How could you ever replace the greatest closer of all-time? How could a Yankees bullpen so reliant on Mariano Rivera for the better part of 20 years live up to the standard set by the legend himself after he hung up his cleats? There were a lot of questions about the Yankees’ bullpen going into the season, and while many wondered if Rivera’s setup man David Robertson could close even, more wondered who would bridge the gap from the starter to Robertson. Well, at this point in the season, we know the answer to those questions and we’ve seen the rise of one of the most dominate bullpens in baseball history.
Freed from the immense shadow of Rivera, David Robertson has been superb. Despite giving Yankees’ fans heart problems almost every time he pitches, Robertson has notched up 30 saves, while blowing only 2. If you follow the games, you’ll know that is surprising given how he never seems to throw a 1-2-3 ninth, causing mass migraines and the sale of aspirin to rise all around the Tri-state area. But Robertson has found tremendous success pitching in the 9th inning, and he boasts of having the best strikeout rates of all Major League relievers, and he ranks 3rd in the American League in saves (7th in all of baseball) behind Greg Holland (31) and Fernando Rodney (30). Robertson can close, that’s a simple answer. His mentor and predecessor would be proud.
Then there is that one guy who has been able to tear off the label of “bust” to become maybe the most dominate relief pitcher in all of baseball. That guy is Dellin Betances, the 6’8″ former starter who was once viewed as a future rotation anchor before a few very rough seasons got the best of him. Now, in a bullpen role, the 26-year-old has dominated with a fastball that has reached triple digits and a curveball (or slider or slurve depending on who you ask) in the low 80’s with a deadly break. Topping 100 strikeouts this season, Betances has been the primary setup man for Robertson, and I don’t think there’s a better one in the game of baseball. Often pitching both the 7th and 8th innings, the Yankees’ bullpen weapon has brought back memories of Mariano Rivera during the 1996 season, back when he was the setup man for John Wetteland. Betances has been able to both overpower opposing batters with his fastball and confuse them with his breaking stuff, causing him to be a pure strikeout machine.
But the Yankees’ bullpen is not just these two hurlers. Their fantastic seasons have been complimented by their supporting cast. Shawn Kelley, who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners before the 2013 season, started off the season as the setup man for Robertson, and actually knocked out a few saves himself. But after an injury sidelined him for a few weeks, he struggled to get outs. But, he’s back and he’s been great coming out in the middle innings, using his combination of a mid-to-high 90’s fastball and a sweeping slider to cut down batters. Adam Warren, another Yankees’ farm hand, entered Spring Training in a competition for the 5th spot in the starting rotation. He ultimately lost out to Michael Pineda, but has been very valuable out of the ‘pen, often pitching multiple innings during his appearances. Despite their fair share of struggles, lefties Matt Thornton and David Huff have each played important roles for the Bombers. Thornton has since been jettisoned to Washington, and replaced by Rich Hill. The Yankees may have found an unlikely new weapon in Esmil Rogers, newly acquired from the scrap heap. Rogers threw three scoreless innings against a revamped Boston Red Sox lineup, earning the win in the 8 to 7 victory. If he can somehow keep it up, the Yankees may have gotten a key bullpen piece for a steal.
Rivera was and still is a living legend. Watching him go was a saddening and tearful sight. Fans had no idea what to expect from the bullpen without him. But new stars have carved out their niche with the Yankees in the wake of Rivera’s retirement. This year’s bullpen crew is on pace to set the record for most strikeouts for a bullpen in a season all-time, and it’s no surprise if you watch them. In a very inconsistent season for the Bombers, it’s been their relievers that have shone as the bright spot. If they can keep up all the good work they may just lead the team into the playoffs and maybe beyond.