The Yankees Bullpen Probably Won’t Be Any Better

Your immediate reaction to the Aroldis Chapman trade was right on. The Yankees have assembled something silly, a three-headed bullpen monster to rival any in the history of the game. On talent, Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances are three of the five or ten or so best relievers in baseball, and now if this plan comes together, one will hand the ball to the other, who will then in turn hand the ball to the other. While the 2016 Yankees aren’t going to feature a roster full of All-Stars, it’s going to feel like a pitching staff full of All-Stars in the most important moments, and that’s not going to be any fun for half the people watching.

There’s something important to be said, though. On talent, the 2016 Yankees bullpen should be better than the 2015 Yankees bullpen. Yet on performance, it’ll be hard for this coming year’s group to improve on the group that was. You’ve probably seen some of the numbers, like how the Yankees were 66-3 when leading after six, and 73-2 when leading after seven. Honestly, that probably already says enough, but we can make use of some of our own statistics. Whether you go superficial or analytical, last year’s bullpen almost always got the job done, when the job was important.

Obviously, Miller is a returner. And Betances is coming back. Chapman effectively replaces Justin Wilson, and there’s not a person on the planet who’d prefer the latter over the former. Even Wilson’s own family would have to apologize and hope that Justin wouldn’t be offended. He wouldn’t be, because he knows Chapman is something extraordinary. When you’re going into a season, you want Chapman. But looking back on last season, Wilson overachieved. That’s the point of comparison here.

Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I looked for the top pitching performances in what they define as high-leverage situations. I set a minimum of 50 batters faced, and then I sorted in ascending order of OPS allowed. The very top of the list:

  1. Justin Wilson, .377 OPS against
  2. Kenley Jansen, .387
  3. Wade Davis, .392
  4. Andrew Miller, .420
  5. Brad Ziegler, .429

Wilson’s overall OPS against was .602 — good, but not outstanding. Yet we care less about what happened with him on the mound in less-important situations. He was supposed to get big outs, and when the outs were big, he just about always got them. You can’t really expect to improve on that .377.

Let’s take a quick step back. Last year, 26 Yankees appeared as relievers. Just three of them had an average leverage index above 1.0. That was the Miller/Betances/Wilson trio. Nine more had an average leverage index between 0.5 – 1.0. That leaves 14 with an average leverage index below 0.5. The top group yielded 2.3 runs per 9 innings. The next group yielded 5.0, while the lowest group yielded 5.4. In one sense, the Yankees bullpen was valuable; in another sense, it gave up more than four runs per 9. The key was that the Yankees could decide which pitchers pitched in which situations.

So by WPA, the Yankees bullpen ranked third, at +8.5. By WPA/LI, it ranked 13th at +1.5. The first one is the more important one. The first one is a more accurate reflection of how the bullpen performed as far as preserving close scores was concerned. The group was worse when situations mattered less.

Looking at the past 20 years in the major leagues, there have been 596 individual team-seasons. The Yankees bullpen just ranked 25th in WPA. It ranked just 284th in WPA/LI, and here’s where the difference is — they ranked second in Clutch. Because the bullpen was so lopsided, that worked in the Yankees’ favor, as these numbers go. Now let’s say we’re certain this year’s Yankees will have a top-three bullpen. We can’t be that certain, but let’s just say. Let’s say they’ll finish in the top three in WPA. Over the past decade, top-three bullpens each year have averaged a WPA of +8.4. Last year’s Yankees, again, finished at +8.5.

It’s possible to be better. Last year’s Yankees finished behind the Orioles and the Royals. And in 2012, the Orioles bullpen finished with a WPA of +13.9. Of course there’s room to take a step forward, but there’s at least as much room to take a step back. Last year’s Yankee bullpen performance was outstanding, and they’d be happy this coming year to just repeat. It’s worth noting that, while the top three are fantastic, Wilson is gone. Adam Warren is gone. You figure Betances or Miller (or Chapman) might regress some. Chasen Shreve isn’t reliable yet. Bryan Mitchell isn’t reliable yet. Branden Pinder isn’t reliable yet. The bullpen has three amazing arms out of a number far greater than three.

