Despite just taking three of four from Cleveland over the weekend, 2021 hasn’t gone well for the Yankees thus far. They currently reside in the cellar of the American League East with a record of 9-13. Their run differential sits at minus 10. Their team WRC+ sits at 92, ranked 20th in all of baseball. Their Fielding Independent Pitching number for the rotation is 3.74 and 13th overall. 21 games into the season the “Bombers” have been a below average offense with a slightly better than average rotation but that rotation is basically being carried by Gerrit Cole.
There has been one aspect of the game that the Yankees have absolutely been lights out in and that’s their bullpen. Let’s break down how good they’ve been and what that could mean if the rest of the team can figure out how to “baseball” again.
The bullpen is shoving
Save for a four pitchers, the entire bullpen has been lights out. Look at these stats:
They’ve amassed 2 WAR in just 21 games and the K/9 that we have seen from this group so far looks great. They have a K/9 of 10.6 and that’s with Chad Green underperforming in that category thus far given his career K/9 of 11.8. Their group ERA of 2.24 is above what you would have expected given the loss of Zack Britton early in the season and their LOB% of 76.10% is 4.2 points higher than the league average for relievers so far in 2021 (71.9%). Let’s break it down even further based on how Aaron Boone has deployed his relief corps so far.
The Yankees have had too many starters fail to make it deep into games which means they’ve had to bring in relievers with little to no track records to help bridge the gap to the backend of the bullpen. So far those pitchers have been Lucas Luetge, Nick Nelson, Luis Cessa, and Johnathan Loaisiga. Cessa has been around the longest so we can start with him. In eight games he has an ERA of .77 however his FIP sits at 2.07. There will be some regression coming but let’s say he comes back to earth with an ERA/FIP in the area of 2.50/3.75. We would take that from a guy that usually comes in to pitch the 5th or 6th innings. How has he done it? He’s striking out 11.57 hitters per nine innings in 2021 even though his career K/9 is 7.5, less than a batter per inning.
Moving on, we have Luetge. He’s been stung a bit by the home run ball (2.13 HR/9) which has ballooned his ERA (4.97) but he’s held his own in 12.2 innings and he’s a minor league contract guy, so what more could you ask for?
Next there is Nick Nelson. Nelson’s ERA isn’t great but that 8.59 ERA is mostly attributed to bad luck. He LOB% is an unsustainable 38.5% over 7.1 innings to accompany a BABIP of .500. He’s also given the Yankees 0.4 WAR so far and that’s because his K/9 is 15.95! Like his LOB%, that K/9 number is not sustainable but given young his career has been, it’s possible that Nelson tweaked something in the offseason that could lead to a more realistic K/9 around 11 or 12. If he gets some better luck as the season goes forward, his ERA could look more like his FIP thus far (1.19 FIP).
Lastly for the middle relievers we have Johnny Lasagna. Ironically we are including him in the middle relief group despite him picking up his first career save of the weekend. Loaisiga hasn’t been striking out a ton of batters (8.78 K/9) but he’s also been allergic to giving up walks. His BB/9 this year is 0.68. His LOB% is high at 93.8 and likely unsustainable unless he starts striking out more hitters, but his ERA/FIP combo of 1.35/2.80 shouldn’t get too out of control should he fail to strand a few more batters later this year.
The bridge to Chappy
We all know about Chad Green so we can start there. ERA looks good at 0.73. FIP isn’t too crazy at 3.01. 0.4 WAR is decent. The only thing that sticks out as was mentioned earlier is that 7.30 K/9. That should definitely go up, so Chad Green can keep on doing Chad Green things.
One of the new guys on the block is Darren O’Day. It was really a great idea to bring in a side-arm pitcher with a fastball that sits in the mid-80s with all the heat the Yankees bullpen already had present. He’s been striking out a batter per inning and stranded every batter that has reached base so far coming in to Monday night’s game. In eight games, he’s produced an ERA of 1.29 and the hope is that he will continue to baffle hitters with the junk fastball and frisbee slider.
The other pitcher the Yankees brought in was an old friend that the Yankees actually traded to get Cessa and Green. Justin Wilson came back this year and despite an early season injury scare, he has produced excellent numbers so far. Like O’Day, Wilson isn’t a prolific strikeout guy but he has stranded baserunners (83.3%) and gets a lot of ground balls (53.8% GB%). His FIP and ERA aren’t too far apart (2.90 vs 1.80) and he’s a guy that can come in to get both left and right handed hitters out.
Now we get to the more entertaining pitcher on this list.
Aroldis Chapman has been the definition of unhittable in 2021. He’s been using a splitter a lot more this year as if hitters needed another pitch in their head when they come to the plate looking to try and put 102 MPH fastballs into play. He’s been worth 0.5 WAR in seven games with four saves. His K/9 is a ridiculous 21.86. For reference his career K/9 is 15.0 which is still amazing. Chapman has struck out 65.4% of all batters faced this year. Chapman has been so good in terms of strikeouts that his FIP is minus 0.47. He has yet to give up a run this year and it’s possible that 2021 Aroldis Chapman is going to have a career year.
What does this mean?
Even though the Yankees as a whole have been disappointing, having a bullpen perform like this can get you excited. If the Yankees can get it together and make the playoffs, having a bullpen this deep means a couple of things. Having multiple relief pitchers that can slide into close game situations and give the team a chance to win means they won’t burn out their best relievers. Having a healthy group of pitchers that could close on any given day is luxury come playoff time. Another aspect of having a bullpen performing like this is that Yankees can afford to take their time in bringing back Zack Britton. If they want the best version of their bullpen in playoffs they need a healthy Britton to be able to come out of the pen in the 8th inning to set things up for Chapman to put a playoff W the books.