Keidel: Despite Bronx Bombers Moniker, Yankees Must Rely On Pitching

Jason Keidel
June 30, 2020 - 12:05 pm

The Yankees are so tethered to their handle as the Bronx Bombers – hulking men blasting balls that bounce off the moon – that we forget they've had some decent pitching over the years. And that pitching, as much as hitting, will help them as much in this crazy 2020 season as it has for the last 40 years. 

Consider this: Aaron Judge, Miguel Andujar, and Giancarlo Stanton played a combined 120 games in 2019, and the club still won 103 games and came within a whisker of the World Series. 

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It's not the first time the Yanks leaned on pitching.

In the late-'70s, the Yankees had teams with serious pitching and scrappy hitting, and won two World Series with that combo. Consider that in 1978, the year they won 100 games and then surged on to beat the Dodgers in the World Series, the Yanks hit a paltry 125 homers as a team, barely cracking the Top 10. And, of the Yankees who played at least 130 games, only Lou Piniella hit over .300.

So how did they succeed? The 1978 Yankees allowed only 582 runs in the regular season, the fewest in the AL (and second-fewest in MLB behind only the Dodgers), and their 3.18 team ERA was also best in the junior circuit and second overall to Los Angeles.

While the Bronx burned, so to speak, that ’78 squad was just as defined by Goose Gossage, who led the AL with 27 saves, and Cy Young winner Ron Guidry as they were by Reggie Jackson or Graig Nettles. So, too, were the ’77 champs, led by Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle, who pitched to a 2.17 ERA while winning 13 games, saving 26 more, and leading the AL in appearances (72) and games finished (60).

Once that club faded and the '80s came, the Yanks went after big hitters for a decade at the expense of their pitching. The lineup was loaded with pricey, aging imports, and while those ‘80s teams won loads of regular season games - the most in the majors that decade, in fact – they only reached the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, and then spent the next decade-plus watching October baseball on television.

Then, Joe Torre came to ride the machine built by Bob Watson and Gene Michael, and no one could match the pitching of the dynasty years: David Cone, David Wells, El Duque, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, a bottomless bullpen, and the closer nonpareil, Mariano Rivera, who grew into that role after a 1996 that saw him as Torre’s all-purpose fireman.

The 1996 Yanks hit 162 homers, fewer than 15 other teams but they had an AL-leading (and MLB high-tying) 52 saves, were fourth in MLB in holds (61), and ranked second in save percentage (75%). That team went on a run of four World Series wins in five years because of dominant pitching and clutch hitting, the formula that ripples across eras. 

And then, there was only one World Series win between 2001 and 2019, in part because the Yanks morphed into the Evil Empire again - a voracious spender at the expense of other teams, trying to cobble together clubs based on cash, not character. It worked one time, in 2009, when the cash and character meshed and the Core Four rode again, but other than '09 it's been two decades of failure by the epic standards of River Avenue.

So, even though they made all those Octobers, the Yankees knew they had to reboot and return to a fertile farm and brainy trades for more young talent.  

The proof is in the pudding, with how quickly they've returned to prominence once they started building that way again. The team drafted Judge, signed Andujar, Luis Severino, and Gary Sanchez as international free agents, and began building a rock-solid core from the minors up. And as for the shrewd trades, well, they bought low on Aroldis Chapman in December 2015, then sold at the 2016 trade deadline for the first time in a long-time and turned a half-season of Chapman into at least seven of Gleyber Torres – and then re-signed Chappy once the Cubs got a World Series out of him.

Brian Cashman also made some shrewd moves to add more core position players like Aaron Hicks, Luke Voit, and the now-departed Didi Gregorius along the way, and used his “prospects are suspects” mantra to initially acquire current bullpen stalwarts Tommy Kahnle and Zack Britton – later re-signing Britton, and supplementing them with Adam Ottavino after Otto rebuilt himself from the ground up. Oh, and don’t forget about Chad Green, the fourth member of that lights out back end, who was acquired when the Yankees flipped Justin Wilson to Detroit and is now following a similar path as Rivera did in the mid-1990s.

Fangraphs ranked the Yankees' bullpen the best in baseball before the 2019 season, and it carried them to the ALCS, as three of those Big 4 had K/9 ratios in the double digits; Green, the head K-Man, had 98 strikeouts in 69 innings pitched, while Ottavino fanned 88 batters in 66 1/3 innings, Kahnle rung up 88 batters in 61 1/3 frames, and Chapman’s missiles notched 85 Ks in 57 innings.

An April 2020 study from Bleacher Report has the Yanks once again with the best bullpen in baseball, and it would’ve surprised no one if they had won 100 or more in a 162-game schedule, so it should surprise no one if they win 40 or more in this year’s shortened 60-game slate.

Things should have been better in this recent run, but, remember that in hindsight, the Astros were caught stealing signs illegally when they won the 2017 Fall Classic, and the Red Sox were busted for the same in 2018. The Yanks lost to both of them in the playoffs, and last year, they fell again to the Astros, who have been accused of similar malfeasance – Kurt Suzuki of the Nationals says he's sure the Astros cheated in the 2019 World Series, which, fortunately for Suzuki, didn’t prevent the Nats from claiming the title.

The playing field is even, if wacky, in 2020, so while fans can gawk at the 306 homers the Bombers hit last year or the 943 runs they scored, it’s going to be their conveyor belt of arms that will determine whether or not the season ends with a trophy or a thud. Gerrit Cole, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ (and whomever is the fifth starter, perhaps Jordan Montgomery) get to hand the ball to a stable of blaze-ballers at the back end, and with expanded rosters early in the truncated season, the Yankees will have even more arms at their disposal to use to rest that group if and when circumstances dictate.

We’ve always romanticized the long fly ball that launches into the air and lands somewhere in the jubilant masses of humanity – but it's the simplicity of strikeouts, double plays, and saves that wins tough games when the pressure is tight. 

Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel

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