One of the most critical decisions facing manager Aaron Boone for 2022 is, who should be the closer for the New York Yankees on Opening Day?
Or, more accurately … is there any way for the 2022 season not to hinge on Aroldis Chapman’s left arm?
As Bronx Bombers fans know, Chapman has been the undisputed closer for the team for part of 2016, and between 2017 and 2021. Chapman was arguably the best closer in baseball for most of that time.
Batters feared hitting against him in the ninth inning, and opposing players would stand up against the dugout railing to watch Superman consistently toss the baseball 101 MPH or faster. He was frequently lights out, and he registered a significant number of saves while throwing for the Yanks (144 for a 306 career total).
Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman had a rough 2021 season
However, we began seeing chinks in Chapman’s armor during the 2021 season. His average velocity on his four-seam fastball hovered just over 98 MPH this past season compared to a career-high of nearly 101 MPH in 2014.
Yankee relievers produced the second-lowest SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA, an advanced and recently formulated statistic that represents the level of effectiveness of pitchers at limiting hits and preventing runs) in MLB with a 3.57 (the Chicago White Sox had a 3.51), a very strong number overall. Chapman’s SIERA was 3.24, the second-worst since the beginning of his career in 2012 (his shortened 2020? 1.79).
He had control issues last year, walking 38 batters (the second-most in his career), throwing seven wild pitches (the third-most in his career), and serving up nine home runs (the most in his career). Chappy often lacked self-confidence in high-leverage situations during the season, leading some analysts to question whether he was losing his mojo.
Chapman will be entering his age-34 season in 2022. Thus, he is considerably closer to the end of his pitching career than the beginning. This raises the question, can we expect Chapman to be a consistent, effective closer next season? More than likely, his value will likely continue to decline this coming year and beyond.
Also, he is in the last year of his contract with the Yanks, and he will be a free agent in 2023. Manager Boone, therefore, may want to boldly replace him as the team’s closer now rather than later. If this is the case, who would Boone choose to replace Chapman?
The Yanks are lucky to have someone waiting in the wings
Most fans probably agree that Jonathan Loaisiga should be the leading candidate to replace Chapman as the team’s closer. Loaisiga will be in his age-27 season in 2022, and he won’t be a free agent until 2025. Thus, he is affordable, and he would be expected to be the new Bombers’ stopgap hurler for several years (and certainly will be the favorite to inherit the throne when Chapman leaves in free agency).
According to FanGraphs, Loaisiga throws a fastball 58.8% of the time, a curveball 22.8%, and a changeup 18.4%. In 2018, his fastball averaged 96 MPH. Last season, his fastball clocked in at 98 MPH. His velocity has increased every year at the major league level, and it will probably continue to do so in slight increments over the next couple of years.
Last year, Loaisiga had a 3.01 SIERA (which included a career-best 2.17 ERA). As a late-inning relief pitcher, he has demonstrated an abundance of self-confidence, maturity, and poise, especially when the Yanks’ fortunes have been on the line late in the game. He does not rattle easily, and typically maintains his focus.
In 2021, Loaisiga had a 9-4 won-loss record. In 70.2 innings pitched, he had an 8.79 K/9 and an impressive 2.04 BB/9, and he only gave up three home runs the entire campaign (for a 0.38 HR/9). In contrast, Chapman threw fewer innings (56.1) and gave up exactly three times as many home runs as Loaisiga.
Designating Loaisiga as the closer might also help improve Chapman’s performance, since he would be coming into less challenging game situations, probably in the eighth inning as the new set-up man. The ninth-inning pressure seemed to get to Chapman during the 2021 season, and his confidence in his pitches declined at critical points in important games.
If Chapman becomes the new set-up man, he (and perhaps Chad Green) could also spell Loaisiga during busy times of the year. Last year, Boone sometimes struggled to manage the workload of his relief pitchers (e.g. he overworked Green). Having Chapman play a backup role in the bullpen should make it easier for Boone to rest Loaisiga when necessary.
If Boone decides to make Loaisiga the new Yankee closer, it would be best to do it in Spring Training before the season starts. This way, both Chapman and Loaisiga can become familiar with their new roles before the new campaign begins.
Since this is the last year Chapman is under contract, the Yanks might consider trading him before the midseason deadline. If the team intends to deal Chappy before next year’s trade deadline, this, too, would make it prudent to begin the season with Loaisiga as the closer, thereby minimizing disruption in the Bomber bullpen. Depending on how well Chapman pitches during the first half of the season, the Yanks could obtain a valuable prospect from another club.
Of course, Boone would have to select a new eighth-inning setup man in the bullpen if the Bombers trade Chapman before midseason. Fortunately, the Yankee skipper would have at least two talented pitchers from which to choose; either Chad Green or Clay Holmes could step in and assume this role.