Yankees Magazine: End Game

By acquiring Zach Britton at the deadline, the Yankees are playing their part in a bullpen revolution

September 14th, 2018
New York Yankees

This is a bullpen story, and we're going to talk about bullpens, so just bear with us. But let's spend a minute or two with the 2018 Yankees' batting order, the one that simply could not be stopped during the first half of the season. Opposing pitchers were hopeless. If the Yankees gave up five runs, they would score six. Rookies? No problem! showed up and became an extra-base-hit machine. came to town and seemed to find a way to hit three-run bombs even with the bases empty.
The point is, offensive might doesn't just show itself in what individual batters do; it registers in the cumulative, as well. Each successive dominant offensive player Aaron Boone could write into the lineup meant less of a breather for the opposing pitcher, which in turn made each hitter more effective. From one through nine, it didn't matter if any individual Yankees hitter slumped, or if another was on some sort of downswing. Compared to the other 14 AL teams, the Yankees were hitting 5.2 more homers per batting spot, including nearly doubling the average for both the two- and nine-holes.
It calls to mind the old joke about making entire planes out of the indestructible black box material. What if you could build a whole team that same way, a never-ending, relentless leviathan? In particular, what if the majority of the bullpen stopped being a destination for filler pitchers, arms not good enough to start or close?

You don't have to wonder. In , the Yankees have a dominant closer, the hardest-throwing pitcher in Major League history. In , they have a dominant closer, who uses his 6-foot-8 frame and wipeout slurve to attack all comers. In , they have a dominant closer, whose cutter-curveball-change-up repertoire and Houdini-like escape artistry vexes batters and has helped him accumulate 134 saves over 11 solid seasons. "We get to the fourth, fifth inning and we've got a lead -- in my head, it's game over," says. "I know once we get to that bullpen, with the type of arms we have, there's really no shot, you know?"
Baseball is changing; it always has, and it always will. Fielders shift on seemingly every pitch, there are fewer balls in play than ever before and pitching staffs are reconfiguring themselves right before our eyes. So at this year's trading deadline, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman went out and acquired Zach Britton to fill an obvious need for an always-evolving game: a fourth dominant closer.

Adding elite relievers on top of elite relievers isn't a totally new thing for the Yankees. In 2011, despite having Mariano Rivera -- the greatest closer in baseball history -- the Yankees went out and signed as a free agent. Then before the 2015 season, after Betances had put together an All-Star campaign as Robertson's set-up man (before Robertson departed for the White Sox), Cashman nonetheless added as a free agent. The next year, even the combination of Miller and Betances wasn't enough; the Reds were offering Chapman for pennies on the dollar, and Cashman pounced.
It's not hard to understand why any team would want to add a pitcher of Britton's caliber. We're just two years removed from a campaign in which the left-hander converted all 47 of his save chances for the Orioles, allowing just four earned runs over 67 innings. His ERA for the season was 0.54, the best figure ever posted by a pitcher who threw at least 50 innings.
"He's obviously had an amazing career, great ability, a lot of success, and that's combined with what I understand is a great work ethic, great teammate," Cashman said after acquiring the 30-year-old reliever. The Orioles drafted Britton in 2006, then moved him to the bullpen in 2014. Britton became an elite closer, one who -- like Rivera -- relied almost entirely on a single, unhittable pitch to dominate. The pitcher had been toying with a sinker since around 2007, but once he moved to the 'pen and could rely on a less-robust arsenal, the pitch really took off.
"It was really good when I was a starter, but I didn't use it the same way," Britton says. "I knew I had a good one in the Minors, it was just a matter of going to the bullpen and realizing that I could dominate with just the one pitch. That was the first time I've had that experience because I used other pitches when I was a starter."
Ironically (and perhaps fittingly for a member of the bullpen Rivera led for so long), Britton never set out to dominate with a sinker, which, as the name implies, goes 50-plus feet in a straight line, then dives as it approaches the plate. The team had actually been trying to teach him a cut fastball. "It kind of just did the opposite of what they wanted it to do, and I just stuck with it," he says, laughing. The pitch, when it's working, is a magic trick, 95 to 97 mph of heavy and deceptive terror. Even when batters expect it (and they always expect it), there's just not much they can do; at best, if they make contact, they're probably going to smash the ball straight down. But most of the time, they're swinging at air. David Ortiz, Britton recalls, once mentioned that he couldn't make sense of the pitch. "Your ball starts here, and then it's gone," the slugger told him.
Britton ruptured his right Achilles during a winter workout, an injury that required surgery and forced him to miss much of this season's first half. By the time he was back, Baltimore was fully in sell-off mode, and despite having very little time to show that he was still the All-Star pitcher he had been in 2015 and '16, the Yankees' GM saw enough to make his play. The Yankees seemed in desperate need of a starting pitcher, but when the market wouldn't come to Cashman, Cashman went to the market.
"It's just another dominant guy," first baseman Greg Bird says of the newest toy in the bullpen, the southpaw who struck out the left-handed Bird in both of their meetings. "It's not an average guy. He's dominant. So just add one more dominant guy to the list." Also, add one more example of a sport that's determined to keep evolving -- and a team more than willing to help push it along.

