Has anyone else been reminiscing about Mariano Rivera lately? We were so spoiled watching him work his magic in the ninth inning for nearly two decades. We miss him all the more as the Yankees’ current bullpen grows increasingly unMariano-like. In search of a decent closer, they collectively converted just four of nine save opportunities since Aug. 9.
The trade deadline is over, so they can only play the cards they have in hand. Someone has to be able to hold a late lead, right? Let’s rank the relievers in closer trustworthiness, excluding injured pitchers like Aroldis Chapman and Clay Holmes as well as up-and-down guys like Brody Koerner and Nick Nelson. We’ll give each pitcher a Mariano rating, with 10 Marianos being “Enter Sandman” and 1 Mariano being a Brooks Kriske wild pitch.
Abreu recorded his first career save in Chicago on Saturday, cleaning up the tenth inning, bases-loaded, one-out mess Zack Britton created. While effective, it wasn’t a terribly clean performance. He fell behind both of the batters he faced and spiked his first pitch in the dirt, necessitating a highlight reel pick from Kyle Higashioka that any hockey goalie would appreciate. In the end, he generated a soft lineout from Seby Zavala and a grounder to third from Tim Anderson to seal the victory.
Back in the 1990s, all you needed to be a closer was a lively fastball. In those days, that meant 93-95 mph. There’s a higher bar now, but Abreu clears it easily with a 98 mph heater and hard slider/changeup combo. Stuff isn’t the issue, but control and experience are major question marks. In 22 1/3 innings this season, he has 11 walks, two hit batsmen, and three wild pitches. He’s still a rookie as well. He may one day develop into a closer, but not in 2021.
Albert Abreu Closer Rating: 2/10 Marianos
Throughout the season, there have been many conversations about the Yankees’ flawed roster construction, but one of the biggest flaws is this: the two highest-paid lefty relievers in MLB are Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton. In 2021, shelling out big money for short relief pitching is a poor allocation of resources. Now, the Yankees could more than double their current payroll and still probably turn a profit, so their salary cap is self-imposed, but the bigger issue at the moment is that Britton might not deserve a roster spot with the way he’s pitched lately. He carries a 6.19 ERA and has allowed 31 baserunners in 16 innings.
When Chapman got hurt on Aug. 5, Britton ascended to the closer job. In the four games since, here’s what he’s done:
8/9: Blew a ninth-inning save opportunity on a walk, stolen base, and a single.
8/11: Recorded a mostly clean save, only allowing a batter to reach base on an HBP.
8/12: Wasted the offense’s outstanding ninth-inning comeback in the Field of Dreams Game by letting Tim Anderson take him deep into the corn, earning a blown save and a loss.
8/14: Called on to hold a 7-4 lead in the tenth inning, got a flyout, then gave up a walk, single, and another walk before getting pulled for Abreu.
Green is the bullpen’s equivalent to a number two starting pitcher. He’s usually good, if not great, and eats lots of innings. His 278 1/3 innings pitched since 2017 are the sixth-most by a reliever in MLB, and he’s one of only three to compile at least 60 so far in 2021. While he’s having a quality season, it’s a down year by his own high standards. His 30.2 percent strikeout rate and 0.53 groundball: flyball ratio are the worst of his career. Uncharacteristically, he’s surrendered five home runs on his curveball alone.
Green is clearly one of the better relievers in baseball, and certainly one of the Yankees’ top options. Ironically, his versatility and multi-inning usage are marks against him becoming the closer. He’s more valuable to the team pitching important middle innings.
Chad Green Closer Rating: 6/10 Marianos
Loaisiga has emerged as the Yankees’ best relief pitcher in 2021. He may lack the dominant strikeout numbers usually associated with a relief ace, but eschewing his four-seam fastball for a two-seamer enables him to limit hard contact and generate grounders as well as any pitcher in MLB. He has only yielded two home runs in 57 2/3 innings this year while holding opposing batters to a minuscule .296 slugging percentage.
Like Green, he’s capable of throwing more than one inning at a time and he is sometimes needed most in the middle innings. Nevertheless, his propensity for keeping the ball on the ground and out of the bleachers makes him the clear best choice at the moment to put a finishing move on opponents.
Jonathan Loaisiga Closer Rating: 7/10 Marianos
Luetge is one of the best comeback stories in MLB this year. The 34-year-old lefty who last reached the majors in 2015 rarely reaches 90 mph, but in 54 2/3 innings, he has 61 strikeouts and only nine unintentional walks to go with a 2.80 ERA. He may lack the electric stuff of Albert Abreu, but there’s no arguing with his results.
Lately, though, his trusty curveball has failed him. Called upon to hold a 5-1 lead on Sunday, he gave up two hits and a walk before getting the hook with just one out. This game wasn’t even a save situation until he turned it into one, which Wandy Peralta converted thanks to a double play. He will need to regain command of his best breaking ball in order to see more high-leverage work.
Lucas Luetge Closer Rating: 5/10 Marianos
Wandy Peralta & Joely Rodríguez
We can lump Peralta and Rodríguez together because of their similarity. Both left-handers were acquired via midseason trade (well, early-season in Peralta’s case). Both throw in the mid-to-high 90s, rely heavily on a changeup, and generate tons of ground balls. Neither strikes out as many batters as they probably should. While both of them have been relatively solid for the Yankees, neither has fans clamoring to see them in higher leverage work. They’re run-of-the-mill lefty relievers.
On August 3, three different pitchers made their MLB debuts for the Yankees. Luis Gil stole the show with six shutout innings, but Ridings took our breath away with elite stuff. (Also, Brody Koerner pitched.) With a fastball sitting in the high 90s and topping out at 101 mph as well as a sharp slider, the 6’8″ right-hander evoked shades of Dellin Betances. Arguably, he has the best stuff of any current Yankee reliever.
Even though he has been brilliant so far, striking out seven of 20 batters faced with two walks allowed, he’s only five innings into his MLB career. Only fans with the deepest, most current knowledge of the farm system had ever heard of him prior to his call-up. If he keeps throwing fire, he could see high-leverage work down the stretch, and his potential as a bullpen ace seems limitless, but it’s way too early to hand him the closer job.