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The Tuesday Discussion: Who Should Be The Yankees’ Closer?

September 7, 2021

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This week we posed the following to our writers:

Who should the closer be as the Yankees play out the final weeks of the season?

Here are the responses…

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Chris O’Connor – I think the Yankees have to go with a closer-by-committee approach. They need to do some combination of brining their best relievers in at the most opportune time in games, regardless of the inning, and bringing in guys based on matchups. Relying on a guy to close out the ninth inning just because it is the ninth inning is an outdated concept, unless you have a guy like Josh Hader who can consistently give multiple innings. Look at the Rays, who seemingly have a different guy close every game. If three lefties are coming up in the eighth inning, bring in Aroldis Chapman, Lucas Luetge, or Wandy Peralta. If it is three righties, make it Clay Holmes or Chad Green. That is just an example; the point is, the Yankees need to let the situation and opposing batters guide their decision making because they no longer have any one dominant guy that can transcend matchups.

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Paul Semendinger – My heart sunk when I learned that Jonathan Loaisiga went to the IL. I wanted the Yankees to tradition him to the closer immediately. Now that he’s lost, the Yankees are in trouble.

The bullpen now has Aroldis Chapman, who has lost confidence and is nowhere the pitcher he was.

After Chapman is a very tired Chad Green.

After that is a collection of nice, good, but hardly impressive pitchers. I wouldn’t turn to any of them to be a consistent closer in a pennant race.

I’m not confident that Aaron Boone can manage a “bullpen-by-committee” effectively.

As such, the Yankees will have to live with the only real option they have – Aroldis Chapman.

In a way, the Yankees’ fortunes, and Aaron Boone’s future, will be determined by Chapman.

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Patrick Gunn – Aroldis Chapman would still be my closer down the stretch. Yes, he has been maddeningly inconsistent this season. With that said, Chapman is still getting a ton of strikeouts – including six over his last two outings – and has the most experience in the role. Chad Green and Clay Holmes could capably take that role on a given night, but their talents work better as multi-inning setup roles. Chapman works best as a one-inning reliever, and an effective one if he can figure out his control. Luis Gil would be an interesting option but he is inexperienced (although he should be up pitching out of the bullpen in some capacity). Luis Severino would also be a fantastic relief ace if he comes back this season and that is a major if. Right now, Chapman should be pitching the ninth inning for the Yankees.

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Ethan Semendinger – With the recent injury to Jonathan Loaisgia, the multiple (and current) injuries to Zack Britton, and the trading of other solid pieces like Adam Ottavino (offseason) and even a guy like Luis Cessa (trade deadline), the Yankees really have only one good option for a closer and his name is Aroldis Chapman.

The beginning of 2021 was dominant from Chapman and since a time that was around the banning of sticky substances he has not been doing as well at all. However, I don’t think Chapman’s issues are a factor of the sticky stuff. I can’t be certain if it is mechanical or mental (or other), but if his issues were related to the sticky stuff then we would be seeing a much greater fall in spin rate for his pitches that we haven’t seen. I think his recent struggles are something that can be and will be fixed by the end of the season.

It also doesn’t hurt that Chapman is making $16 million this year and when a team spends that kind of money on a player it is expected that they play.

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Cary Greene – This is an easy question. The short answer is Aroldis Chapman.

The Yankees will be playing almost every single day from here on out this season. What they need more than anything right now is quality starts, but a consistent Chapman would help the team a great deal come the postseason. I think the Scranton Shuttle will log a ton of mileage during the next month and we will probably see a number of pitchers used creatively to navigate this stretch of the season.

Admittedly, I’m not a big Aroldis Chapman fan, but I believe the Yankee’s should continue to try to build his confidence by sticking with him as the closer. During the Oakland series, the tweak the Yankees made with having Chapman stand more upright prior to starting his delivery, rather than allowing him to squat down so low previously, has eliminated all sorts of extra movement that Chapman was creating for himself as he went into his motion. This tweak should pay dividends and I think Chapman needs to get high-leverage innings to see if it helps.

In the only 4 innings since Chapman made the change, he’s throwing 59% of his pitches for strikes, which means he’s still struggling with his command as he tries to get back to attacking the strike zone. Peak-effective Chapman throws closer to 65%+ of his pitches for strikes. Still, during this stretch, opposing batters have thus far only hit .143 against him and he’s issued 2 walks in the 4 innings to go with 8 strikeouts. This is kind of the Aroldis Chapman barometer. One- Is he striking guys out at a high clip? Two – Is he holding down opposing hitter’s batting averages? Three- Is he limiting his walks?

Since the adjustment, opposing batters are striking out at a high clip and they’re not doing a lot with pitches they do get the bat on either. Chapman is also not walking multiple batters per inning and in general, his command looks quite a bit better.

