Recently, the Yankees announced they were spending $13 million a year on a pitcher who will likely slot in as their fourth- or fifth-best reliever. It's hard to know what's crazier about that fact -- that no one was all that surprised by the move, or that the Yankees might soon sign a potentially superior relief pitcher for eight figures a year, meaning Mr. $13 Million-A-Year could be the sixth option out of the pen.
Our mystery reliever is Zach Britton, the two-time All-Star who in 2016 enjoyed one of the greatest seasons of all time by a relief pitcher. That year, he recorded a perfect 47 saves in 47 tries, struck out 74 batters and allowed just one home run in 67 innings, and flashed a microscopic 0.54 ERA. Those numbers thrust him into heady and rare territory for relief pitchers, as he finished fourth in Cy Young voting and 11th in MVP voting.
Things have gone downhill from there, numbers-wise if not necessarily salary-wise. In 2017, Britton suffered a forearm strain that caused him to make just two appearances between mid-April and early July. His previously excellent control then abandoned him, as Britton posted an ugly 22-to-14 strikeout-to-walk rate the rest of that season, in the process ending his incredible run of perfect save opportunities at 60. A knee injury ended his season early, and a torn Achilles suffered in December 2017 pushed his 2018 season debut all the way back to June 12. He wasn't particularly sharp thereafter, fanning a modest 34 batters while walking 21 in 40 2/3 bumpy innings.
So why did the Yankeesthat includes an option for a fourth year, also at $13 million?
The first reason is Britton's sinker. The Yankees are hoping that a full, healthy season will see Britton recapture some of the strikeout prowess he showed in 2016, and even more so trim the alarming walk rates that plagued him in each of the past two seasons. Even if that doesn't happen, though, Britton remains an asset, because of his preposterously high groundball rates. In 2017, 72.6 percent of the balls in play hit off Britton were grounders; that number hit 73 percent in 2018. Those were the highest figures in all of baseball by a wide margin, yet somehow lower than Britton's 2014-2016 campaigns, when 75.3 percent, 79.1 percent, and a stupefying 80 percent of the balls in play hit against him killed hordes of unsuspecting worms.
It's extremely difficult to do major damage at the plate when a pitcher can so easily seduce you into pounding balls into the turf. At homerific Yankee Stadium, with its tantalizingly short porch in right field, a left-hander with that kind of bowling ball action wields more value than he would anywhere else, even if Britton never regains the elite command he showed three years ago. Britton has fired that flummoxing sinker more than 90 percent of the time in each of the past five seasons, and very few batters have ever managed to do very much with it.
The second reason the Yankees threw that much money at Britton is the Bombers' eagerness to take a growing trend to the extreme. At a time when teams are shifting a greater percentage of resources toward building strong bullpens, the Yankees are outspending everyone, in an effort to be stronger and deeper than everyone, while also steering clear of monster deals for starting pitchers.
When New York acquired Britton from the Orioles on July 24, the lefty became the third Yankees reliever on last season's staff to make more than $10 million, joining David Robertson ($13 million) and closer Aroldis Chapman ($17.2 million).
The term closer carries extra weight here. Last season, more than ever since Tony La Russa built the modern bullpen archetype in the 1980s, we saw more teams do funky things with their bullpens. The Phillies refused to anoint a closer all year long, with manager Gabe Kapler at first growing so trigger-happy with his amorphous pen that he brought in a pitcher who wasn't even ready to pitch. The Rays blew up the concept of the modern closer and the notion of the typical starting pitcher in one fell swoop, as erstwhile ninth-inning guy Sergio Romo started five games, part of an "opener" strategy that gained traction as the year wore on.
Amid all that reliever flux, the Yankees used Chapman fairly conventionally, enabling the flame-throwing southpaw to record 32 saves, while recording more than three outs only twice in 55 appearances. It was the rest of the pen that became a breeding ground for rookie manager Aaron Boone's whims. Robertson and Britton had both spent multiple seasons as traditional closers, while human redwood Dellin Betances had notched double-digit saves in both 2016 and 2017. Yet despite all that closing experience, Boone rotated those three big arms through a variety of high-leverage situations that rarely involved loud closer music pumping through the PA system -- not unless Chapman was unavailable to ring up the final out of the game.