Here’s one way to see the effect of a great bullpen. We’ll go back to using those last 20 years. Teams with bullpen WPAs north of 10 have averaged 96.5 wins. Teams with bullpen WPAs between 9 – 10 have averaged 94.9 wins. Teams with bullpen WPAs between 8 – 9 have averaged 92.8 wins. Teams with bullpen WPAs between 7 – 8 have averaged 94.1 wins. Teams with bullpen WPAs between 6 – 7 have averaged 89.8 wins. Don’t forget that last year’s Yankees technically made the playoffs, if ever so briefly, and theirs was otherwise an underwhelming roster. If the bullpen does indeed turn out strong, the Yankees will have a great shot at returning, and then, of course, once in the playoffs, the top of the bullpen can pitch even more. I don’t need to sell you on relievers. You know about relievers.

Maybe I should’ve said this before, but now that we’re at the end, it has to be said that last year’s Yankees were no longer relevant as far as future plans go. As soon as the season ended, that was it. The performances essentially disappeared. The Yankees didn’t go into the Chapman trade trying to build on last year’s bullpen performance. They went into the Chapman trade projected for an inferior performance, due to regression, and due to the absences of Wilson and Warren. Sure, it feels like the Yankees won’t easily be able to improve relative to 2015, but that’s not the right comparison point — they’re improved, relative to what would’ve been expected. That’s what’s most critical. Chapman makes the Yankees better, compared to the Yankees without Chapman.

For the roster, it was a good move. And now the bullpen looks great. Maybe even something more than that. Compared to the Yankees before the Chapman move, these Yankees are going to have stronger relief. Just don’t expect them to have stronger relief than they had in 2015, once you take leverage into account. The bar was placed at a very high setting, and that bullpen in large part helped give the Yankees a chance at the championship. They’d love for this year’s bullpen to do the same.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Yanks123
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Yanks123
4 months 24 days ago

Interestingly if you combine bullpen clutch over the past 3 years the Yanks lead by a big margin. Is it possible with all the high end relievers over the last few years (Mo, Drob, Betances, Miller, etc.) they can influence that somehow along with using those guys in the majority of their high leverage situations?

Also wouldn’t dividing WPA by LI and dropping in ranking from WPA just mean they were in higher leverage spots or am I interpreting it wrong?

Richie
Member
Richie
4 months 24 days ago

When they trade Miller, they’ll be worse. And if they were thinking about trading Miller before, you’d think they’re certainly still sounding teams out now.

As they should. Given that you’ve still got a full third of the game left, the 7th inning simply isn’t that important. Leverage then can only be so high, too much time left for this, this and that to still happen. A creaking lineup, a shallow starting rotation with shaky health? They need help in so many, many places more than they need a light’s out 7th inning guy.

Le Noir Faineant
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Le Noir Faineant
4 months 24 days ago

I’m not sure any one of them will be a “seventh inning guy.” This gives Girardi the flexibility to use Betances for multiple innings when the situation calls for it and to better manage the workload of all three.

magicrays
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magicrays
4 months 24 days ago

or have them rotate through pitching the 8th and 9th innings literally every night. Each one could setup one night, close the next, rest the next, and repeat.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 months 21 days ago

The math of 8th, 9th, off works out to about 108 appearances per pitcher, which I doubt is at all a good idea.

Ernie Camacho
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Ernie Camacho
4 months 24 days ago

Another thing to look for is the amount of high leverage spots that the rest of the club hands over to the pen. The spread in average LI for relief pitcher entries in 2015 was surprisingly wide, ranging from 1.3 for the Rays to only 0.92 for the Indians. Some of that is due to managerial decisions when to go to the pen, but some of that (as in the Tribe’s case), is due to the starters and batters poorly aligning performances and handing the pen either big leads or big deficits with unusual frequency.

