by Cary Greene
July 15, 2022
Can the Yankees high leverage trio of Mike King, Wandy Peralta, and Clay Holmes lead the Yankees to a World Series or does this group of three trusted “high-leverage” relievers need more help from either existing relievers or perhaps a key reliever obtained through a trade?
Lately, the back end of the Yankee bullpen has become a concern. Clay Holmes is struggling and his recent implosion on Tuesday against the Reds and the resulting blown save showed that not only is Holmes human, but that it might be wise for Boone to adopt a bit more of a closer by committee approach.
When Chad Green went down with his season ending elbow injury and underwent an ensuing season-ending Tommy John surgery, Aaron Boone basically reshuffled his high-leverage team. In order to make up for the loss of Green, Boone had to distribute the workload to other relievers who quite frankly were barely being used up to that point in the season.
All things considered, the resulting experimentation that Aaron Boone and the Yankees have done has been a resoundingly smashing success. What started with a number of question marks has turned into nothing but exclamation marks and the Yankees are now in terrific shape in the standings. No one area of the team is more important than another - the 2022 Yankees are strong everywhere. They very clearly have easily the best offense in baseball this year and I’d point to their OPS+ of 120 as the resounding evidence that proves that Yankees are indeed an offensive juggernaut. 38 times in 117 years of baseball history, the team with the highest OPS+ won the World Series - 31.6% of all champions have been juggernauts - like the Yankees are this season.
Meanwhile, the Yankees overall pitching, as evidenced by their 124 ERA+, is third in the league and very much above the 113.14 average ERA+ of past World-Series winners throughout baseball history. Yes, they trail the Dodgers (139) and the Astros (132) but make no mistake, Yankee pitching is excellent.
Shifting our attention towards bullpens, the Braves corps of relievers lead MLB with an fWar of 4.9 and the Yankees and Tigers are next at 4.4, followed by the Orioles 4.3, then the Dodgers 3.8 and the Astros 3.1 - so to begin this article let’s first acknowledge that the Yankees do clearly have a bullpen that’s tied for second-best in MLB and one that is clearly ahead of the Dodgers and the Astros.
Amazingly, the Yankee bullpen is the backbone of the team’s ability to suppress runs and limit their opponents ability to score. Combining a lethal bullpen with very good starting pitching has been the single most important attribute of the 2022 Yankees. More on that in a bit, but first, let’s discuss Aaron Boone’s usage patterns recently and why that foreshadows that the Yankees actually do desperately need bullpen reinforcements. On one hand, the bullpen has been a huge strength. On the other hand, Yankee relievers have been dropping like flies and with all the injuries, it’s nothing short of a minor miracle, thanks to phenomenal depth, that the Yankees have been able to win at a near record-clip.
Once Aaron Boone began deploying different usage-patterns to offset the loss of workhorse bridge man Chad Green and closer Aroldis Chapman, who was injured at the time, the ensuing results were staggeringly good. Increased work-loads were bestowed upon Wandy Peralta, Mike King, and Ron Marinaccio - the latter of whom was called up in late-May. Responding with 15.1 scoreless innings-in-a-row, only allowing a single hit out of the 60 batters he faced during that time-span, Marinaccio was doing an amazing job until he too got injured - going down with a serious right shoulder inflammation.
With Marinaccio out, Boone has shifted usage patterns again and is now relying even more heavily on Wandy Peralta and Mike King to get games to Clay Holmes. This has caused a bullpen situation to reach a kind of critical mass. How long can the Yankees keep excelling without the benefit of reinforcements? None of what’s happened was part of the plan coming into the 2022 season. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The Yankees started the season with one basic plan - get the game to Aroldis Chapman so the Cuban-Missile could lock down the ninth inning. However, Chapman’s struggles have led to Boone losing trust in him and at this point, it’s clear that Chapman can’t be counted on in big spots. Since he’s come back, he has a 9.00 ERA with 5 walks in only 3 innings-pitched. His velocity is much improved though, so perhaps he’ll yet return to form, as the Yankees are hopeful he will yet do. So far in 2022, Chapman has been a complete non-factor.