On April 25, 1876, a few months shy of America's centennial, Joe Borden stepped on the hill for the Boston Red Caps, today's Atlanta Braves. Three days earlier, he had pitched all nine innings, winning the first game in National League history. Facing the New York Mutuals, Borden surrendered five runs in the first four-plus innings, leading manager Harry Wright to call for Jack Manning to assume pitching duties. It was the first time in NL history (and, as such, Major League history) that a relief pitcher -- then known as a "change pitcher" was used.
That season, pitchers completed 472 of the league's 520 games; the eight teams combined to use just 34 pitchers all season. So you could say that times have changed, even if the process was slow. Just 74 years after Wright summoned Manning to step in and pitch a game he hadn't started, Philadelphia's Jim Konstanty threw 152 innings in relief, twice going nine frames in extras. He would win the 1950 National League MVP Award, then pitch 15 innings in a World Series that his Phillies lost to the Yankees. Nineteen years later, the league officially adopted a version of the save rule that The Sporting News' Jerome Holtzman had been using in his baseball stories, and about two decades after that, Tony La Russa introduced fans to the thrilling delight of constant mid-inning pitching changes. The game, and all too often managers who preferred to follow accepted wisdom, began to fetishize routine and regularity. There were mop-up pitchers, LOOGYs (lefty one-out guys), set-up men and closers. Pitchers made millions of dollars throwing to one batter every other game or so. Everyone had a defined role.
And realistically, it's not like that has totally changed. There are still roles and routines, even in the 2018 Yankees' bullpen. But it's easy to point to the 2016 postseason as an inflection point that began to turn heads and change minds. Andrew Miller -- traded to the Indians at midseason -- pitched Cleveland to the World Series by defying all contemporary convention. The tall lefty appeared in 10 postseason games that year, a throwback performance in which he averaged just under two innings per outing. He entered in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings, never throwing less than an inning and a third. Along the way, he allowed just three runs and earned ALCS MVP honors, the first time the award had ever gone to a non-closing reliever.
To be clear, there's nothing totally revolutionary about managers deploying elite relievers differently in October than they would in the previous six months. Rivera, who recorded more than three outs in 21 percent of his 1,105 career regular season relief appearances, saw that figure rise to 60 percent in his 96 postseason appearances. But in Cleveland, manager Terry Francona and Miller showed a mutual willingness to step away from the norms of treating the ninth inning as the be all and end all. -- the Indians' closer at the time of the Miller trade -- maintained his role, but when the highest-leverage moments arose in the middle innings, Francona didn't hesitate to call for his best weapon, and Miller was up to the occasion. "When I was in Baltimore and we acquired Andrew Miller," Britton says of the 2014 trade that brought Miller to the Orioles at midseason, "he really opened up some guys' eyes to how dominant a reliever could be in certain situations -- you know, extended periods of time."