To a significant extent, the value of a good pen is contingent on what the rest of the team does, even if the rest of the team is pretty good.

n0exit
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n0exit
4 months 24 days ago

Justin Wilson made 48 appearances with an aLI greater than or equal to 1 last season. He failed to complete the inning 23 times. This is because Girardi controlled his usage extremely closely, to the point where he was taken out during an AB (against JBJ) when a runner got into scoring position with two strikes, 2 out. This is part of the reason why Wilson’s statistics are so good last season. Replacing him with Chapman will alter the usage and therefore change the dynamic of the pen.

Paul22
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Paul22
4 months 24 days ago

Well, Joe had Betances waiting and Wilson had a quick hook. Perhaps Betances as the 7th inning guy will finish the innings Wilson did not, but will he be any better than the combination? Maybe Betances makes the 6th inning guy look better by finishing the 6th before going on to the 7th, or Joe uses Betances less to keep him healthy and strong late. I think it will be the latter. So the big impact could be later in the season, assuming everyone stays healthy which is not a given with RP’ers who throw near 100 mph, with a well rested Betances. Last couple of years Joe did not use him as much late in the season due to overwork, and it cost them

walt526
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walt526
4 months 24 days ago

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Paul-SF
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Paul-SF
4 months 21 days ago

“Through the Looking-Glass,” actually.

/pedant

Great reference though!

Beasy Bee
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Beasy Bee
4 months 24 days ago

Jeff, take a day off or something. Enjoy yourself. Appelman’s no Scrooge, right?

m4fox90
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m4fox90
4 months 24 days ago

You didn’t mention it here Jeff other than very briefly (“Chasen Shreve isn’t reliable yet.”) but Chapman is just as much about hedging against Shreve as he is Wilson. Shreve utterly collapsed the last two months of the season: 17 2/3 IP, 18 BB(33 total), 7 HR(10), 12 R(21), 27 H(49). Scary stuff.

francis_soyer
Member
francis_soyer
4 months 24 days ago

If they keep Miller, the bullpen ought to be better.

If you take out the appearances where Miller and Betances were pitching for the third time in four days, their numbers are even better that they were.

Adding Chapman reduces the need for any of them to pitch on short rest, and also allows Girardi more flexibility to exploit matchups.

Just adding up WAR and replacing one WAR with another is missing the point.

n0exit
Member
n0exit
4 months 23 days ago

The reality is, the addition of Chapman isn’t about holding leads or improving their record with the lead or reducing OPS in high leverage situation. It all comes down to usage. His addition will change the usage of of Betances and Miller. How much better that will make them is hard to quantify, and therefore you can come to conclusions like “they probably won’t be much better”. There are few statistics that properly encapsulate how reliever usage impacts performance. We can guess, through logic that, say if Betances’ workload decreased by ~10% (that’s is about the number of extra innings he had to pitch because Wilson was unable to complete the inning he was brought in to pitch) then he would probably be somewhat better.

xeifrank
Member
4 months 23 days ago

I don’t think there is much value in comparing to the actual results of last years bullpen (Sequencing, luck etc…). The way to look at it, is by looking ahead. How good is the bullpen with Chapman vs not with Chapman (only looking forward).
vr, Xei

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 months 21 days ago

Which is actually the point he makes at the end of the article. You didn’t read the whole thing, did you?

joeyp
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joeyp
4 months 23 days ago

what a wasted article, Sullivan you totally miss the point. usage is what this is all about, not wins after 7. do you not remember Mariano and wetteland and how they changed the dynamic of facing the yankees? this will change how opposing managers will manage even before any of Betances, Miller, or Chapman even enter the game. opposing managers may go to their bullpens even earlier to avoid falling behind. the may play for one run early in games instead of trying for a big inning because they want to avoid being in a tie game heading into the middle innings…..thus stressing their own staff to the point where they break…….

sullivan you just dont get it

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth
4 months 22 days ago

The one thing i think you fail to account for is the impact this has on injury risk.

Miller missed a month last year. Now, instead of Dellin/Wilson/Shreve as the backup to Miller/Dellin/Wilson, it’ll be Aroldis/Dellin/Shreve(?) as the backup to Aroldis/Miller/Dellin. They’re diversifying their risk in the bullpen.

Also, this way Betances won’t be throwing 85 innings in 2016, which can only be good for him going forward.

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