Meanwhile Wandy Peralta was never really a high leverage reliever, but Yankees manager Aaron Boone certainly trusts Peralta in almost any situation and for surprisingly good reasons. Granted, lately that approach has been backfiring a bit, especially last Saturday at Fenway Park.
Because Boone is using the 30-year-old Peralta so much, he’s on pace to easily log a career high in innings pitched. That may not turn out to be a very good thing though, because Peralta is on pace to log over 70 innings during the regular season this year. That’s a lot of innings for a reliever who’s profile in the past has been more of a situational-type reliever and who has averaged only 46 innings per season. He’s already at 73% usage based on what he’s used to. Boone is clearly over-using him.
However, Peralta is actually handling the increased workload and thus far, he’s compiled a 2.43 ERA while allowing an average Exit-Velocity of only 83.6%, which places Peralta in the top 1% in MLB. His other peripherals are top-notch as well, his wOBA of .227 is in the top 3% of the league and his Hard-Hit Percent is only 29.5% which puts him in the top 5% of the league.
Boone’s other heavily used reliever is 27 year-old righty Mike King who has never been a high-leverage reliever either, but so far this season, King certainly has passed each opportunity he’s been given with flying colors, pitching to the tune of a 2.28 ERA despite staggeringly high usage for a reliever this time of year. Boone has given King 47.1 innings so far this season. Meanwhile, King has done nothing but respond like a champ, he presently has an absurdly good K-Rate of 34.2%, which is in the Top 4% of the league and his wOBA of 2.38 is in the top 6% of the league.
Peralta and King are converted starters, but in their minor league days, they saw different results when they logged higher innings totals. Peralta saw his ERA rise, while King experienced elbow soreness and had to be shut down.
Perhaps the three million dollar questions that Yankee fans should be asking with only 19 days remaining until the trade deadline (at the time of this writing) are:
1. Can Mike King and Wandy Peralta handle such heavy work loads?
2. Can Clay Holmes remain devastatingly effective as the closer?
3. Does the Yankee Bullpen Need reinforcements and if so, who will provide the help?
Personally I’m not sure using Peralta and King for a combined 80.2 innings so far this season bodes well for the playoffs. Though I was all for using each pitcher more to offset the loss of Green, when Marinaccio got injured my level of concern went up significantly.
During the month of June, Yankees Starters were 12-5, eating up 159.1 innings and averaging 5.2 innings-per-start while pitching to a 3.55 ERA. So far this July, Yankees Starters have pitched 55.2 innings, averaging 5.2 innings-per-start with an ERA of 4.24. This is actually current problem number one for the Yankees. The starting pitching is giving decidedly more runs per start.
During the month of June, the Yankees' Bullpen threw 94.1 innings, going 9-1 with a glittering ERA of 2.05 - pitching 3.4 innings a game while racking up 11 Saves against 2 Blown Saves and tallying 16 Holds. The Starters were decent in June but the Bullpen was elite.
Dove-tailing into this problematic trend is that the Bullpen is also faltering now in July. The Bullpen is averaging 3.1 innings per game, but their ERA has spiked to 3.77 and they are only 2-3 with 3 Saves against 2 Blown Saves, all while recording only 4 Holds.
The numbers very resoundingly support the observation that Yankee pitching is in the process of imploding. The Starters are struggling and the bullpen is melting down.
Prior to the start of July, I was solidly against Brian Cashman using the Trade Deadline to acquire a Starter. I still feel this way, despite the recent injury to Luis Severino. JP Sears and Clarke Schmidt are clearly deserving of opportunities to start and if the Yankees had deployed a six man rotation, they could have experimented a bit and truly seen what each was capable of. Both Sears and Schmidt did nothing but glitter when they had limited opportunities to start, they clearly deserved more of a chance and had the Yankees done this, they wouldn’t be facing the pickle they’re now in.
