With the rotation now in order, the Yankees have shifted their focus to the bullpen. The bullpen and a Didi Gregorius replacement. The Yankees say they want two relievers and that makes sense given the current roster. There are four open bullpen spots at the moment, and although the Yankees have no shortage of in-house candidates for those spots, it’s obvious an upgrade is in order.
It has become clear in recent years the Yankees have a “type” when it comes to relievers. They prefer relievers who miss bats, first and foremost. New York’s bullpen struck out 30.2% of the batters they faced in 2018. That’s a single season record. They broke the record held by … the 2017 Yankees (29.1%). Yankees’ relievers generated a 13.1% swing-and-miss rate this past season, third highest in baseball behind the Astros (14.5%) and Dodgers (14.1%).
The Yankees are also velocity and spin rate enthusiasts. As a team in 2018 they had the highest average fastball velocity (94.9 mph), the second highest average fastball spin rate (2,360 rpm), and the third highest average breaking ball spin rate (2,517 rpm). In fact, it seems the Yankees have prioritized spin rate over velocity the last few years. Nine pitchers threw at least 40 relief innings for the Yankees the last two seasons. Here are their average fastball velocity and spin rate numbers, with above-average rates in red:
|2017-18 Innings||FB velo||FB spin||BB spin|
|Chad Green||142.2||95.7 mph||2,451 rpm||2,206 rpm|
|Dellin Betances||126.1||98.0 mph||2,395 rpm||2,675 rpm|
|David Robertson||104.2||91.9 mph||2,555 rpm||2,706 rpm|
|Jonathan Holder||104.1||91.6 mph||2,347 rpm||2,657 rpm|
|Aroldis Chapman||101.2||99.4 mph||2,494 rpm||2,444 rpm|
|Adam Warren||87.1||92.3 mph||2,202 rpm||2,266 rpm|
|Chasen Shreve||83.1||92.3 mph||2,485 rpm||2,357 rpm|
|Tommy Kahnle||50||97.0 mph||2,268 rpm||2,448 rpm|
|Luis Cessa||41||92.3 mph||2,283 rpm||2,468 rpm|
|MLB AVG for RP||93.4 mph||2,274 rpm||2,434 rpm|
Five of those nine relievers posted below-average velocity the last two years. Only two had a below-average fastball spin rate and three had a below-average breaking ball spin rate. Robertson makes up for the lack of velocity with a killer curveball. Holder and Warren are kitchen sink guys with a wide array of secondary pitches. Is it a coincidence Warren and Shreve, the two guys with the fewest red cells in that table, were shipped elsewhere this past season? Maybe not!
Betances is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect Yankees reliever. He pairs comfortably above-average fastball velocity with comfortably above-average spin rates on both his fastball and breaking ball. And he misses a ton of bats. A ton. Chapman has three red cells in that table but his breaking ball spin rate is fairly close to average. Betances is well-above-average across the board. It’s not a coincidence he is so wildly successful when he throws strikes.
Clearly, the Yankees have a “type” when it comes to relievers. They want bat-missers who can really spin the ball. The more velocity, the better, but above-average velocity is not required. Knowing that, I decided to see whether we could use that information to dig up some under-the-radar bullpen targets. So I created a list. Here’s what I did:
- Found pitchers who recorded above-average spin rates on their fastball and breaking ball in 2018.
- Removed pitchers with a below-average swing-and-miss rate in 2018 (league average is 11.5%).
- Removed starters, recently signed free agents, current Yankees, and current Red Sox (since a trade with the Red Sox isn’t happening).
- Removed established relievers who, realistically, are not attainable (Kenley Jansen, etc.).
Step One turned up 193 pitchers, which is way more than I expected. Step Two whittled the list down to 139 pitchers. Step Three brought us down to 75 relievers. And finally, Step Four got us down to 68 pitchers. There are several recent former Yankees among those 68 names (Robertson, Parker Bridwell, etc.) which I’m sure is partly coincidence and partly the result of those guys being the Yankees’ type.
Here’s my spreadsheet with those 68 relievers. Among those 68 relievers are stud free agents (Robertson, Adam Ottavino), a bunch of “I know that guy” guys (Bud Norris, Luke Gregerson, Mychal Givens), and a bunch of relievers even hardcore fans may not know. Since we’ve spent a lot of time looking at the big names already this winter, we’re going to rummage through those 68 names to find potential under-the-radar bullpen targets. Here are five who caught me eye.
RHP Dan Altavilla, Mariners
- Fastball Velocity: 96.6 mph
- Fastball Spin Rate: 2,367 rpm
- Breaking Ball Spin Rate: 2,786 rpm
- Swing-and-Miss Rate: 13.6%
Who is he? Altavilla, 26, was a fifth round pick in 2014 who really broke out when the Mariners moved him into the bullpen full-time in 2016. He’s had cups of coffee with Seattle each of the last three years and owns a 3.28 ERA (4.32 FIP) with a good strikeout rate (25.3%) and a not good walk rate (10.7%) in 79.2 career big league innings. He has ground ball (39.0%) and home run (1.24 HR/9) issues at times. Altavilla is a classic fastball/slider reliever who threw those pitches at close to a 50/50 split this year.
Yay or nay? I think yay. The high walk rate is largely the result of a rough stretch this season in which he walked nine batters in 8.2 innings. He has a more tolerable 9.1% walk rate in his MLB career outside those 8.2 innings. We know the Mariners are selling and I can’t imagine they’d make a 26-year-old middle reliever off-limits in trade talks. There’s a chance at a 30% strikeout rate here.