And Britton had, in that same 2016 postseason, seen the other side of that coin. In the AL Wild Card Game, the Orioles lost to the Blue Jays in 11 innings. Britton, coming off his remarkable season, warmed up, but never entered the game. The Orioles lost with their best pitcher sitting in the bullpen because the mores of reliever management meant that you didn't bring your closer into a tie game on the road.
The Yankees were 29 games over .500 when they sent three pitching prospects -- , Josh Rogers and -- to Baltimore for a closer who wouldn't close in New York. Cashman's team certainly looked the part of a playoff contender. But the general manager, even with a bullpen stocked three deep in elite closers, saw an investment opportunity. When elimination looms and the temperature on the mound starts getting hotter, top-flight bullpen arms can make all the difference. "You saw what happened in last year's Wild Card game," the GM says.
Let's talk about that 2017 Wild Card Game -- or actually, both Wild Card Games. The Yankees, facing Minnesota in the AL Wild Card Game, sent their ace, , to the mound to get things started. He wouldn't even last an inning. The Yankees needed to rely on their bullpen for 82⁄3 frames in the eventual win, including 31⁄3 from Robertson, who had been closing games on the South Side of Chicago just three months earlier. Across the diamond, the Twins got just two innings from their starter, . And over in the National League, the Rockies and Diamondbacks got just five innings combined from starters and Zack Greinke. Four outstanding starting pitchers on the biggest stage, and their contributions to their teams' most crucial game of the season to that point added up to just 71⁄3 innings.
"I think it really changed with Miller, how he got used in the playoffs," says Yankees reliever , who helped put out Severino's fire in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, throwing two strong innings. "Everybody was watching that and how they were using him, and I kind of was watching that and was like, 'Man, more teams are gonna try to get a guy like that.' Because it's really important. Sometimes the games are won and lost in the fifth and sixth inning."

Chapman ranks fourth on the active career saves list. Britton checks in at No. 12, followed by Robertson at 13. Meanwhile, Betances has already been to four All-Star Games in his career, and while he didn't earn a trip to Washington for this year's Midsummer Classic, he went on an unfathomable run beginning on May 12, allowing just two earned runs and nine hits over his next 331⁄3 innings.
"Nothing like it," Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey says of his 2018 staff, unable to compare it to anything he has seen in his two-plus decades coaching pitchers. "The way this bullpen has been constructed, I think it's where bullpens are going these days. With starters going less deep in games, it's probably going to be a necessity."
It's not just anecdotal. MLB starting pitchers were on pace to throw about 61 percent of teams' innings in 2018, down from 68 percent in 1998, the last time the league expanded, and starters' innings are on the decline for a fifth straight year. Managers, seeing clear data about the drop in reliability for pitchers when they face a lineup for a third time around, are becoming ever-less hesitant to call for relief. "I think the game is relying a lot on back-end guys that can close down games in any situation," Betances says.
Fans may begrudge the lack of complete games and a supposed over-reliance on pitch counts, but facts are facts. "Our preference would be to have a strong starting rotation that pitches deep into games, and then you can turn it over to a fresh, usable, high-ceiling, high-leverage caliber type bullpen," Cashman says. "That would be the perfect recipe, but I know it doesn't play out that way. It's hard to keep everybody healthy, it's hard to acquire and secure and maintain that type of perfect equilibrium between your rotation and your bullpen. We have strength in the rotation, and we have strengths obviously in the bullpen. Right now our bullpen is really strong, and I trust Aaron Boone and Larry Rothschild and Mike Harkey will utilize that to their advantage when necessary."
The natural question, though, is how to identify that advantage. Harkey insists that the ninth inning is a special, unique beast, that the last three outs are the hardest to get (especially in Boston). Other pitchers and analysts aren't so sure. But what's undoubtable is that, at least in the present, the game elevates those who occupy that closer role, both in prestige and also in money. Britton is excited about his new role on the Yankees, ready to do whatever is asked of him. He even says that he considers it to be a valuable piece of the pitch that he'll make as a free agent this coming offseason, when he can show potential suitors that he handled different roles well. And yet despite all that, and despite what he saw from Miller both in Baltimore and then when he watched Cleveland in the World Series, Britton is, unsurprisingly, expecting to eventually sign with a team that will slot him into the ninth inning.
The pitcher is philosophical about what lies ahead of him, not brash. "I have the American League record for consecutive saves," he says somewhat sheepishly, trying to explain why the ninth inning is his preferred destination, even at the end of a conversation during which he pointed out all the high-leverage moments that come earlier in games. "It's just something that I'm good at." Even still, many people involved with the Yankees expect the philosophies -- and the financial incentives -- to keep evolving in the years to come.
"You've already started to see non-closers making as much as fourth and fifth starters," Harkey says. "And I think it's probably only going to change more. You're going to find that bullpens' salaries are higher than starters' salaries. That's just the way it's going to be. When you're able to pitch the best pitcher on your team three to four days a week, as opposed to once a week, when you think about it, you're doing pretty good. So these guys are going to continue to demand more and more."

