% strikeout rate and relies almost entirely on his patented sinker. The bowling ball movement on the pitch rarely fools hitters outright, but drives his stratospheric 74.6% ground ball rate on balls in play. His more than 90% usage of the pitch leads to plenty of hard contact, but keeps the ball on the ground and generates lots of easy outs.
Ottavino, contrastingly, plays his slider and two-seamer off one another in a devastating combination that keeps hitters guessing. His roughly even usage of these two nasty pitches leaves opponents visibly uncomfortable, allowing him to find success by striking out 31.3% of the hitters he faces and creating lots of weak contact. With just an 83.0 MPH average exit velocity against, Ottavino ranks 5th among all major league pitchers in generating soft contact.
Any way you cut it, the Yankees locked up two gems this offseason. Their traditional metrics are superb, and the underlying numbers leave no doubt that the success is not a coincidence. Their incredible performances only look better when stacked up against the other pitchers acquired this past offseason.
The Old Friends
Andrew Miller (STL): 2 years, $25 million (with 2021 vesting option); 20.1 IP, 3.98 ERA (5.61 FIP)
David Robertson (PHI): 2 years, $23 million (with 2021 club option); 6.2 IP, 5.40 ERA (6.00 FIP)
Before I begin this section, I want to make clear that I loved and appreciated both of these guys in pinstripes. They were great Yankees, especially Robertson, who was a tremendous asset to both Girardi and Boone in his time in the Bronx. That being said, Cashman was absolutely right to pass on both of them despite their history.
Miller has been far from awful so far for the Cardinals, but is undoubtedly a shell of his former dominant self. Though his strikeout rate remains robust at 30.7%, Miller has allowed boatloads of hard contact that has led to a spike in home runs and extra base hits against him. His xwOBA has gone up dramatically from a ridiculous .198 back in 2016 to a below par .339 this season. He’s also been among the worst in baseball at allowing barreled balls, with 12.5% of all contact categorized as a “Barrel” by Statcast.
It’s no wonder then that his HR/9 is up to 2.21, up more than a whole HR/9 from his career average of 0.83. In fact, his ERA/FIP discrepancy suggests that Miller has been lucky to not allow more runs than he already has so far this year. While it was easy to fawn over his previously dominant self, Cashman can feel validated in saying no thanks to the former Yankee southpaw.
Robertson’s story is a sad one. He has been sidelined since April 15 with right forearm soreness and has since suffered a setback that will keep him out even longer. Though the initial diagnosis was a flexor strain, he recently met with Dr. James Andrews which is never a good sign for pitchers. Already 34, it is unclear what the future holds for Robertson both this season and into the future.
Though it was a very small sample, Robertson was hardly lighting the world on fire before the injury. Command struggles and reduced movement on his curveball left him largely ineffective in just under seven innings of work. His matching 8.10 K/9 and BB/9 rates demonstrate how wild and unsuccessful his start to the season was. While it’s hard to parse out how much of his performance can be chalked up to the injury, it is fair to ask if we are witnessing the twilight of his highly successful big league career.
Of all the relievers on the market, these are the two I heard the most Yankee fans clamoring to bring back. While I think there were legitimate ex ante arguments for both, their age and decline were surely noted by the Yankees front office. They can feel validated in avoiding both, who have not come close to the effectiveness of Britton or Ottavino thus far in 2019.
The “Best” of the Rest
Jeurys Familia (NYM): 3 years, $30 million; 23.1 IP, 6.56 ERA (5.51 FIP)
Joe Kelly (LAD): 3 years, $25 million (with 2022 club option); 18.1 IP, 8.35 ERA (5.49 FIP)
My goodness those are some ugly stat lines. While few Yankee fans would have been calling for the acquisition of Familia or Kelly, these two guys were somehow talked about in the same breath as the other relievers available last offseason. Familia and Kelly received contracts comparable to what Britton and Ottavino will be earning in the next three seasons. And boy have they not lived up to the billing so far this year.
Let’s start with Joe Kelly, infamous for his role in the brawl with Tyler Austin early last season. Teams continue to dream on his admittedly excellent fastball velocity and curveball spin rate, both above the 98th percentile in the league. Last year he was serviceable with a 4.39 ERA and peripherals that, if you squinted hard enough, might make you believe he was due for a big year.
He wasn’t. His abysmal ERA is driven by even worse batted ball numbers, with his 92.3 MPH average exit velocity ranking him in the bottom 1% of all MLB pitchers. Despite his seemingly good stuff he struggles to generate swings and misses, leading to low strikeout rates and lots of walks. Hard contact and baserunners is not a winning formula for pitchers, and Kelly has hardly justified the Dodgers investment thus far.
Familia has not been much better. His control has again abandoned him this year, driving his walk rate to 15.6% and leaving him with a series of messes to clean up. He, like Kelly, is experiencing a down year in terms of strikeouts, hurting his ability to work out of jams and limit damage when he finds himself in a sticky situation.
With Familia, there is a modicum of hope that can be extended to our tortured friends in Queens. His underlying numbers are not terrible, with just an 86.1 MPH exit velocity against and .321 xwOBA. Though neither of these numbers blow you away, they suggest he is maybe a bit unlucky to find himself with one of the worst ERAs in baseball. It hardly lives up to the lofty expectations his contract suggests, but he may be due for a slight correction as we move toward the halfway point in the season.
Truthfully I could have summarized this section in about one sentence. These guys got paid like closers, and instead have been flat out bad so far this year. The distance between the seasons these two guys have put together and the ones Ottavino and Britton are crafting is truly laughable. Though Familia may yet find his form, Kelly is on track to be one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball in 2019. It makes it that little bit sweeter to know that Kelly is an old foe and Familia is stinking it up for our crosstown rivals.
There are even more second tier relievers I could have added to this piece. Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria, and Cody Allen extend the list of dumpster fire offseason additions that have hurt their teams more than helped through 60 games this year. It was frankly gratifying to revisit the MLBTR Top 50 Free Agents page and see just how right the Yankees front office got things this offseason.
Britton and Ottavino look unstoppable right now, and both of them are sure to play a pivotal role on a team that looks destined for the postseason. Their value will only grow if they can carry their regular season performances into the playoffs, when bullpens are often the team component that decides the outcomes of games at the margin.
I hope you all had as much fun as I did scoffing at the disastrous choices made by other GMs around the league. Once again, in-house magician Brian Cashman pulled all the right strings, and aced free agency with his decisions for the bullpen.