Yankees need to realize they don’t have the Rays’ bullpen

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - JULY 29: Austin Meadows #17 of the Tampa Bay Rays runs the bases after hitting a 3-run home run off of Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees in the first inning at Tropicana Field on July 29, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - JULY 29: Austin Meadows #17 of the Tampa Bay Rays runs the bases after hitting a 3-run home run off of Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees in the first inning at Tropicana Field on July 29, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

As the Tampa Bay Rays have taken a commanding lead in the AL East, the New York Yankees find themselves scratching and clawing for one of the Wild Card spots. And how ironic, considering the Yankees seem to be doing their best impression of their their rivals despite having obvious financial advantages. Imagine the Rays with the Yankees’ payroll?

Actually, we don’t have to imagine … because it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Anyway, the Yankees’ attempt at being something they’re not has been somewhat of a disaster. A de-emphasis on starting pitching length, a bullpen that prioritizes getting strikeouts, and a lineup that is especially reliant on the home run are ideas the Rays have rode to a championship-caliber squad … while these same philosophies have doomed the Yankees’ talented roster.

The issues lie not so much in copying the Rays, rather how poorly the Yankees execute and adapt. The Rays are fully invested in analytics and live by scripted baseball games … to the point where the premature removal of their ace in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series may have cost them a championship.

Many fans like to blame “analytics” for the Yankees’ shortcomings. The issue is seemingly more about the team not knowing HOW to use analytics. That’s muddled the entire analytics argument. Data-driven approaches can be very good! Using it for every aspect of the game? Or misusing said data? Bad.

The Yankees have been pulling their starters early in games and the bullpen is absolutely gassed at this point in the season. Having starters fail to see a lineup a third time through is something that analytically makes lots of sense. Starters across the board see their numbers deteriorate once the opposing hitters have more at-bats against them. The problem is these innings that the starters are no longer pitching have to go to someone, especially now that the Yankees’ bullpen is on fumes.

All the evidence you need is Chad Green’s massive struggles over the last two-plus months and Jonathan Loaisiga’s shoulder injury — both more than likely the cause of over-usage.

This was never the plan, however. Though the Yankees acquired pitchers in Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon who had largely dealt with injuries over the last two years, the team was relying on valuable innings from Zack Britton, Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson. Unfortunately, all of those guys were plagued with injuries and are either out for the year or have been traded.

The Rays, on the other hand, have no problem churning and burning their relievers … regardless what injuries/absences they’re dealing with. The difference is they have a roster that’s built with insane bullpen depth as one of its pillars. They close by committee and feel comfortable with just about any pitcher on their roster at any given time. Look at how they’ve already inserted David Robertson into high-leverage situations! The Rays have lost guys like Tyler Glasnow, Andrew Kittredge, Ryan Thompson, Chaz Roe, Jeffrey Springs and Nick Anderson for extended periods of time and have seen a big regression from Pete Fairbanks. They still have the third-best bullpen ERA (3.26) in MLB compared to the Yankees’ 3.66 mark, which is good for sixth.

Once a strength for New York, the bullpen has toppled, but the Bombers haven’t properly adapted given how far it’s truly fallen.

The Yankees are reliant on a single closer (Aroldis Chapman) and set-up men (Loaisiga and Green), with everyone else in middle relief.

For Tampa, the drop-off between a starter and a typical reliever is little to none. For the Yankees, the drop-off from Gerrit Cole to someone like Joely Rodriguez is a cliff.

If you operate a bullpen in a traditional sense, you have to pair it with a traditionally-operated starting rotation. Instead, the Yankees get worn out high-leverage guys or middle relievers pitching in spots they’re not truly suited for. It’s yet another example of the Yankees managing a roster they do not actually have.

In fairness, however, the Yankees actually are above average in average starter innings per outing, even if it doesn’t appear that way.

  • Gerrit Cole: 169.1 innings in 28 starts (6 IP per start)
  • Jordan Montgomery: 149.2 innings in 28 starts (5.1 IP per start)
  • Jameson Taillon: 138.2 innings in 27 starts (5 IP per start)
  • Nestor Cortes: 64.1 innings in 12 starts (5.1 IP per start)
  • Corey Kluber: 75 innings in 15 starts (5 IP per start)
  • Domingo German: 91 innings in 18 starts (5 IP per start)

Don’t forget, Michael King, Luis Gil, Andrew Heaney, Nick Nelson and Deivi Garcia have all made two or more starts for the Bombers this year. Their average innings per outing was a collective 4.1.

In a league that has caught up with the Rays’ and analytical management styles, the days of workhorse starting pitchers are all but over. The issue is the Yankees have a bullpen that cannot absorb the amount of work the team has piled on them … so they can’t be pulling starters earlier than expected.

If the Yankees want to keep a bullpen as they are currently constituted, they simply cannot keep putting four innings a game on them nearly every day … unless they’re going to use King, German and Luis Severino in multi-inning appearances in order to save the matchup/high-leverage guys, which wasn’t a possibility until just a few days ago.

In the end, the Yankees need to stop pretending they’re something they are not. What Tampa is doing is the result of a decade of trial and error, along with the necessity to think outside the box due to financial constraints the Yankees will never have to deal with. Tampa did not build this team and orchestrate these philosophies overnight.

Be the best version of the wealthy, juggernaut Yankees, not the poor man’s version of the Rays.