It’s easy to forget with a team sitting at 51-18, on pace to win an MLB-record 119 games, but the Yankees are not even at full strength.
Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green each went down with injuries in May. None of the trio — who came into the season as arguably the most important relievers on the squad — have pitched since May 22. Like with pretty much every other aspect of the team, the Yankees have been fine. In fact, several members of the bullpen have excelled in Chapman, Loaisiga and Green’s absence.
Since May 23, the first day without the big three, the Yankees’ bullpen has a 2.69 collective ERA in 87 innings. This hasn’t been the typical next man up situation, it’s been next man through the roof. The incredible aptitude is a testament not only to the relievers who have retired batter after batter, but also to pitching coach Matt Blake and bullpen czar Mike Harkey.
The unbelievable ascension of Clay Holmes is probably a result of several different factors, both from inside the Yankees’ clubhouse and within Holmes. Whatever has gotten into his Wheaties, he should consider sharing it with the rest of the clubhouse. Holmes has famously allowed only two earned runs all season: one in his first outing of the year, and another in a recent showing on June 20. In the middle, he ran off 31.1 straight scoreless innings with only one extra base hit.
When Chapman went down and relinquished the closer role to Holmes, it resulted in a situation that many fans and observers had wanted all along. Chapman is still an effective pitcher when he’s on his game, but his mercurial tendencies can create unneeded tension in the ninth inning. Holmes, on the other hand, has been as steady as they come, and is clearly in his prime whereas Chapman is aging out of his. Ever since Chapman went down, Holmes has been an absolute warlock. His 12 appearances post-Chapman have led to eight saves, 14 strikeouts and two walks. The 29-year-old righty has more strikeouts in that span than base runners allowed.
While his hiccup on Monday in Tampa led to a blown save (the Yankees have four blown saves in the 28 games since Chapman last pitched), the unlikely group of Aaron Hicks, Jose Trevino and Wandy Peralta picked him up to still deliver a win, naturally. This has been a recurring phenomenon of the Yankees’ season. Even when one element of the team is down — think Hicks and Joey Gallo — the rest of the roster raises its level to mask their teammates’ struggles. We’ve also seen it with Trevino morphing into one of the best hitting catchers in the league (albeit in limited playing time), spelling Kyle Higashioka and his woeful 53 wRC+.
But back to the bullpen. Ron Marinaccio, who has been thrust into a quasi version of Green’s long relief role, has been divine. The rookie, one that both he and the organization likely thought would spend 2022 in the minor leagues, is working on his own scoreless streak. Deploying a changeup that big leaguers still haven’t figured out, Marinaccio has pitched 12 innings since giving up his last earned run. He still needs to cut down on his walks, which is true of many relievers making their first MLB tour, but a changeup that has produced a .045 batting average and .091 slugging percentage firmly puts Marinaccio in Aaron Boone’s trusted pile of relievers for now.
Holmes and Marinaccio’s recent dominance has also taken some of the slack off Michael King. The team’s bullpen sensation for the first two months of the season hit his first patch of turbulence at the end of May but has recovered nicely since. King is still the best reliever in the league by Wins Above Replacement, but he’s already exceeded his career-high for games pitched in a single season. King has let in six earned runs in his last 12.2 innings (4.26 ERA) and issued six walks, two more than he gave up in his first 25.2 frames of the season.
For the second straight season, Lucas Luetge has been the unsung hero of a relief corps filled with much bigger names. Luetge has been dynamite since the Chapman-Loaisiga-Green triumvirate landed on the shelf. While it’s only been 8.2 innings, Luetge has held opponents to a .468 OPS and kept anyone from hitting a homer off him.
Batters have not been as kind to the depth pieces that either got called up from the minor leagues or were forced into higher profile jobs. While he earned the win on Wednesday night, Clarke Schmidt had been awful since May 23 (seven earned runs in nine games, eight walks in 13 innings), though his two-walk, four-run blowup in Minnesota skews the numbers a bit in such a small sample size. Schmidt was optioned back to Triple-A on Thursday morning.
Miguel Castro has also had a rough go. His 6.14 ERA during the bullpen’s depleted era is hard to look at, and with the staff at its healthiest, Castro surely wouldn’t have been the first man out of the pen in Sunday’s game in Toronto. Entering in the biggest spot of the game, Castro grooved a fastball that Lourdes Gurriel Jr. pounded for a resuscitating grand slam, helping the Blue Jays mount a comeback victory.
The Yankees should bank on having Chapman and Loaisiga back for the postseason. Green’s Tommy John surgery will relegate him to spectator duty, but this unit should be fine without him. That is, if Boone continues to use Holmes as the closer or in a similarly important fireman role. Whether it’s the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning, Holmes should be facing the heart of the order. He’s both earned that with his All-Star worthy numbers, but also his heavy sinker and absurd 83.1% ground ball rate that make getting out of a jam just one double play away.
That’s a problem for the Yankees to worry about whenever Chapman’s Achilles is healed. Until then, they have no reason not to keep leaning on Holmes, Marinaccio and Luetge for big outs. On Opening Day, if you said those three would be linchpins of the bullpen by late-June, one would assume the Yankees were in freefall. Quite the opposite, actually, as Blake and Harkey keep turning most of the arms they touch into gold.