It’s easy to get excited about what adding Aroldis Chapman to a New York Yankees bullpen already boasting Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances might do. Among pitchers throwing 50 or more innings in 2015, Chapman’s whiff rate of 41.7 percent ranked tops in the majors, with Miller’s 40.7 percent ranking third and Betances’ 39.5 percent ranking fourth. Put that on paper on one team, and you can already forecast gale-force winds from the seventh inning on in Nu-Yankee Stadium next year.
Coming as it does on the heels of the Kansas City Royals' World Series win, it’s easy to characterize this as a smart compensation for where the game is today. Deep bullpens can shorten the game by effectively limiting opposing offenses to early scoring opportunities, and overpowering bullpens can effectively take control of the game without relying heavily on the defense behind them. A deep, overpowering bullpen also makes for a great way of offsetting a fragile, shallow or aging rotation -- something the Yankees are only too familiar with.
So now that the Yankees have three of the best whiff artists of 2015 queued up to pitch out of their bullpen in 2016, let’s indulge ourselves with a question: If these three were to repeat their 2015 performances in 2016, where would they rank among other great bullpen trios of the past for their ability to blow batters out of the box?
Using strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and strikeout percentage (K%), then indexing the latter number against their league’s average (or what I call K Ratio on the table below), I came up with a quick-and-dirty way to compare Chapman, Betances and Miller’s collective 2015 performance to the great bullpen threesomes of the recent Royals, the 2010 San Francisco Giants, the 2003 Houston Astros, the late-'90s Yankees and the 1990 Cincinnati Reds. These are just the teams that quickly came to mind for reasons I’ll get into, though no doubt there are a few others worthy of consideration. But with that non-scientific disclosure in mind, let’s put the Yankees of tomorrow up against some of baseball's great three-headed hydras of late-game doom:
The 2014-15 Royals: What buoyed the Royals' resilient offense as it generated all of those late-game comebacks? A bullpen that throttled the life out of opposing offenses, headlined by closer Greg Holland and setup men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. With two pennants and a World Series win in the past two seasons, we can present the Royals as the reigning paradigm for the benefits of a bullpen that effectively limits opposing scoring opportunities to the first six innings. For this exercise, let’s use their best year, 2014. That season, they combined to whiff 11.4 men per nine innings, with a 32.1 percent whiff rate. Awesome, yes, and ultimately rewarded by a title this year, but their performance is also a cut below what the Yankees of 2016 might -- key word, might -- have on tap. However, their 1.28 ERA might be close to impossible to put in the shade. And flags fly forever.
The 2010 Giants: With Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and (at least in 2010) Brian Wilson, you could make an argument that the Giants’ tally of three World Series wins in the past five years owes much to strong late-game combinations, even as the detail over who ends up getting the saves in any individual season might be more cause for concern for agents and fantasy league GMs. If we’re going to include the Giants’ most dominant bullpen iteration, we’d probably have to tab the 2010 team’s reliance on Wilson closing (while putting baseball beards over the top and beyond the collar), set up by Romo all year and Casilla after the former Athletic was resurrected in May with more heat on his fastball and flashing a new, sharp curve. As a group they were good, to be sure, striking out 28 percent of opposing batters while combining for a 1.97 ERA. And they won it all.
The 2003 Astros: OK, somebody on this list has to have not won it all, and these Astros fell a game short of reaching the postseason, where they would have been scary. But it’s also hard to overlook a team that simultaneously employed Billy Wagner as closer, set up by Octavio Dotel in his prime and closer-to-be Brad Lidge. Combined, that trio whiffed 299 of the 1,030 batters it faced, a workload spread evenly and effectively among the three. As you can see from the table, they’re among the most dominant relief groups ever, but they’re not tops when it comes to dominance dealt from the mound.
The 1997-2000 Yankees: While Mariano Rivera is part of the iconic Core Four of the most recent Yankees dynasty, he was also the front man of a power relief trio, teaming up with Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton to give the Yankees a stable late-game combo during their last dynastic run when they three-peated from 1998 to 2000. Ironically, their best season as a trio was 1997, the year the Yankees didn’t win it all, but I’m sure they consoled themselves with the rings they won the next three seasons.
The 1990-91 Reds: Rob Dibble and lefties Randy Myers and Norm Charlton, all of them equipped with overpowering stuff, and all of them talented enough to close. In the Reds’ championship season in 1990, the Nasty Boys struck out 291 men in 225 1/3 relief innings, or a strikeout rate of 11.6 K/9. Equally impressive is that, since the NL strikeout rate in 1990 was just 15.1 percent, coming out of the pen this trio was striking out more than twice the league’s average by whiffing 30.4 percent of all batters faced. If you define dominance through the ability to overpower people at the plate, that’s close to impossible to top.
However, one interesting thing to keep in mind about this combo is that Dibble, Charlton and Myers never enjoyed the benefit of a full season together in the bullpen. Charlton became a starter again in mid-July in 1990, taking 16 turns to help shore up the rotation, then opened 1991 with 11 more starts before an injury in June encouraged a permanent move back to the bullpen in the second half, and Myers made the only 12 starts of his big league career in the second half of 1991 before departing as a free agent. Of course, you could also say the 1989 Reds bullpen was pretty nasty, too, before Cincinnati traded closer John Franco to the Mets to get Myers, creating the trivia that the 1989-1991 Reds had three different 30-save closers (Franco, Myers and Dibble).
OK, so where would a Chapman-Miller-Betances combo rank among these overpowering bullpen trios? Considering we’re talking about a bullpen that hasn’t actually suited up together, let alone pitched together -- and comparing it to groups that did and delivered -- I’d favor the Nasty Boys, for pure dominance, especially compared to the standards of their day. And yes, even though they didn’t get the benefit of a full season together, and even though they won just one World Series, striking people out in today's day and age is much more likely, so, to make an apples-to-apples comparison, you need to allow for how dominant a relief crew was relative to its direct competition.
If that strikes you as unfair, just remember that’s more than the 2016 Yankees have achieved -- or might ever achieve, especially if the discipline Chapman receives over his alleged domestic abuse shelves him for a considerable length of time. But just to be able to put this new Yankees combo into that conversation? It’s certainly fun to think about, and in 2016 we'll get to see whether these three can live up to it.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.