The thing about the Yankees bullpen's strength, though, is that each individual power arm benefits the rest of the group. Forget about the fact that on most teams, any of Robertson or Britton or Betances would certainly be closing. Boone is also able to call for arms such as Green, or any other rostered reliever as he wishes, knowing that most teams would see pitchers of that quality locked into specific late-game roles. And if a Chapman or a Green isn't available on any given night? No problem at all. "I think one of the things about our bullpen, and now adding Zach to the mix, they really protect each other, hopefully," Boone says. "Especially in the regular season, there'll be nights when we feel like we want to stay away from a guy or rest a guy, and obviously we're going to have really good options elsewhere on that given night." And as for October, Boone adds, "the team that wins the championship, a lot of times you look back and it's a result of having a bullpen that you can really hang your hat on."
Harkey believes that the younger Yankees relievers also stand to benefit from being able to pitch under a slightly dimmer spotlight. On a lot of teams, he says, a pitcher such as Green would constantly be auditioning for a closer role. A few blown saves in a row, and fans and writers would start wondering when Green would get the chance. On this roster, though? It's just not part of the conversation. And Harkey expects Green, Holder and other young relievers to benefit in the same way that he says Robertson did from developing under Rivera. "He had those years of time to sit behind Mo, to learn from Mo, and be able to take that into games," Harkey says. "And I think, within the organization, the fact that we have three or four guys that can close at any time, it gives us time to develop the Holders, the Greens; time to get their confidence going and work on repeating deliveries in high-leverage situations."

And the trickle down is no different from what the team saw from the batting order in the first half. Adding a great arm to a collection of great arms means that you never have to summon a middling reliever. Philosophically, it's quite a play if you're able to make it.
Yankees relievers struck out 653 batters in 2017; it was the first time the bullpen had ever broken 600, and its 10.92 strikeouts per nine innings set a new big league record. Through Aug. 12 of this year, the bullpen was on pace to strike out more than 740 hitters, a figure that barely even accounts for Britton's arrival. That's not a small jump. Meanwhile, the relievers were allowing the third-fewest runs per game in the AL, more than a half-run better than the league average.
When Cashman added to an already-awesome lineup, it didn't just impact Stanton's own at-bats. He makes every hitter around him better by making pitchers work harder, by being on base, by lurking in the on-deck circle. "He was brought in to fit into what was already a great clubhouse with a lot of high-quality and highly capable, talented players in their own right," Cashman says. "And I think the benefit of all that, when you have that many people with that type of representation in terms of ability … it gives each other cover."
And as for the relievers? "I've been a GM now for 21 years, and so the evolution of how this 'pen looks now is a lot deeper and stronger than it's ever been. I do every now and then wonder what it's going to look like in a few years because you can't maintain something to this level. It's performed so well for us, and the job is kind of to constantly have that fierce system coming and pushing it and adding to it. But this is a pretty impressive crew that we have had to deploy over the last number of years, and we're thankful for their clear contributions to that win column. We're hoping that we can keep relying on that type of performance as we move forward because it is obviously a major strength."
Britton didn't have a Spring Training this year, and there are some who surmise that the Orioles might have strategically and understandably accelerated his rehab so they could boost his trade value. But as the pitcher works to regain his once-otherworldly form, he's surrounded by an astounding collection of talent for which his mere presence will do a world of good. "We're looking forward to him joining this band of merry men and seeing where it takes us," Cashman says.