RHP Daniel Hudson, Free Agent
- Fastball Velocity: 95.4 mph
- Fastball Spin Rate: 2,439 rpm
- Breaking Ball Spin Rate: 2,569 rpm
- Swing-and-Miss Rate: 13.9%
Who is he? Hudson is pretty well known by now. The soon-to-be 32-year-old made his big league debut back in 2009 and he’s been a full-time reliever since a pair of Tommy John surgeries limited him to 48 innings from 2012-14. Hudson spent last season with the Dodgers — he went from the Pirates to the Rays in the Corey Dickerson trade and Tampa immediately released him — throwing 46 innings with a 4.11 ERA (4.38 FIP) and good enough strikeout (22.3%) and walk (9.1%) rates. Those numbers are more or less in line with his career norms since the two elbow reconstructions. Hudson’s a fastball/slider guy.
Yay nor nay? I’m going to say nay. Hudson has been the same guy these last four years and that was true even after the Dodgers got him to throw far more sliders (40%) than ever this year. A low cost one-year contract is basically no risk. I’m just not sure there’s reason to believe Hudson has another level in his performance at this point of his career.
RHP DJ Johnson, Rockies
- Fastball Velocity: 93.5 mph
- Fastball Spin Rate: 2,338 rpm
- Breaking Ball Spin Rate: 2,586 rpm
- Swing-and-Miss Rate: 16.2%
Who is he? An undrafted free agent out of Western Oregon, the 29-year-old Johnson went from the Rays to the Diamondbacks to an independent league to the Twins to the Angels to the Rockies from 2010-18. He made his MLB debut as a September call-up this past season and struck out nine in 6.1 innings, which was good enough to land him a spot on Colorado’s Wild Card Game and NLDS rosters. Prior to that, Johnson had a 3.90 ERA (2.81 FIP) with 35.7% strikeouts and 6.4% walks in 55.1 Triple-A innings. He’s another fastball/slider reliever.
Yay or nay? I am intrigued enough to say yay but I’ve also been doing this long enough to know most 29-year-old rookies amount to nothing. The Brad Zieglers are few and far between. Maybe the Rockies like one out of the out-of-options guys (Luis Cessa, A.J. Cole, Tommy Kahnle) enough to do a one-for-one trade and the Yankees could swap an unoptionable pitcher for an optionable pitcher?
RHP Phil Maton, Padres
- Fastball Velocity: 91.9 mph
- Fastball Spin Rate: 2,563 rpm
- Breaking Ball Spin Rate: 2,749 rpm
- Swing-and-Miss Rate: 15.4%
Who is he? Maton, 25, is a former 20th round pick who worked his way up the minor league ladder and has thrown 90.1 big league innings with a 4.28 ERA (4.12 FIP) and good enough strikeout (25.6%) and walk (9.4%) rates the last two years. The grounder (40.3%) and homer (1.30 HR/9) rates are worrisome. Unlike everyone else in this post, Maton is a fastball/curveball pitcher, not a fastball/slider pitcher.
Yay or nay? I’m a hard yay. Maton doesn’t have overwhelming velocity but he spins the hell out of his fastball and he knows how to pitch up in the zone with it, and that mixes quite well with a hard downer curveball. The walk and grounder rates are not good, but hey, maybe they’ll improve with experience. Only one needs to improve, really. There are a lot of Padres pitchers on my list of 68 pitchers (Maton, Matt Strahm, Miguel Diaz, etc.) so maybe a package of two or three makes sense in a Sonny Gray trade.
RHP Chad Sobotka, Braves
- Fastball Velocity: 96.6 mph
- Fastball Spin Rate: 2,391 rpm
- Breaking Ball Spin Rate: 2,802 rpm
- Swing-and-Miss Rate: 13.6%
Who is he? The 25-year-old Sobotka was a fourth round pick in 2014 and he reached the big leagues for the first time as an up-and-down arm in the second half this year. He struck out 21 and walked nine in 14.1 innings — that works out to a 36.2% strikeout rate and a 15.5% walk rate — and made the club’s NLDS roster. Sobotka had 2.03 ERA (2.67 FIP) with 33.3% strikeouts and 12.6% walks in 57.2 minor league innings before his call-up. He’s another fastball/slider guy. They are all over the place.
Yay or nay? I lean yay but Sobotka’s career-long control issues are significant — he has an 11.9% walk rate in the minors — and do give me some pause. A potential issue here (and with Johnson, I suppose) is that the Braves are contending and may not want to trade away a hard-throwing, high-strikeout, optionable reliever. Finding a trade match might not be easy.
* * *
There is much more to life than spin rate, of course. Bryan Mitchell could spin the ball like nobody’s business but he couldn’t miss bats. Spin rate is just one tool in the shed, as is swing-and-miss rate and velocity and all sorts of other things. Find the right mix and it can work well. And sometimes you think you have the right mix and it doesn’t work for whatever reason. That’s baseball. Live and learn. The Yankees seem to have the spin thing worked out pretty well.
The point of this exercise is to find pitchers who could be attractive to the Yankees because of the skills they possess, not because of what they’ve done in the past. We’re looking for guys who’ve yet to really establish themselves as above-average big league relievers with the idea that the Yankees could pick them up, maybe tweak some things, then benefit from an uptick in performance. They’re not big name players and that’s the point. To get them before they become big names.
Granted, it is only December 20th, but the deeper we go into the offseason without the Yankees making a bullpen addition, the more I expect them to bring in a surprise reliever. Heck, they could add the two relievers they’re said to want plus a surprise reliever. And, given their recent history and the kind of relievers they’ve rostered, the smart money is on that hypothetical surprise reliever having high spin rates and a history of missing bats.