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Preparing for the ALDS: The Yankees bullpen

A look at the feared group of New York relievers

Wild Card Game - Oakland Athletics v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The countdown continues. We are now, as this publishes, just 452 minutes (or, ya know, seven and a half hours) from first pitch of the ALDS between the Red Sox and Yankees. We’ve already looked at New York’s terrifying offense and their talented but somewhat high-variance rotation, and now we move on to the bullpen. There is a lot of hype around this group, and for good reason. It’s loaded with talent. Is it as good as it’s name value, though? As they say in Bojack Horseman, let’s find out!

Aroldis Chapman (LHP)

We all know Chapman at this point. He’s been with the Yankees for a few years now, taking a few months off to win a World Series with Chicago — netting New York Gleyber Torres along the way — before getting back in pinstripes the following winter. When he’s at his best, Chapman is absolutely one of the truly elite relievers in the game. And, make no mistake, he’s at his best more often than not. He throws triple digits like it’s nothing, and misses bats better than just about anyone in baseball. This past season he struck out over 16 batters per nine innings, which wasn’t even his career high. The southpaw did spend some time on the disabled list late in the year and he struggled in his first outing back, but after that he tossed four straight scoreless outings with eight strikeouts in 3 23 innings. He also struck out two in a scoreless inning in the Wildcard Game. So, yeah, he’s good.

However, he’s not unbeatable. Generally speaking, the path to beating Chapman is clear: Hope he’s wild. While his stuff is undeniably great, he can lose the zone quickly, and when he does it seems to build upon itself quickly. If the Red Sox notice his command being off early in any of his outings, they need to be patient and let him pile up pitches and, hopefully, walks. For as great as he’s been in 2018, he did walk over five batters per nine innings. Fortunately, the Red Sox know all of this all too well. They have been easily the best team against him over his career. Chapman has tossed 17 23 innings against Boston and has pitched to a 7.13 ERA with the Red Sox drawing 17 walks and slashing .235/.404/.368. Long story short, look for patient approaches against this guy.

Wild Card Game - Oakland Athletics v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Dellin Betances (RHP)

While Chapman was on the disabled list, the Yankees had a number of options to step up and take over the top spot in their bullpen. Betances was the man to do it. He’s long been one of the most talented relievers in the game, but he goes through long stretches in which he loses command to the extent that he’s barely a qualified set-up man. When he’s on, though, he’s on, and he’s on more often than he’s not. Overall, it’s been a fantastic season for the righty, as he pitched to a 2.70 ERA with a 2.50 FIP and a 2.15 DRA. Like Chapman, Betances is a strikeout machine, setting down over 15 batters per nine innings for the third consecutive season. The big step forward for him was the control, though. After struggling in 2017 with over six walks per nine, he cut that rate down to 3.5 and if he’s keeping his control in check he’s nearly impossible to beat.

If you’re looking for optimism, well, the Red Sox have some experience against Betances just like they do against Chapman. In the short-term, they faced the righty twice in the month of September and they were able to score runs off him in both of those outings, with three hits and three runs over the two innings combined. They do have a solid .720 OPS against him in 2018, though over his career that number is down to .555. Betances is similar to Chapman in that the easiest path to success is hoping that he has a wild spell while on the mound. If he’s hitting the zone, it’s going to be tough to beat him late in games.

David Robertson (RHP)

Chapman and Betances are certainly The Big Two in this bullpen, but it doesn’t get all that much easier after them. Robertson has long been one of the best and most consistent relief arms in all of baseball, and while he’s entering the back half of his career he’s still pitching well. He’s been very solid this year in his age-33 season, pitching to a 3.23 ERA with a 3.01 FIP and a 3.03 DRA. Robertson isn’t quite on the Chapman/Betances level with strikeouts, but he still set down about 12 batters per nine this past year. Where he differentiates from the other two, for the worse, is with his command. He has some control issues in his own right — 3.9 walks per nine this year — but he also has some home run problems. It’s not a major issue, granted, but he has allowed seven homers this year or 0.9 per nine innings. It’s nothing major, but it’s also not as hard to square him up as the first two names here. The bad news is that Boston struggled against Robertson this year, failing to score a run and managing just a .417 OPS.

