By Matt Mirro
After a relatively quiet offseason thus far (Minus Starlin Castro) Yankees fans were crying foul. But on Monday General Manager Brian Cashman shook the baseball world by acquiring four-time National League All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds for a quartet of prospects. The second coming of “The Left Arm of God” joins an already potent backend bullpen highlighted by Andrew Miller (36 saves in 2015) and Dellin Betances (266 strikeouts over the last two years). With this almost unprecedented collection of bullpen talent, the 2016 New York Yankees have the ability to pioneer a new(er) strategy in the later innings. Maybe it’s time to finally rid themselves of the set bullpen roles.
Keep in mind: The trio combined for a 1.70 ERA, 347 total strikeouts and 78 total saves in 2015.
Personally, I have advocated for this concept for awhile. Instead of having one pitcher (i.e. Chapman) rack up 45 saves, why not spread the wealth and have three guys (i.e. the reincarnation of the Nasty Boys) each have somewhere around 15 saves. Heck, forget the saves altogether! Don’t incinerate bullpen roles just because of the 9th inning! Do it for the 6th, 7th and 8th as well. You acquire these elite arms to prevent the other team from scoring in the late innings. A lot of teams have that one big arm which they normally opt to utilize in the very last inning up by three or less. That’s the prototypical “save” scenario in which you use your “closer.”
But, that’s not always the ideal scenario. Lately, it’s been pointed out that the “A save doesn’t always come in the ninth inning”. That’s very true. If your starter is out of the game and you’re trying to hang on to a slim lead while the other team m0unts a rally, why would you use anyone but your relief ace? Many teams don’t have the luxury of having three uber-elite closers in their bullpen to mix and match in certain situations. The Yankees do. So if a team has the bases loaded and no outs in the seventh I’m calling on my best pitcher and, no offense to Betances and Miller, but that’s Chapman.
The rest of the game falls to the capable left and right arms of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, respectively. Sure, they won’t put up gaudy save numbers, but manager Joe Girardi would certainly be maximizing the talent he has at his disposal. In 1977, before the typical closer role was defined, Yankee reliever Sparky Lyle became one of the few relievers to win the Cy Young Award. He pitched to a 2.17 ERA, compiled a 13-5 record and struck out 68. That year he pitched a now unheard of 137 innings in just 72 games out of the bullpen. Can you say “wow!”? Of course you can and you certainly should.
Sparky lead the league with 72 appearances out of the pen and 60 game finished but only saved 26 games. That year Bill Campbell (Boston) lead the American League with 31 saves and Rollie Fingers (San Diego) led all of baseball with 35. Lyle’s Cy Young season wasn’t the closer type season we saw in 1989 from Padres closer Mark Davis who saved 44 games in 70 appearances (60 games finished) en-route to a National League Cy Young Award. Lyle was what was called a “Fireman”. He cleaned up messes no matter what inning it was.
The Yankees have emphasized that the acquisition of Chapman will help keep the bullpen as a whole fresh, and therefore, healthy. That’s all well and good, but it’s time to use this new found advantage, abandon the now archaic bullpen roles and adopt the concept of utilizing each arm freely. I understand that relievers are creatures of habit. I get that and I also get that many prefer to see saves numbers next to their name. They’ll get their fair share of saves. But the point of collecting elite closers like this isn’t to just stack the late innings. The Yankees have the rare opportunity to forgo an old guard and really find their bullpen in the middle of something special.