The Yankees' approach to modern bullpening, then, seems to be simply flooding the zone with as many beasts as possible. Right before Britton signed, The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal noted that the Yankees could sign Britton and former Rockies right-hander/New York native Adam Ottavino. Ottavino was a revelation in 2018, punching out an incredible 112 batters in 77 2/3 innings while pitching to a tidy 2.43 ERA despite spending half his time at pitcher-smushing Coors Field. The story of how Ottavino made himself into a sudden pitching star at age 32 while practicing in a vacant Manhattan storefront is almost as amazing as his out-of-nowhere emergence into the second-most-coveted reliever on this year's market, behind only lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel.
Given the Yankees' stratospheric revenue streams, General Manager Brian Cashman could have unlimited resources to acquire every pitcher in the known universe, if his bosses would let him. They do not. The advent of the luxury tax has given even the richest teams a great excuse to talk up the value of frugality and efficiency, over simply getting the best players at top dollar. The result is that the once-Evil Empire Yankees Bryce Harper., and might also be underdogs in the battle to sign
Instead of spending to the moon on those top hitters, or even established starting pitchers like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel, the Yankees are funneling some of those eight-figure salaries to relievers -- but still with fewer years and fewer zeroes on those contracts.
This is how the Yankees' top seven relievers stacked up by Wins Above Replacement, and salary, in 2018 (we omitted Adam Warren, the right-hander who made $3.3 million last year, and got dealt to Seattle at the trade deadline):
|Pitcher||WAR||Salary (in millions)|
Acknowledging that Britton earned the majority of his 2018 paycheck from Baltimore, it's still jarring to see a seven-man bullpen collect about $50 million in salary. That was not much less than the entire Opening Day payroll of the Oakland A's, the 97-win, $63 million underdogs who acquired multiple former closers at the deadline in an effort to mimic the Yankees' bullpen superpowers approach. According to Spotrac, the only team that spent more on relievers than New York last season was the Rockies, a team that's historically been unable to beg quality starting pitchers to come to the mile-high city, resulting in gobs of money getting thrown at shaky commodities like Bryan Shaw, Mike Dunn, and Jake McGee, all of whom pitched terribly in 2018.
The Yankees' big bullpen spending last season included not only the big, bad closer Chapman collecting the second-highest reliever salary in baseball, but also Robertson coming in at number-six in a setup role. If the Yankees were to sign Ottavino this winter, this is what New York's 2019 reliever depth chart would look like (arbitration estimates per Cot's Baseball Contracts):
|Pitcher||Salary (in millions)|
If Ottavino were to sign with his hometown team and match or slightly top Britton's haul, the Yankees could pay out $55 million or more to their top seven relievers alone. And if Ottavino were to come aboard around that price, the Yankees' three setup men could end up averaging some $11-$12 million a year in salary, a number we would never have expected to see just a few years ago.
Now consider the skill sets in play. Betances occasionally runs into walk and home-run troubles, but he also struck out a massive 42.3 percent of the batters he faced in 2018, third in the American League behind only Edwin Diaz (who's not longer in the American League) and Chapman. Green struck out more than six batters for every one he walked last year, but he's the multi-inning specialist in this bullpen who does the dirtier and often more important work seen in the middle innings, with not a single save to his credit last season. Holder was one of the most prolific flyball pitchers in the league last season, but opponents slugged a mere .319 against his fastball in 2018. As for Kahnle, he's just a year removed from a masterful 2017 campaign in which he struck out a humongous 37.5 percent of the batters he faced (walking just one batter for every 16 who strode to the plate).
At a time when the tiniest-revenue clubs are often forced to be the most innovative, the Yankees are leading a trend that's spreading throughout baseball. Just a few years ago, even analytically inclined general managers were still conditioned by the old construct that saw established Capital-C Closers make millions more per season than top pitchers who operated in high-leverage spots in earlier innings.
The days of overvaluing closer pixie dust are coming to an end, leaving in its place a recognition that every out is precious, and that the toughest spot in the game may well be a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. With every team recognizing that even elite starting pitchers can run into trouble the third time through the order, that's prompting teams to amass more and more dominant arms for the pen, further devaluing starting pitchers' standing. The shrewdest teams are thus now willing to spend big bucks not only to lock down the ninth, but also the eighth, seventh, and even earlier innings...while potentially driving down total spending on pitchers, by avoiding the megacontracts historically given to starters.
That's where the richer-than-God Yankees are now. Fiscally tight, analytically forward-thinking, and trying to outfox the competition rather than outspend them. The result could be winning baseball in the Bronx, and yet another reason for the players' union to worry about its members' financial future.