Yankees could get more out of familiar free agent target in 2024

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Atlanta Braves
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As Spring Training draws ever closer, the Yankees will need to decide on whether they’ll add to their bullpen or not, and given the options on the market and the rumors of their interest, it seems like they will. Paying relievers can be controversial for the team given how well they produce reliever talent, but given the Yankees’ all-in approach this winter, it would be wise to add some insurance to their pitching staff and diversify the options available to manager Aaron Boone.

Keynan Middleton is a name of interest for the Bronx Bombers, according to Jack Curry, and he could be an excellent reunion candidate for the bullpen. The Yankees got more out of his arsenal after acquiring him at last year’s deadline, and they could convert a lowkey trade into a free-agent signing that proves valuable for the 2024 team.

How the Yankees Can Get Surplus Value From Keynan Middleton

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Atlanta Braves
Jul 15, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Keynan Middleton (99) reacts after an out against the Atlanta Braves in the eighth inning at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees acquired Keynan Middleton from the Chicago White Sox, he came in with two big issues that they hoped to correct. He had a 9.8% Barrel Rate allowed before the trade, resulting in an ugly 1.73 HR/9 and 4.58 FIP, and being traded to the AL East has historically been suboptimal for pitchers who suffer from home run problems. The Yankees wouldn’t tweak anything in Middleton’s pitch shapes, not only is that difficult to do midseason, but the right-hander had a Whiff Rate above 30% on all three of his pitches.

Right-handed hitters presented the second issue against Middleton, and the tweak that the Yankees would make in his pitch usage would help to prevent damage contact as well as help against righties. Vertical deception plays extremely well against opposite-handed hitters, which is why Middleton was excellent against left-handed hitters, but it’s not as effective against righties, who posted a .371 OBP against him before going to the Yankees.

He relied heavily on his slider against righties, using it 45.7%, which is up exactly 10% from when he was with the White Sox, and they only posted a .263 wOBA against him as a result. Furthermore, Keynan Middleton would generate more contact on the ground, posting a 71.1% groundball rate with the Yankees. The home run issues from earlier were improved as well, with a 0.63 HR/9 over his 14.1 innings with New York.

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New York Yankees relief pitcher Keynan Middleton (93) pitches in the sixth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park
Aug 31, 2023; Detroit, Michigan, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Keynan Middleton (93) pitches in the sixth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot to like in what Keynan Middleton brings to the table, as the ability to run high groundball rates (56.6%) coupled with excellent strikeout rates (30.2%) should result in plenty of run prevention. He can be erratic with his location, but he still maintained a strikeout-to-walk rate of 19.3%. The ability to miss bats is underrated, as his 17% Swinging Strike Rate this past season ranked in the top 10 for pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched.

If the changes he made with the Yankees stick, and one would assume they will, then this could end up being a bargain of a contract. Perhaps Middleton could sign a two-year deal at $10 million, giving him guaranteed money for the next two seasons and adding security to the middle of the team’s bullpen. He provides multi-inning versatility and has traits that usually result in run prevention, and it seemed as if Middleton quickly adapted to New York.

Signing Keynan Middleton wouldn’t be a sexy move, but the data suggests there’s a lot to love here, and it’s possible that he could have a breakout season with the Yankees in 2024.