As the Yankees enter the 2021 season, they still face many questions about the state of their pitching staff. Much of this narrative has been focused on the starting rotation, which essentially has three question marks after Gerrit Cole and Corey Kluber. However, if the Bronx Bombers want to compete for a World Series in 2021, they will need their bullpen to be noticeably better than it was in 2020. With less than a month until Spring Training, there are certainly some questions as to who will be sitting in the right-center bullpen once the season begins.
There were several reasons for the Yankees’ relief struggles in 2020, some of which were out of their control. Aroldis Chapman tested positive for COVID before the season began, which limited him to just 13 appearances in the regular season. This forced Zack Britton, the typical 8th-inning man, to take over closing duties for much of the year. In turn, that forced the Bombers to stretch much of the rest of their relief arms.
Another injury left the bullpen even more depleted, as Tommy Kahnle appeared in just one game. An MRI revealed damage to his UCL, and it was determined that he would need to receive Tommy John surgery. He missed the rest of the year and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason.
Chad Green led the bullpen with 25 and 2/3 innings pitched, and while he was solid (123 ERA+), he was unable to replicate the dominance that we saw from 2017-2018, and again in the second half of 2019. During the ‘17 and ‘18 campaigns, Green posted an ERA of just 2.17 across 144 and 2/3 innings.
After struggling mightily at the beginning of 2019, he was sent to AAA to refine his mechanics. When he was called back up, he pitched to the tune of a 2.64 ERA in 44 appearances.
Adam Ottavino was perhaps the most notable reliever last season, in terms of his struggles. His 5.89 ERA really sticks out, and obviously not in a good way. However, his underlying numbers suggest that this is unlikely to be a continuing trend.
Ottavino’s FIP (fielding-independent pitching) was 3.52, significantly lower than his ERA. His K/9 rate rose from 2019 (11.9 to 12.3) and his walks/9 rate dropped (5.4 to 4.4). His barrel rate was 6.0%, and while that was noticeably higher than the number he posted in 2019, it was still below the league average of 6.4%. Ottavino’s sweet spot percentage was just 26.0%, the lowest number he’s posted since 2016 (Barrel rate and sweet spot % courtesy of Baseball Savant).
These numbers suggest that, while Ottavino did struggle, it wasn’t quite as bad as his ERA suggests. Particularly in a shortened season, it’s hard to put too much stock into his 2020 performance.
As a team, the Yankees’ pitching staff recorded a 4.35 ERA last season. This was the highest total recorded by the Bronx Bombers’ arms since 2007 (4.49). For the bullpen, that number was even higher, as they recorded a 4.51 ERA in 2020 (103 earned runs in 205 and 1/3 innings, by my own math).
The bullpen’s “core four” of Chapman, Britton, Green, and Ottavino will likely be effective this year. However, if the Yankees want their bullpen to be better than 2020, they will need other guys to step up as well. But who?
Unsung Hero of 2020
One pitcher who could play a big role for the Yankees is Luis Cessa. In 2020, Cessa quietly had a very strong season. In 16 appearances, he recorded a 3.32 ERA. He also posted a 130 ERA+, which ranked third on the team, behind only Zack Britton and Gerrit Cole.
According to Baseball Savant, Cessa has heavily increased usage of his slider in recent years. In his first season (2016), Cessa threw the slider just 22.7% of the time. In 2020, that jumped all the way up to 54.4%. This was used to great effect, as well. Cessa’s barrel rate was just 4.4%, which was in the 83rd percentile in all of baseball.
Expect to see Cessa used as sort of a diet version of Chad Green. The 28-year-old righthander can eat multiple innings, and will likely be utilized as a long-relief option out of the bullpen. In 2020, he threw more than one inning in nine of his 16 appearances.
Top Prospect, Top Bullpen?
Another arm who could be a factor in relief is Clarke Schmidt. The Yankees’ #3 prospect (according to CBS Sports) made his debut last season but struggled. He will likely be in the running for a starting rotation spot, but it’s unlikely that he ends up there. The Yanks’ other top pitching prospect, Deivi Garcia, is seemingly much more ready to be a starter, as his cup of coffee last season suggested. The rest of the rotation will likely be filled out by Jordan Montgomery, and a veteran arm such as Jhoulys Chacin.
Schmidt made two of his three appearances out of the bullpen last season. Although the results weren’t there, it’s unquestionable that he features several plus pitches, most notably a slider that he relies on heavily. He will likely start the year in the bullpen and could play a big role for the Bronx Bombers.
Adjustments of a King
Fans can also expect to see a guy like Michael King get innings in relief as well. King really struggled in 2020, allowing 23 earned runs in 26 and 2/3 innings. However, he has made some adjustments that could bode well for the upcoming season.
Bryan Hoch, the Yankees’ beat writer for MLB.com, went into detail about those adjustments in this article from late December:
“King benefited from his time at the Yankees’ alternate training site this past summer, where he huddled with pitching coordinator Sam Briend to refine the axis of his changeup, giving it a different profile than his fastball. The right-hander saw results in the AL Division Series, retiring all six Rays he faced in a Game 3 relief appearance.
King has also changed his slider into a curveball, tinkering with improvements that he believes will help him secure a rotation spot in 2021.”
While King’s dream of a rotation spot is unlikely, many believe he will be an important relief option. If King and Cessa can reliably eat innings, it would have a huge effect on the rest of the bullpen. With those two workings as long-relief options, Chad Green would be freed up to take on more of a Tommy Kahnle-type role.
Jonathan Loaisiga will also be a factor in 2021. He was effective as an opener/relief option in 2020, recording a 3.52 ERA and 123 ERA+. His underlying numbers were very impressive, as well. Baseball Savant tells us that he held hitters to an average exit velocity of just 84.6 mph. He also posted a hard-hit percentage of 27.3%. Both numbers ranked in the 95th percentile across the league.
This leaves the Yankees with a Britton-Chapman combo for the 8th and 9th innings, which is arguably one of the best late-inning relief combinations in all of baseball. With Green and a hopefully-improved Ottavino, the Yankees are still in solid shape on the back end.
Reason for Hope
Heading into the 2021 season, it appears that the Yankees’ success will be dependent on the success of their pitching. Of course, there are question marks, particularly amongst the starting rotation. However, there is also reason to believe that the bullpen will be much better than it was in 2020.