Heading into last offseason, the general sentiment among Yankee fans was that the team’s major area of need was pitching – specifically, starting pitching. In the six-game ALCS against powerhouse Houston, the team’s lack of depth was horribly exposed. It didn’t have a true ace; it had a disappointing James Paxton, a diminished Masahiro Tanaka, and an injured Luis Severino to go along with the horror show that was JA Happ. A month later, Brian Cashman announced the signing of one of the greatest pitchers on earth.
Fast forward one year and one more gut-wrenching postseason elimination, and we’re in the same place once again. Gerrit Cole did Gerrit Cole things, but it wasn’t enough. While the season overall was a sobering reminder that putting together a baseball team is challenging, it’s somewhat shocking that the Yankees could add a pitcher of Cole’s caliber and still be left with a dearth of reliable pitching. And to add insult to injury (or injury to insult?), this year, the bullpen suffered its fair share of setbacks as well.
I can’t make it any simpler than this: Cole was exactly as advertised. He was the rock at the front of the rotation that the Yankees needed, racking up 94 strikeouts in 73 innings to the tune of a 64 ERA-. He was awesome. Anyone who wasn’t already convinced that he’s awesome was probably swayed by his heroic performance in the ALDS against Tampa Bay, during which he turned in a solid Game 1 performance before coming back on three day’s rest and putting the Yankees in position to capture the series in Game 5. Was Cole as consistently dominant as 2019, when he should’ve won the Cy Young? No. Did he give up a lot of hard contact? Certainly yes (46.9 percent, 7th percentile). Did his fastball and curve spin rates decline a bit? Disturbingly, also yes – something to keep an eye on next year. Was he one of the best pitchers in the game? Unquestionably, undeniably yes.
The rest of the rotation was less inspiring. Paxton suffered from diminished velocity due to an undisclosed injury and didn’t contribute much. He may have thrown his last pitch in pinstripes. Tanaka, the presumed number three once Severino was lost for the year with Tommy John, was pretty good! But pretty good only in a vacuum and not by his own standards. It’s possible that Tanaka won’t return to the form he demonstrated two years ago, for one reason in particular: he just isn’t getting the whiffs on his famed splitter any longer. It’s not a putaway pitch anymore, as the following frames demonstrate. It’s catching way more plate than it used to. 2020 vs. 2018:
Tanaka’s a finesse pitcher who used to have two putaway pitches with his slider and split. Now he’s got one, and he’s less effective as a result. He’s a free agent now, but the Yankees should bring him back, as he’s still a serviceable back-end starter. Make it happen, Cash.
Happ was much better than last year, especially down the stretch, but he didn’t hit his vesting option and likely won’t be back. Jordan Montgomery showed flashes and could be a capable number five or long relief option moving forward. And finally, 2020 saw the eagerly awaited debut of Deivi Garcia. The kid was nails. He turned in a few good starts along with a clunker against Boston, and he’s got some things to sort out before we can comfortably deem him a big-league starter, but he might’ve been the best and most exciting thing to happen to the team this season. Most inspiringly of all, he simply stopped issuing walks! For a guy who walked a ton of hitters throughout his minor league career, it’s an enormous step forward. Assuming he isn’t included as part of a trade for someone more established, he should be in the rotation next season.
The closest thing to an ironclad law in baseball is this: bullpens are volatile. The Rays have an awesome ballclub this year but may not have the same luck in 2021, because their biggest strength is their bullpen, the same claim the Yankees could have made in 2019. And the Yankees’ 2020 group submitted a dud of a campaign. Staff wide, they posted a 4.51 ERA (4.69 FIP) and a 13.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, just the 8th best mark in the American League.
Some things worked out well. Zack Britton looked better this year than he did at any point in the previous campaign and a half. Aroldis Chapman was great, right up until the last inning of the season. Chad Green was elite once again, and even cut down some on hard contact. Those three guys will be back, and those three guys are as close to sure things as you’re likely to find in any bullpen.
Beyond the three-headed Hydra, things got very bleak very quickly. Tommy Kahnle, arguably the team’s most important bullpen weapon last year, was lost for the season and likely most of the next one with the dreaded elbow surgery. It remains to be seen whether he’ll ever pitch for the Yankees again, and the extent to which Kahnle’s absence affected this team cannot be overstated. A fourth reliable arm to eat pressure-packed innings could have swung the ALDS in New York’s favor.
The second most unfortunate occurrence was the sudden demise of Adam Ottavino, who lost his place in the Boone Circle of Trust so rapidly that by the playoffs, he wasn’t deployed in high-leverage spots unless there was literally no choice. Ottavino’s always had a bad platoon split, but he took it to a whole new level in this abbreviated campaign with an 8.31 ERA against lefties. Most alarming was the spike in the quality of contact against him. The August meltdown in Buffalo was emblematic of his intense struggles, and his future is uncertain at best.
Nobody else was all that great, either. Luis Cessa did yeoman’s work in a low leverage role, Nick Nelson pitched better than his stats show, and we got to see some quick debuts from future stalwart Clarke Schmidt and intriguing mid-level prospect Miguel Yajure. Jonathan Loáisiga took about four gigantic steps back and Michael King was underwhelming. Bullpens are always hard to predict, but aside from Chapman, Britton, and Green, even the most optimistic assessment would peg the future as decidedly uncertain.