It was a different kind of year for the traditionally strong Yankee bullpen. They came into the season with higher turnover and more role uncertainty than they had seen in years. It was going to be an unfamiliar feeling not having the security blanket of Mo out there for the 9th inning. His replacement was known and more than capable of handling the closing task. It was the rest of his supporting cast that was up in the air. A few roles changed and ironed themselves out early, with 2 more homegrown arms elevating themselves to "plus" status, but overall the bullpen as a group might have taken a step back this year.
Best- The 2-Man Wrecking Crew
The best thing about D-Rob becoming the outstanding pitcher he's become is the elite level 1-2 punch it gave Joe in his bullpen. Between D-Rob and Mo, the Yankees had the 8th and 9th innings (and sometimes more than that) on lockdown 99 times out of 100. They didn't have that luxury heading into this season, but they sure found it quickly. Dellin Betances, who wasn't a sure bet to make the team in camp, emerged as the new next great Yankee reliever, showing shades of late-90s Mo in his dominance and rising up to assume the setup role behind D-Rob. He finished 2nd in MLB in relief innings pitched, first in strikeouts by almost 30 over second place, and he and Robertson combined to strike out 231 batters in 154.1 IP, by far the most of any bullpen tandem.
Worst- Workload Issues
While the record-breaking strikeout numbers were great, that high innings count really wasn't. Betances racked up a lot of those innings in the first half of the season, both he and Adam Warren. Joe also leaned on D-Rob for stretches because the Yankees played so many close games, and he acknowledged concerns about managing the workload of those 3 pretty early in the second half. Betances had his scaled back significantly in September, throwing more 1-inning-and-fewer appearances compared to the 4+ out outings he regularly had in the first half, and Warren experienced a bout of ineffectiveness that could have been related to a tired arm. There were multiple close games the Yankees lost later in the season because 1, 2 or all 3 of Joe's top guys were not available. It would not be unfair to say that the heavy workloads cost the team a win or 2.
Best- The Emergence of Adam Warren
In 2013, Adam Warren broke into the Majors as the new longman out of the 'pen. He got ticketed for a return trip to the 'pen when he was one of the first eliminated in the ST 5th starter competition, but this year he stepped up to take on a much bigger and more vital role. He was a new pitcher. His fastball was sitting mid-90s, his slider had improved and become his best out pitch, and he still mixed in plus changeups and curveballs. His strikeouts were up (23.5% K rate), his walks were down (7.4% BB rate), and he finished the year with a 2.97/2.89/3.28 slash line and 1.4 fWAR in 78.1 IP. Him stepping forward to handle the middle innings ahead of Betances made the back end of the Yankee 'pen one of the best in baseball.
Worst- Can't Get No Middle Relief
It was the front end that was the season-long problem. As great as the D-Rob/Betances/Warren trifecta was, that's how bad the rest of the pitchers in front of them were. The only reliable one was Shawn Kelley, who got bumped from his season-opening setup role when he went on the DL but still ended up having a pretty good year (3.02 FIP, 67 K in 51.2 IP). The rest of the middle relief corps was a wasteland of Quad-A talent, scrap heap signings, and unproven rookies.
Consider this. The Yankees finished tied with KC for the most bullpen fWAR with 5.9 this season. 7.2 of that total came from Robertson, Betances, Warren, and Kelley. Everybody else was terrible. The Yanks were great at the top, to the point of being top-heavy. Their shoddy middle relief group is why they ranked mid-pack or worse in most other statistical categories.
Best- David Huff, I Guess
The Yanks picked up Huff last season and he was somewhat helpful in soaking up some innings. They went back to that well this year after he was let go by the Giants and got even better results, at least by Huff's standards. In 39.0 innings over 30 appearances, Huff pitched to a 1.85 ERA and got some outs in some important spots when the regular high-leverage crew was unavailable. Nothing about his K, BB, or FIP rates is impressive, so that 1.85 ERA was definitely way better than he actually pitched. But Huff was a positive WAR pitcher in his second abbreviated Yankee stint and there were not many of those in that large middle relief pool.
Worst- The LOOGY Situation
The move to let former lefty specialist Boone Logan move on was a wise one. He did not have a good year in Colorado (shocker!!!). The decision to replace him with Matt Thornton? That was debatable. There was actually nothing wrong with his performance from a statistical perspective. His ERA and FIP were both below 3.00, he didn't give up 1 home run, and his numbers against left-handed hitters were very good. It was a timing issue with him. Whenever Thornton would give up a hit or a walk to a lefty, it always seemed to come in critical situations, situations that led to him facing righties that he shouldn't have been facing and giving up hits and runs to them.
The decision to let Thornton go to the Nats via waivers was also debatable. It was assuredly financially-driven, with the Yanks looking to get out from under the rest of his 2-year/$7 million contract, and that's fine. What was really bad about the whole deal, though, was the team's decision to replace him with garbage heap arms like Rich Hill and Josh Outman. Younger guys like Tyler Webb and Jacob Lindgren will get the chance to win the job next year, but there was no reason not to call them up immediately once Thornton was gone.
Best- The Future of the Closer Role
Whatever happens this offseason, the Yankees will be in good shape for the 9th inning next year. Betances showed that he's got the stuff and the stones to handle high-pressure situations, and his command problems that plagued his MiL career seem to be a thing of the past. He's basically following the D-Rob playbook up the hierarchy ladder to an eventual closing job. D-Rob, as any reasonable Yankee fan anticipated, showed no signs of cracking under the "pressure" of replacing Mo and continued to be the steady, sometimes dominant shutdown reliever he's been for years. Either guy would be a perfect candidate to close again next year.
Worst- The Possibility of D-Rob Leaving
Who that guy is will depend on how this offseason plays out. David Robertson has earned himself a hefty payday with the body of work he's had in his 7-year Yankee career to date. With teams like the Dodgers and Tigers flaming out in the divisional round because of their bullpens, the demand could be high for a high-strikeout closer with D-Rob's credentials. The Yankees didn't even attempt to work out an extension with him this year, and the feeling I've had reading some of D-Rob's comments on the matter throughout the season was that he was a little upset by that. He doesn't owe the Yankees any kind of hometown discount and I certainly wouldn't blame him if he left for a big 3 or 4-year offer from another team. Hopefully the team does what they did with Gardner last offseason and works something out because a bullpen with D-Rob and Betances together is the best possible option.
** Coming up tomorrow- The Bench. **