Add the Yankees to an ever growing list of teams attempting to emulate the Royals’ uber-bullpen approach to building a pitching staff. With the reported acquisition of Aroldis Chapman from the Reds, they might now have the best bullpen in baseball — at least at the best back-end.
The Yankees seem to be addressing their weak rotation by strengthening the bullpen and thereby “shortening” games. You can mitigate a starter’s ineffectiveness by putting a lights-out bullpen in place.
Chapman is arguably the best reliever in baseball. His 41.7 K% was the best mark in baseball for any pitcher in 2015. His 1.63 ERA was the fourth-best mark. And his 1.94 FIP was third-best. When you extend the sample size to encompass the last three seasons, the contrast becomes more stark. His 45.4 K% in that time was easily the top mark, with soon-to-be teammate Andrew Miller second at 40.3%. No one else was above 40.0%. Chapman’s 2.05 ERA was 13th in MLB, but his 1.82 FIP was tied with Ken Giles for second.
In terms of sheer velocity, no one comes close to matching Chapman. Over the last three seasons, his average fastball velocity has been 99.2 mph. The next closest is the Royals’ Kelvin Herrera who sits around an average of 98.1 mph. Trevor Rosenthal of the Cardinals is third with an average fastball velocity of 97.3 mph. The startling thing is that Chapman’s velocity seems to be ticking up. Over the last two years, his average velocity was 99.8 mph. And in 2015 alone, it was 99.5 mph.
The Yankees are adding Chapman to a bullpen that already included two of the best relievers in baseball: Miller and Dellin Betances. I already mentioned Miller’s elite strikeout rate. He was second to Chapman over that three-year sample size. Guess who was third? Dellin Betances, with a 39.5 K%. In terms of ERA, Betances was third from 2013-2015 with a 1.71 ERA and Miller was right after Chapman with a 2.09 ERA. In terms of FIP, Betances and Miller were sixth and seventh respectively, with a 2.07 and 2.08 FIP.
Assuming the Yankees keep all three pitchers, that’s probably the best bullpen in baseball right now. There have been rumors all offseason that the Yankees were mulling the idea of trading Miller. He would certainly have a lot of value in a market that’s thin on relievers. But I would question whether it would be in their best interest.
I’ve written a lot about how the Royals were able to make the postseason in consecutive years on the back of their elite bullpen. In 2014, their rotation had the 10th-lowest ERA but the 12th-highest FIP. But their bullpen had the 10th-lowest ERA and 6th-lowest FIP. Last season, the Royals’ rotation had the ninth-highest ERA and 10th-highest FIP in baseball. Conversely, their bullpen had the second-lowest ERA and 10th-lowest FIP. So by keeping this trio of relievers intact, the Yankees could hope to have similar success with their overall pitching staff.
There’s another thing to consider. Chapman is currently under investigation for a domestic abuse incident that allegedly took place in October. The police report says Chapman was accused of choking his girlfriend and firing gunshots into the wall of his garage. It’s possible for MLB to suspend Chapman regardless of what happens with legal action. The length of that suspension is at the discretion of the commissioner’s office. So holding onto Miller could be insurance, in case Chapman has to miss a number of games.
As a side note, Chapman is going to be entering his final arbitration season. However, he still needs to accumulate 138 games of major league service time before he can become a free agent. So it’s possible that if a suspension is long enough, Chapman could remain under team control through the 2017 season. It’s kind of sick to think that a suspension for domestic abuse could end up working in the Yankees’ favor.
The length and probability of suspension is unknown at this time. So getting that second year of control is far from a certainty. It was thought that the domestic abuse allegations made Chapman untradable, but it ended up lowering his trade value. In return, the Reds get third baseman Eric Jagielo and second baseman Tony Renda, along with right-handed pitchers Caleb Cotham and Rookie Davis.
Jagielo was the highest-rated prospect in the Yankees’ system, ranked sixth by MLB.com. He missed the second half of 2015 with a knee injury and there are concerns about his ultimate defensive position. Jagielo has the arm for third base, but the rest of his game isn’t there yet. It’s possible he will have to move to a corner outfield spot or first base. He has above average raw power, but his hit tool lags and he has trouble facing left handed pitching.
He spent the season — before his injury — at AA. It’s uncertain at this time which level the Yankees will start him at in 2015. I think going back to AA to start the season is a good guess. The best-case scenario probably sees Jagielo getting a mid-season promotion to AAA. I also wouldn’t rule out a September call-up.
MLB Pipeline also had Rookie Davis in the Yankees’ top 10 prospects, ranked 10th. He reportedly has a fastball that sits around 92-94 with a decent curveball. His changeup is below average at this point, as is his command. Evaluators seem to think his best role is in the bullpen.
Tony Renda was acquired from the Nationals mid-season. Coming into the season, this is what FanGraphs had to say about him:
5’8/180 and was 2nd rounder out of Cal in 2012; good approach, has hit everywhere, has advanced bat control, gets on base but hasn’t played short and has little power; Nats may try him at short to see if he can contribute there.
He spent all season at AA with the Nationals and then the Yankees. He hit all right and should be just a phone call away from the majors in 2016. But it does seem as though his likely role will be as a utility player.
Caleb Cotham is a 28-year-old reliever. He got his first taste of the majors in 2015. He has a fastball that sits around 92-94 to go with a slider and curveball. With all due respect to the player, he appears to be a throw-in, the type of player you try to sell to the casual fans because you can immediately place him in the major league bullpen.
This isn’t a good return for the best reliever in baseball. But Chapman isn’t just the best reliever in baseball; he’s also a player under investigation for domestic abuse. He’s a player that potentially faces a suspension of unknown length. And he’s also — at this moment — only controllable for one year. His value was about as low as it could get. So in that sense, I think it’s pretty lucky the Reds were able to get anything at all.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs