The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Examining the Yankees’ closer situation in a post-Chapman world

- Matthew Roberson

For the first time in six years, the Yankees will begin the season with a closer not named Aroldis Chapman.

That is welcome news for those who were both tired of watching him — taking what felt like a fortnight to throw a single pitch, often missing his target by two feet as hitter after hitter drew an easy walk — and had become fed up with his off-field antics.

The Yankees are unequivoca­lly, without a shadow of a doubt, much better off without Chapman. While the left-hander is now in the top 25 of the career saves list and is one of just three relievers in the 21st century to make at least seven All-Star teams (joining Mariano Rivera and Craig Kimbrel), he was noticeably terrible last year and had become 10 times more of a distractio­n than a useful or trustworth­y pitcher.

As such, Clay Holmes is the man for the job now. Holmes locked down 20 saves for the Yankees in 2022 and made his first trip to the All-Star Game, but his bullseye command left him at some point during the season’s second half, turning his previously invincible right arm into something of a brief liability. When he was revealed to have a back injury in August, that partially explained why he had blown three saves in his five previous outings before hitting the injured list. A shoulder capsule strain then prevented him from pitching back-to-back days in the postseason, leading to the disastrous finish to Game 3 of the Division Series in Cleveland.

For Holmes, who by all accounts is in tip-top shape again heading into spring training, we now have a pretty clear idea of who he is as a pitcher. During his three and a half years as a Pirate, Holmes was mostly a sinker baller who would complement that with a low-80s curveball. Since joining the Yankees, though, Holmes has become hopelessly devoted to the sinker, throwing it on just over 80% of his pitches last season. He also did not throw a single curveball, choosing instead to embrace the type of slider that gets the Yankees pitching staff all hot and bothered and was a mere tertiary option in Pittsburgh.

This works, and works well, but we also now definitive­ly know that when Holmes gets even slightly out of whack, calamity ensues. During that fivegame stretch last summer when the wheels fell off prior to him landing on the IL, Holmes walked four batters and hit another while allowing seven earned runs in four innings, good for a 15.75 ERA. In 45 innings up to that point, he had only

walked 12 guys and owned a 1.20 ERA that did in fact prove too good to be true.

Each of the three blown saves that sounded the alarm bells and put Holmes on the shelf included at least one walk, the tell tale sign that this strike thrower was not operating correctly. The same problem reared its ugly head in the Cleveland series, when walks in Games 2 and Game 4 made Holmes’ outings much more tense than the Yankees would have asked for. It also led to Wandy Peralta, not Holmes, getting the save in the all-important Game 4, a game that could have

eliminated the Yankees before they got back to the Bronx.

With all of this fresh in their memory, the Yankees understand that they have several capable ninth-inning mercenarie­s should Holmes falter again. A fully healthy Michael King might actually be the best person for that role, but if the Yankees get the Holmes who rattled off 311⁄3 straight scoreless innings last year (breaking Rivera’s franchise record), they can deploy King as a fireman again in what would be one of the league’s deepest bullpens. Holmes cracking, though, puts pressure on the rest of a group that, while effective, is still fairly unproven. King has thrown fewer than 145 innings in his big-league career. Peralta, like Holmes, was a no-name for years until the Yankees got their hands on him in 2021. Jonathan Loaisiga may have the best pure stuff of any Yankee reliever, but he has even less MLB experience than Holmes.

This bullpen is still going to be very, very solid so long as everybody shows up. This isn’t exactly a house of cards, it’s got much more stability than that. It’s more like a Jenga tower, impenetrab­le when fully intact, easy to keep upright when all of the pieces are in place. But if pieces are removed (King getting injured) or get asked to hold too much weight (Peralta threw more innings last year than he had in any year since 2017), the integrity of the whole thing can quickly come into question. The structure can easily topple if foundation­al blocks like Holmes and Peralta aren’t up to the task, and with relievers it’s almost impossible to know if they will be until you see things actually play out. Just ask Loaisiga, who went from a 2.17 ERA and 2.4 WAR in 2021 to 4.12 and 0.4 last year, respective­ly.

A year of good Holmes will have a positive trickle down effect on the entire relief corps, though. It all starts with him, ironically the guy the Yankees hope will also be ending things on most nights. If they can count on Holmes every time a save situation rolls around — just like the Mets have with Edwin Diaz — he both shortens the game and allows his teammates to settle into a defined role as well, something every relief pitcher will tell you is crucial to their success.

Holmes in the ninth, Loaisiga in the eighth, King in the seventh and Peralta in the sixth is not something an opposing team wants to see when all of those guys are at the top of their games. But Holmes struggling would reconfigur­e the whole plan, as then they’d have to find a different closer from a roster where Lou Trivino is the only other person with real closer experience.

Luckily for the Yankees, the bullpen has not been an area of true concern in quite some time. Getting Chapman out of their hair only helps in that respect. But removing Chapman does remove one important thing: someone who knows how to get the 27th out. That duty now goes to Holmes and his modest career total of 20 saves, all from last year. While he’s shown that he can be elite, that was only for about half a season, and this team needs someone who can close out games from April all the way to the final night of the postseason.

 ?? Elsa/Getty Images ?? A healthy Clay Holmes will be key to the Yankees bullpen success.
Elsa/Getty Images A healthy Clay Holmes will be key to the Yankees bullpen success.

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