Zach Britton (LHP)

In this writer’s humble opinion, the extent to which New York’s bullpen is terrifying comes down to which version of Britton shows up in this series. As we know from his Orioles days, the southpaw has the potential to be one of the very best relievers in baseball. That’s the reason so many here wanted the Red Sox to acquire him at the deadline. However, post-injury, he hasn’t quite been the same this year. He’s certainly shown flashes after heading to New York in a July trade, and in the month of September he didn’t allow an earned run. However, he also posted a 4.25 FIP and a 6.99 DRA with the Yankees. This is largely due to control issues as well as an inability to get whiffs. At his best, Britton combined ground balls and strikeouts as well as anyone in the game. These days, he’s still getting grounders at an elite rate but he’s only striking out 7.5 batters per nine. If that’s the pitcher the Red Sox see in this series, and he can’t find the zone as has been the case often enough this year, they should have some success. If he flashes the dominance from his past, and from stretches this year, then the Yankees bullpen is that much scarier.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Chad Green (RHP)

Green gets lost in the shuffle a bit in this bullpen, but he’s a big part of this bullpen and should probably be listed above Britton. He doesn’t quite have the same name value for a lack of track record, but he emerged on the scene as an elite arm in 2017 and has been outstanding again in 2018. Over the course of the season he pitched to a 2.50 ERA with a 2.89 FIP and a 3.38 DRA. Where he separates himself for the rest of this ‘pen is his control, as he walked fewer than two batters per nine innings. Instead, where he gets beaten in the long ball. He’s certainly not a long ball machine or anything, but Green did allow over a homer per nine innings thanks to a heavy flyball tendency. The hard part is making it more than a solo homer. The Red Sox did score five runs in 10 13 innings against the righty this year with a pair of homers and a .689 OPS.

Jonathan Holder (RHP)

Holder is, frankly, the least important pitcher in this Yankees bullpen and we won’t spend too much time on him. You probably remember his name largely because of his role in that big sweep back in August. He was the guy on the mound when the Red Sox scored eight runs in the fourth inning, with Holder allowing seven of them without recording an out. On the year he did pitch to a 3.14 ERA with a 3.10 FIP, though his 4.33 DRA was less impressive. He has shown off solid command this year, but his strikeout stuff doesn’t match up with the rest of this ‘pen.

Lance Lynn (RHP)

Lynn is the starter-turned-reliever for the Yankees bullpen, though I wouldn’t expect him to fill the same role most of us are expecting from Eduardo Rodriguez. Mostly, that’s due to the lack of necessity for New York. It’s also, however, due to Lynn not having the same kind of upside as Rodriguez. That’s not to say he’s bad, though he’s been very up-and-down this year. The righty did get a late start after signing late into spring training, but even after a midseason trade to the Yankees he posted a 4.14 ERA and a 4.34 DRA, though his 2.20 FIP is very impressive. He struck out over ten batters per nine with New York while walking only two, and if that keeps up in the bullpen he’ll play a key role as a multi-inning arm to serve as a bridge to the back-end if any Yankees starters can’t get through the Red Sox order a couple of times.

Stephen Tarpley (LHP)

Tarpley was a bit of a surprise to me as someone who doesn’t follow the Yankees all that closely. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve barely heard the name. He was a September call-up who did pitch a couple times in that final series at Fenway, striking out five of the ten batters he faced with two walks. The southpaw actually started the year in Double-A, but he moved fairly quickly and held lefties to a .289 OPS in September. Of course, that was only 18 plate appearances so take that for whatever it may be worth. He did hold lefties to a .394 OPS in the minors, too. He shouldn’t play a huge role for New York in this series, but expect to see him against guys like Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rafael Devers in key middle-innings situations.