What Caleb Ferguson brings to a revamped Yankees bullpen

The former Dodgers lefty will spend his walk year in the Bronx. To what end?

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers / Meg Oliphant/GettyImages
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When Wandy Peralta signed a four-year, $16.5 million option-laden deal with the San Diego Padres, Yankees fans had a right to be grim. Since coming over from the Giants in 2021, Peralta had been the team's go-to lefty out of the bullpen, terrorizing opposing batters with a blazing fastball, dazzling changeup, and funky timing on the mound. In 2024, he'd be pitching elsewhere, at a price that the Yankees could seemingly have matched.

Meanwhile, the only left-handed relievers the Yankees front office had added to the 40-man roster during the offseason were Victor González, a Dodgers product who had missed the entire 2022 season with elbow issues and only pitched 35.1 innings in 2023, and Matt Gage, who was bumped off the Astros' roster to make room for Josh Hader.

But on the morning of Feb. 5, Brian Cashman struck, swinging a deal with the Dodgers that included the recently-claimed Gage and low minors pitching prospect Christian Zazueta to nab high-leverage lefty reliever Caleb Ferguson.

Ferguson is not Hader, nor is he as well-known among Yankee fans as Peralta, but in many ways he's a perfect addition to the back end of a Yankees bullpen that needed both depth and a left-handed presence. Ferguson was a lifelong Dodger, selected by Los Angeles in the 38th round of the 2014 draft after undergoing Tommy John surgery in high school, debuting in 2018 at the age of 21, and pitching in parts of five seasons wearing Dodger Blue.

Despite his experience, Ferguson has relatively low mileage on his arm. By throwing 60.1 innings in 2023, he eclipsed the 50-inning mark for the first time in his career, upping his total to 207.1 since his debut in 2018. For context, his left-handed peers Aroldis Chapman and Josh Hader have thrown 271 and 341 innings since 2018, respectively.

That low mileage was not simply preventative, though. At just 27 years old, Ferguson has already undergone Tommy John surgery twice, once in high school and another time that caused him to miss the entire 2021 season. Still, he hasn't had injury issues outside of those two elbow procedures, and has pitched even better post-surgery than he had in his early seasons.

Ferguson's biggest change from his pre-second-Tommy John days is his ability to limit home runs and hard contact; he was good at it before the surgery, but has become a master of it since then. Much of this is due to his introduction of a cutter into his arsenal, which he had tried in 2020 before going down, but brought back in 2023 to much greater effect.

Batters hit just .253 against Ferguson's cutter in 2023, pounding just under 40% of them into the ground while swinging and missing at an additional 27%. This proved to be a much better option for Ferguson than his curveball, which had led to many more line drives and just a 20% whiff rate in 2022.

Interestingly enough, Ferguson has also been a reverse splits guy since returning from surgery in 2022, with slightly better numbers against righties than lefties in 2023. Righties may have struck out less and walked at double the rate that lefties did against Ferguson, but lefties were the ones who burned him on contact, with a line drive rate about five percentage points higher than right-handed batters.

In spite of the weird splits, Ferguson is still very effective against lefties, a group he struck out more than seven times as often as he walked them in 2023. He was the recipient of some bad batted ball luck, which inflated lefties' slash lines to .266/.356/.392 against him, but still managed to avoid contact and keep the ball in the yard for the most part.

Plus, Ferguson's overall numbers on the year look a lot better when you take out his last two months of play, in which he allowed 16 runs in just 20 innings. He was likely out of gas due to his large jump in workload from 2022, a problem that should be alleviated with another steady, full workload in 2024.

Caleb Ferguson will not be Wandy Peralta's replacement -- at least, not in the literal sense. But what he lacks in favorable splits against lefty batters he makes up for in strong performance against batters in both boxes. He doesn't have that wipeout changeup that makes lefties look foolish, but he has that devastating cutter that will generate both soft contact and whiffs at a high level.

They're both left-handed, but Ferguson and Peralta are fundamentally different pitchers. Signs point to Ferguson being a more-than-capable filling for the hole that Peralta's departure left in the back end of the Yankees bullpen, at least for 2024, and potentially for years into the future.

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