Yankees’ Bullpen: The Good, the Bad, and the Intriguing
By Patrick Gunn
The Yankees are finally starting to make some moves. DJ LeMahieu’s long journey to resign thankfully ended with him returning for a long term-deal, and Corey Kluber joins the Yankees’ rotation. The Yankees are far from a finished product, but they have some pieces.
Now, the one area they have not addressed to this point is their bullpen. FanGraphs projects the Yankees to have the top bullpen in MLB, predicting them to accumulate a WAR of 4.6 in 2021. Last season, the Yankees, with mostly the same bullpen, finished 21st in WAR with 0.9, predicting that Adam Ottavino will have a bounce back year and Aroldis Chapman will be healthy.
It’s no denying that the Bomber’s bullpen might have been their most disappointing unit overall in a forgettable season. With that said, the Yankees still have talent and high strikeout capabilities within their bullpen. Let’s take a look at the Yankees’ depth chart in the pen according to FanGraphs to get a better idea of what to expect this season and where the Yankees can improve.
FanGraphs projects the Yankees’ closer to post another big season with a 1.9 WAR, 14.1 K/9, and a 2.95 FIP. Even as he enters his 30s, Chapman is still throwing in the upper nineties, and now he has added a slider with a 34.8% Whiff rate via Baseball Savant. Expect another solid season out of Chapman.
Britton is expected to have a lower 3.86 FIP next season, thanks to a low strikeout rate to walk rate (8.6 K/9 versus 4.5 BB/9). He’s a ground ball pitcher (71.7% off batted balls came on the ground last season, per Baseball Savant) and he avoids players barreling up his pitches (3.8% of batted balls last season, with an average exit velocity of 87.4). The lower strikeout rate is concerning, but Britton is still throwing in the mid-90s at age 33 and avoids allowing hard contact.
Ottavino may be the Yankees’ most frustrating pitcher. He has nasty secondary pitches with phenomenal spin, yet he fails to put away batters consistently. That would explain his projected strikeout (11.6 K/9) and walk (5.0 BB/9) rates being what they are at this point. Regardless, I would expect him to improve upon his 5.89 ERA from last season, mainly because that ballooned thanks to an awful outing against the Blue Jays. That singular performance was terrible, but Ottavino posted a 3.52 FIP in 2020 compared to a 3.44 FIP in 2019. The walk rate is once again concerning, so any attempts to lower that would likely help him improve upon his projected 0.7 WAR.
Another talented yet frustrating pitcher, Green has a different problem from Ottavino. He throws strikes consistently, shown by his career walk rate of 2.3 BB/9. His issue comes from the long ball, with Green allowing 1.3 HR/9 over the last three seasons and 1.8 HR/9 last year. Also, Green has allowed players to barrel him up 9.8% of the time they make contact, according to Savant.
He lives and dies by throwing fastballs up in the zone, and when he misses, he gets hammered, even with his mid-90s velocity. Green needs to either improve his accuracy within the zone or shake up his pitch selection because he does not have the luxury Britton or Chapman have with their deception.
The Bombers have been waiting on Cessa for several years now to break out, and he still struggling to find consistency. He does not have elite strikeout numbers (8.0 K/9 over the past three seasons) with a decent but not amazing walk rate (3.1 BB/9) and home run rate (1.3 HR/9). He relies on hitters not barreling him up and biting at his slider (which he threw 54.4% of the time last season per Baseball Savant) while getting early strikes with a fastball at decent velocity but little bite. At this point, Cessa is a middle-innings relief arm with potential to improve his stock but I’m not too confident in his chances.
Here’s a potential breakout candidate, as FanGraphs lists Nelson between Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga on the depth chart. Loaisiga should be higher because of his experience, but Nelson has the talent to jump up. Nelson had an up and down debut in 2020, but his minor league stats (10.4 K/9, 0.4 HR/9) suggest there may be more on the table. He throws hard (96.3 mph on the fastball, per Baseball Savant) with decent secondary pitches and movement. He did have an issue with control in the minors, as evident by his 4.8 BB/9 rate, but Nelson showed me enough glimpses to give him a spot similar to Adam Warren’s over the past decade.
Loaisiga is another talented arm who has jumped from prospect status to bullpen option for NYC. The early returns on Loaisiga are mixed, as he throws hard (96.9 mph per Baseball Savant), but he has yet to consistently put hitters away in his career. That’s evident by his 34.3% hard hit rate in the majors. He’s a pitcher who can dominate through two innings and then give up a three-run homer in his third. To be fair, Loaisiga has barely pitched over the past three seasons (just 79.1 innings in the majors) because of injuries and inexperience. The talent is there, but he still needs to bring it for a full season.
Heller’s listed after Loaisiga on FanGraph’s depth chart despite only throwing 31.1 innings in four seasons in the majors with the Bombers. He’s thrown the ball well in the minors (2.64 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 0.4 HR/9), but he’s 29 years old and has yet to get an extended look in the majors. Maybe this is his year, given the Bomber’s thinner bullpen at the moment in terms of Major League experience.
FanGraphs has him below Albert Abreu on the Bomber’s depth chart, but King threw more than 25 more innings last season, so I’m going to discuss King here. The 25-year-old from Rochester certainly has intriguing movement, but he never put everything together in his first season in the majors. He always ended outings poorly and gave up a ton of runs in later innings. Like Heller, Nelson, and even Loaisiga, King is inexperienced and last year’s performance is not enough to get a good gage on King’s potential.
The Yankees have a lot of talent in their bullpen, but they would need a lot of things to go their way to have a top-five pen in MLB. A rebound from Ottavino is expected, but the projections are not as kind to Britton in terms of FIP because of his low strikeout rate. Meanwhile, much of their depth pieces are inexperienced at the Major League level and are going to be asked to do more than they have. Maybe Clarke Schmidt or another top prospect comes up and dominates out of the bullpen, but there’s no guarantee of that happening. The Yankees could run out with this bullpen to start the season, but they would be smart to sure up their depth going forward.