Believe it or not, the 2019 Yankees bullpen was their worst campaign in the last three seasons. They finished with the second-highest fWAR in the league at 7.5, which was only 0.1 behind Tampa Bay. With the addition of Gerrit Cole and the return of Luis Severino for the 2020 season, the Yankees bullpen should see a reduced workload from the 664.2 innings they threw in 2019 regular season, which should result in higher per inning quality from an already strong bullpen. Aroldis Chapman’s closer role is probably the most definitive in all of baseball, which limits the fantasy upside for the rest of the arms but does not make them irrelevant by any means.
Closer – Aroldis Chapman
Among all qualified relievers, Chapman rounded out the top 25 in strikeouts for the 2019 season, the second time he’s failed to record over 90 strikeouts in the last three seasons. In fact, Chapman’s strikeout percentage as a Yankee is 5.4 percentage points lower than it was when he was in Cincinnati. This decline can be partially attributed to the reduction in his average fastball velocity that comes with age and mileage (career-low 98.2 mph in 2019), but the Yankees have helped Chapman maintain elite effectiveness by increasing his slider usage every season.
Taking a closer look at the batted ball data on Chapman’s slider, it appears that he was using the pitch to induce contact rather than swinging strikes, the contact percentage on the pitch nearly doubled from his 2018, and the expected wOBAcon on that induced contact was practically the same as his fastball (.345 vs. .343 respectively). Given that this pitch most frequently ended up down and away to left-handed batters and down in the zone to right-handed batters, both on the black, it’s safe to expect similar results from this pitch in 2020.
Even with the days of triple-digit strikeouts behind him, Chapman’s a near-lock for a sub 2.50 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while racking up 30 plus saves. Despite Alex Fast’s convincing advocacy for waiting on saves, I would recommend paying a premium for Chapman.
Setup – Zack Britton
If any pitcher is the quintessential “excellent in actuality, but not fantasy-relevant”, it’s Zack Britton. Despite throwing his sinker 86.4% of the time, his career xwOBA is a stunning .235 because of his precision with the pitch. He aggressively targets the bottom of the zone when he’s ahead in the count, unafraid to throw strikes that set up his pitches further outside of the zone that induce fairly weak contact and a ton of ground balls.
In the event you play in a saves+holds league, Britton should be drafted in all formats, but will likely come at a very low cost because he will contribute below average strikeouts for a reliever. However, his rate statistics should outperform his projections, as a 3.40 ERA and 1.39 WHIP are extremely conservative for a pitcher of Britton’s caliber. My assumption is that an extremely poor 2017 campaign is dragging his expected performance down in those systems, so in actuality, he should perform more like the man he’s setting up for in those categories.
Setup – Adam Ottavino
Among pitchers who threw their sliders at least 300 times last season, only three generated more horizontal movement than Ottavino, and only one, Kyle Crick, finished with a top 10 slider by xwOBA. In addition to his slider, Otto throws his fastball with great efficiency, as the pitch has an expected wOBAcon of .292 over the last two seasons and has been thrown almost as often as his slider (39.7% to 44.9%). The biggest knock on Otto is his extremely high walk percentage, which finished as one of the 10 worst among qualified relievers in 2019 at a paltry 14.1%. For his career, Ottavino has a much more palatable 10.5 BB%, but in the more recent past, his mark is much closer to last season’s total. If we give more credence to the recent past than the career marks, we should also expect Ottavino’s K% to be closer to 31.5 than the 28.3 that Steamer is projecting for him.
For fantasy purposes, volume will be key in driving Ottavino’s worthiness of a roster spot. If he is called on for at least 66 innings of work, he should provide close to 90 strikeouts without costing any draft capital (ADP 345.7), but be mindful of how that volume could just as easily bring your WHIP down.
Middle – Tommy Kahnle
Fun fact: since 2000, there are only two relievers who have pitched at least 60 innings in a season and thrown their changeup over 50% of the time. Those two players are Matt Wise in 2005 and Tommy Kahnle in 2019. Going one step further, there have only been five players who have used their changeup over 40% of the time in a season with the same innings threshold. The only one to strike out over 70 batters: Kahnle. If you’re still skeptical about how good Kahnle’s changeup is, when compared to others thrown at least 300 times in 2019, only his and Luis Castillo’s generated a swinging-strike percentage above 26 (26.9% and 26.2%, respectively).
Throwing out 2018 as an injury-marred season and a small sample size of results, it would be fair to expect 60 innings of high-quality work, as both 2017 and 2019 saw Kahnle post strikeout percentages about 35 and WHIPs below 1.15. Given the pitchers ahead of him on the depth chart, there is no reason to expect Kahnle to record even one save for 2020 even if Yankees were to be struck with the plague. However, like all Yankees relievers sans Britton, he will be a reliable source of strikeouts with strong ratios to boot.
Middle – Chad Green
Calling Chad Green’s season “a tale of two halves” would be a misnomer, because it was only 22.3% of his total innings that prevented him from posting stellar rates with over 90 strikeouts for three straight seasons. From June onward, Green pitched 53.2 innings with an eye-popping 37.2 K%, 2.35 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. If you go through the 3-D pitch visualizations for Green on Baseball Savant from April and May, you’ll notice that his fastballs were landing in the center of the zone far too often, which resulted in a 10.67 ERA and HR/FB% of 31.6.
From a fantasy standpoint, Green is a sneaky source of wins (17 since 2017), and his bankable 65 innings of volume will act as a boost for your team’s WHIP while also adding significant strikeout volume. There is virtually zero chance he provides any help for saves or holds, which is why other Yankees relievers are getting drafted over him, but don’t let that one hiccup prevent you from taking him in deeper formats.
To be frank, there is no reason to draft any of these relievers considering the depth this team has and the roles these pitchers would slot into if called upon for more than 40 innings of work in 2020. Of the three, Jonathan Holder is the only one with a track record enticing enough to warrant a pickup if he’s consistently called on for long relief, but he will act more like a Zack Britton in long relief than a Kahnle or Green, which really is not helpful in most formats.
Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)