In May, Chapman was the “Chapanooga” Choo-Choo, chugging along the tracks while sporting a 0.00 ERA and was nailing 67% of his pitches for strikes and Aaron Boone trusted him to carry the Yankees home! Chappy was the unquestioned closer as opposing batters struggled with his pitches, hitting only .111 off him as Chapman racked up 18 strikeouts in 12 innings.

Contrast the hot start against June Chapman, when his ERA had ballooned from .043 to 3.77 as opposing batters hit .368 against him to go along with their .500 OBP. Chapman was getting hit hard and he was issuing an unacceptably high number of free passes in limited innings.

I still believe Chapman should be the Yankees closer but there is no denying that Chapman has lost a lot of Boone’s confidence, so he’ll likely get the hook if he starts struggling with command and he works himself into a jam during a particular game. It might make sense for Boone to piece each and every game together from here on out as the season winds down and I do feel like Chapman will get every opportunity to be the everyday closer, so long as his positive trend continues to build momentum.

Jonathan Loasiga going down is a big blow to the Yankees high leverage group of trusted bullpen arms in the short term, so let’s hope he’ll be back for the stretch run. Boone, who is historically not the greatest at handling the bullpen, is probably going to struggle a little bit with which pitchers are the right guys to call on late in games. Boone tends to never use relievers for three straight games and almost never uses a reliever for four straight games, so we’ll likely see a whole bunch of creative moves by Boone in order to try and keep the bullpen fresh.

Meanwhile, the stretch of games the Yankees find themselves in now has zero off days for the foreseeable future, so bullpen management is going to be very important. Fortunately, the Yankees are a deep and resilient group.

Presently, the guy who deserves some of Loasiga’s higher leverage innings, in my opinion, is Albert Abreu. I don’t know if Abreu deserves to be the closer when Chapman is unavailable, but there are some things to really like about Abreu this season. Abreu may become the Yankees closer eventually, seeing as how he isn’t a free-agent until 2027 and he’s got the arm to be a closer. What I like most is that over 28.3 major league innings this season, Abreu is limiting opposing batters to a .182 Average while also squelching their OBP to the tune of .288 – which is pretty sweet to see.

Peeling back the onion, Abreu has figured a lot out this season as evidenced by some of his batted ball outliers. He’s forcing opponents to hit the ball on the ground at a 44.4% clip, compared to last year’s 33.3% mark. Opposing hitters were pulling 67% of Abreu’s pitches last year and that number is now down to 44% this season and Hard Contact has dropped from 67% to 25% this year. 2021 has also been a season in which Abreu is using his slider a whole lot more, as he’d utilizing it 37.2% of the time versus last year, when he used the pitch only 18.6% of the time.

Befittingly, a power pitcher like Abreu should use his slider more, to complement his fastball and that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing with Abreu. His main challenge down the stretch will be to keep the ball in the park better and not walk as many batters. He’s striking out 9.4 per 9 innings but he’s walking 4.4 and that number needs to drop if Abreu ever wants to be a closer in major league baseball.

Control is still the concern with Abreu though and he can be rendered ineffective by this very easily so Boone will have to monitor Abreu’s innings and see how he responds to some higher leverage situations. I do think we may see Abreu close a few games if Chapman gets used consistently, but Chad Green is another trusted arm that likely is well ahead of Abreu in the pecking order and deservedly so. However, if both Green and Chapman are unavailable, we may see Abreu in a pinch.

Standard Operating Practice however points to Boone using Abreu earlier in games, probably for 6th & 7th inning work whereas, he’ll save Green for the 9th inning more often than not. Doing this makes sense as a closer can’t come in and start putting men on base because he can’t throw strikes. Abreu still needs to go through the process of earning Boone’s trust. Therefore I see Abreu and maybe Kriske picking up innings vacated by Loasiga.

I’m hoping we don’t see Kriske called on to close games. I don’t think he’s there yet and I could write a whole article on why. In my opinion, Kriske might become a late inning bridge reliever, best case scenario.

We’ll see Clay Holmes and Joely Rodriquez continue to be used situationally and I do think Wandy Peralta might get his number called in true, pressure packed situations also, potentially late 8th inning or even in 9th inning emergency situations.

One thing I do know is that using Andrew Heaney, a starter his whole life, in high leverage situations out of the Bullpen, is not advisable, but the reality is that the Yankees are trying to figure things out and part of doing that is taking some chances. Heaney’s performance against Baltimore in the seventh inning on Sunday speaks to this point as acting manager Carlos Mendoza brought him in as a bridge reliever. In my opinion, with Kluber back, Heaney has only one role on this team and that is as a long man or a mop up reliever. Personally, I think they should cut him loose when Stephen Ridings is available. I’m also chomping at the bit for Luis Gil to return to the Yankee rotation ASAP as I believe he could potentially provide key playoff starts should the Yankees both make the Wild Card and then be so fortunate as to advance.

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#AroldisChapman

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