3 moves the New York Yankees must make to improve their bullpen

DUNEDIN, FLORIDA - APRIL 12: Aroldis Chapman #54 of the New York Yankees walks off the field following a 3-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at TD Ballpark on April 12, 2021 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FLORIDA - APRIL 12: Aroldis Chapman #54 of the New York Yankees walks off the field following a 3-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at TD Ballpark on April 12, 2021 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

While the MLB owners and the players association are duking it out behind closed doors, most New York Yankees‘ pundits (including us) have been writing about the team’s need to improve play at first base, shortstop, center field, and catcher as well as the desire to bring in a solid starting pitcher.

The consensus is that adding quality players in these roles would collectively increase the Yanks’ chances of making the playoffs and reaching the World Series in 2022.

In the meantime, the bullpen has received little attention, but is yet another area that requires some re-tooling by the Yankees’ brass.

Fans were forced to suffer through the whiplash of highs and lows of key relief pitchers last season, including Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green. Throughout the 2021 season, there were many times when manager Aaron Boone was at a loss as to who to bring in during critical moments of a game due to the inconsistency of some of his hurlers in the ‘pen.

Compared to elite position players and starting pitchers who receive lucrative, long-term contracts, obtaining another solid relief pitcher will not force owner Hal Steinbrenner to dip deep into his finances, which should help matters.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Yanks’ bullpen in 2021

To be fair, the Bombers actually had a good bullpen on the whole last season compared to other MLB teams. Let’s look at the club’s relief pitching record in 2021.

Based on data reported by FanGraphs, the Yank’s relief pitchers produced the third-highest WAR in MLB (7.5) behind the Tampa Bay Rays (7.9) and the Chicago White Sox (7.8). Likewise, Yankee relievers had the second-lowest SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA, an advanced and recently developed measure that indicates the level of success of pitchers at limiting hits and preventing runs), with a 3.57 mark, behind only the Chicago White Sox (3.51).

Yet, the Yanks’ bullpen had 26 blown saves, the 12th highest in MLB. In contrast, the White Sox had the lowest (17), while the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals had the most with 34.

That’s not bad, however, there’s still room for improvement in the bullpen. Had the Yanks’ total blown saves been reduced by just one, they wouldn’t have had to participate in an elimination game on the road against the Boston Red Sox at the end of the year (which they lost).

Individually, Green had a team-high six blown saves, while Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loaisiga each had four in 2021. The high number of blown saves for Green is disconcerting since he was not regularly used as a closer and only participated in such situations when Chapman and Loaisiga were resting or unavailable.

As Yankee fans know, Chapman was quite erratic at various high-leverage points during the season. It’s clear that his fastball velocity has decreased and may continue to decrease during his upcoming age-34 season. His control has been a problem as well. It might be time for Boone to replace Chapman as the Yanks’ closer, but we’ll talk about that issue later.

In terms of SIERA stats for individual throwers, Wandy Peralta, Albert Abreu, and Zack Britton (injured most of the year) had the worst marks, 4.16, 4.50, and 5.08, respectively. In his limited role as a reliever, Luis Severino had the top SIERA on the team at 2.19. Relief pitchers below a 3.00 SIERA included Nester Cortes (2.89), when he was used in that role, Stephen Ridings (2.90), and Green (2.95). Also, Loaisiga and Chapman had SIERAs of 3.01 and 3.24. In terms of relinquishing home runs per nine innings, Chapman (1.44), Green (1.51), and Albert Abreu (1.96) possessed the worst ratios in the bullpen.

Bullpen needs and necessary moves for 2022

While the Yanks’ relief pitching compared well to other teams, there’s still room for improvement. Fortunately, a total rebuild of the bullpen is not necessary heading into the 2022 season.

Still, there are three intelligent moves the Yanks can make before the beginning of next season. First, Michael King came on late at the end of the season and proved to be a capable long-relief specialist. Boone should employ him in this role next year, especially since his role as a starter has failed to pan out. He seemed a lot more comfortable as a long reliever last year than a starter.

This would be a valuable move since the Yanks did not have a reliable long relief option they could count in 2021. An effective long reliever can eat up multiple innings with little or no damage and reduce the need to tax the rest of the bullpen, specifically the more valuable arms.

Boone probably overworked Green partly because the team lacked an effective long relief specialist. A long reliever would provide the rest Green and others in the ‘pen need in between appearances.

Second, it may now be time to designate Loaisiga as the Bombers’ closer, preferably in Spring Training. He has a great deal of self confidence, maturity, and poise when the team’s fortunes are on the line late in the game.

At the same time, Chapman may respond better to less challenging situations during a game if used as the set-up man in the eighth inning. The pressure appeared to get to him during the 2021 season, and his confidence in his pitches waned at critical points.

Finally, the Yanks should seriously consider adding an experienced and effective southpaw in the bullpen before the 2022 season gets underway. There is a high probability that veteran lefty Zack Britton won’t pitch at all next year. Possible and affordable candidates to fill this role include Jake Diekman, Andrew Chafin, Tony Watson, and Sean Dolittle.

Seems simply enough, doesn’t it? This should be an effortless task for Cashman once the lockout is lifted.

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