The Washington Nationals have the second best record in the National League, and the third best in all of baseball. They have last year's Cy Young winner, another top-15 starter, a 24-year-old, former unanimous MVP, one of the best offenses in baseball, and an 11 game lead in their division entering Sunday. They're an elite team, but up until recently it was tough to take their chances at post-season success seriously. Not because Harper and Strasburg still haven't been to round two, but because the 2017 Nationals don't have a good bullpen. Yes, they recently traded for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson and that makes them better, but it's still a unit that can't compete with the Dodgers, Cubs, Rockies, and even Diamondbacks.
So yeah, file me under the category of people that think relief pitching is going to be huge (huuuuuge) in this year's playoffs. What's advantageous about having a good bullpen in October is that it can cover up flaws including offense (good relievers give you the ability to win close, low scoring games) and starting pitching (starters simply don't have to pitch as deep into games). And what would you know, those are the two areas the Yankees needed to address before this year's trade deadline. As part of their "blockbuster" trade from this past week the Yanks upgraded their corner infield hole by acquiring Todd Frazier. Frazier isn't the "star" he once was in 2015-16 when he hit 35 and 40 homers respectively, but he's certainly better than what the Bombers have been playing with at first base this year. Before Frazier they had used 11 different guys at that position. Now there are rumors the Yanks are still going after starting pitching (maybe Sonny Gray), but so far they've gone about addressing this need indirectly - and that's through the pen.
New York got two power strikeout arms in the White Sox trade. We'll start with David Robertson as he's the more well known name. He's pitched in New York before, as Mariano Rivera's set up man (plus one year as closer), and he's been closing for the Sox ever since signing there as a free agent prior to 2015. He's good enough to be the best reliever on a championship team with a career 2.95 ERA and 11.9 K/9. However, the Yankees now have the luxury of making him their 8th inning guy for now (7th inning? 6th? 5th?...we'll get to that in a sec).
The other reliever New York got was actually the centerpiece of the trade, though he is likely the least well known player of the group...Tommy Kahnle. The 27-year-old was a tough guy for teams to evaluate this trade deadline because on one hand he clearly made major adjustments to begin dominating this year. From 2014-16 Kahnle posted BB/9 rates of 4.1, 7.6, and 6.6, which are all horrible numbers. So far in 2017? 1.6 BB/9. And that's not even the most impressive Kahnle stat this year. Craig Kimbrel currently leads all relievers with a 49.3 K% according to FanGraphs. Second on that list? Above all of Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman? Kahnle, at 43.7%. Additionally, whereas Robertson is signed through only next year Kahnle is under team control through 2020. It's a small sample of major success (39 innings), but so far in 2017 he has been an absolute STUD.
Before this trade the Yanks were basically playing seven inning games in theory, right? Assuming Betances and Chapman could lock down the eighth and ninth innings. Now throw in Robertson and Kahnle and the Yankees are playing, what, five inning games come playoff time? But wait! There's more. The Evil Empire has another reliever already in place - Chad Green - a 26-year-old who has a 1.66 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 38 innings this year. Betances and Chapman steal all the headlines but Green has been better than both of them through mid-July. Remember that K% stat I just mentioned? Green ranks ninth among MLB relievers on that list. Add in Kahnle (2nd), Betances (5th) and Robertson (11th) and New York suddenly has four of the 11 best strikeout arms in baseball this season. Chapman, historically the best of the group, would rank 23rd right now if he had the innings to qualify. The fact that the Yankees have four guys striking out more batters than Aroldis Fucking Chapman this year should make them a team "nobody wants to play" come October.
Building a super bullpen is nothing new to the Yankees. Last season they entered spring training with Betances, Miller, and Chapman. It's clear they are trying to follow the Royals blueprint from 2014-15 where Kansas City rode an elite bullpen to two straight pennants. Not only can the Yankees easily protect a lead after five innings, they can bring any of their arms in early in the game during critical moments similar to what Cleveland did with Miller last year. The difference is the Yankees have three or four guys who can fill that Miller role AND they still have Chapman for the ninth. THEN you consider all the off days of the MLB post-season and it's terrifying to think how well rested the New York pen will be.
Finally, Joe Girardi has Adam Warren who doesn't strike out the amount of batters the rest of the group does, but he as a 1.99 ERA and is capable of pitching multiple innings at a time. That's SIX "shut down" relief options, meaning in a must win game with everyone rested a Yankees starter would need to pitch just three innings before the team could look to its bullpen. As a Red Sox fan (and someone who believes aggressive bullpen usage is going to continue this Fall) this scares the living shit out of me.