Had the Yankees gone to a six man rotation this year, they’d know whether they should be considering trading for a starter at the Deadline or not. Cashman is reportedly interested in Luis Castillo of the Reds.
It’s the same story year in and year out for the Yankees. They simply don’t give true opportunities to rookies. If Cashman trades for a front line starter, he’ll basically deny Schmidt and Sears the chance to develop into more than just bullpen pitchers. Cashman apparently likes to block prospects and this way of thinking is a big reason why the Yankees system, which has been pretty loaded with pitching prospects in recent years, hasn’t moved the needle nearly as much as it could have – if it were better managed.
Add to this way of running the team the squandering of highly valuable arms like JP Feyereisen and Garrett Whitlock and we have to admit that the Yankees have done a great job of shooting themselves in the foot. Yankee pitching has been really good. But it could be spectacular if the team were better run.
While it’s been a fun season to date, the Yankees are truly facing big pitching problems. Cashman will have to overpay again at this year’s deadline, in order to fix problems he should have foreseen and in order to correct for easily available strategic blunders.
Meanwhile, Aaron Boone should also be trying to keep his key bullpen arms fresh and rested so they can scale the mountain this postseason and capture a World Series title. Instead, he’s overusing his key relievers and not using his other weapons enough - perhaps because he simply doesn’t trust his lower leverage relievers. Or perhaps because Cashman keeps demoting everybody and DFA-ing anyone who’s out of options.
Exhibit A is Lucas Leutge. He had a 0.77 ERA in the month of June, holding opposing batters to a .175 average - yet he’s only pitched 6 innings so far in July and oh-by-the-way, he hasn’t allowed a single run in July. Why incessantly ride Peralta and King?
Exhibit B is the curious case of Albert Abreu. The fireballer was discarded and then reclaimed, as Cashman often does (see Nestor Cortes for most prominent example), probably because the Yankees struggle to identify their pitching talent internally. Abreu has only pitched 5-innings in July, while sporting a 1.80 ERA, what does a pitcher have to do to get Aaron Boone to use him more?
Exhibit C is Clarke Schmidt who hasn’t pitched at all during the month of July because he was optioned to Scranton, despite possessing a 3.00 ERA on the season. He seems like a pretty-darn-solid pitcher to me. Unfortunately, the Yankees just can’t find a way to hand him the ball and in fact, they’re apparently all set - intent on burning out Peralta and King while Schmidt toils in minor-league obscurity, having only pitched a measly total of 24-innings for the Yankees so far this season. Never mind that he’s logged 13.2-inings for Scranton, to go with a 2.63 ERA and 17 strikeouts.
Exhibit D is JP Sears, who on the day of this article being written, July 14th, was optioned back to Triple-A yet again! Is he a yo-yo, or a pitcher? The guy has a 1.42 ERA this season. Might it be a better idea to make him the sixth starter, give him the ball and stop torturing incessantly with shuttle bus rides to Scranton? You know, just get out of the way and let him pitch regularly?
No doubt Brian Cashman will have to make some moves for pitching at this year’s Deadline. Let’s hope he doesn’t trade for another Andrew Heaney type! With the expanded playoffs, more teams than ever before will be looking for bullpen help. This time of year, if teams want a quality reliever, they will have to pay through the nose and this year, this adage will be magnified by a factor of 12 - pun intended because that’s actually how many teams will make the playoffs this year.
Because Cashman didn’t commit to using King or Sears or Ken Waldichuk or Hayden Wesneski or any other rookies as a sixth starter this year, I expect he’ll be trading for, and thus overpaying, for one at this year’s Deadline.
On top of that, he’s going to need relievers. It might now seem it right now, but the Yankees' pitching, which seemed so strong just a few weeks ago... is in trouble.