On July 10th, the question of who would start the AL Wild Card game would have been easy to answer. At the time, the Yankees were still in contention for the AL East, but Luis Severino was so dominant there was no denying he would start whichever game came first—the Wild Card game or the first game of the Division Series.
Now, things are clearer but simultaneously murky. The Yankees will be in the wild-card game, however, who is going to start that game for the Yankees? Do they “bullpen” the game and use an “opener?” All options will be covered below!
The Classic Starter Approach3>
It is the tried and true method. Let your best starter go six innings (hopefully) and throw it to the bullpen to finish it off. Though, do the Yankees really want to let any starter go through a batting order more than twice? Who among Yankee starters would be up to the task?
Luis Severino: For three months, this was a no-brainer. You put the best starter on the mound, get the win and worry about when he pitches in the Divisional Series later. Now? Is Severino the best starter the Yankees have? The stuff says yes, but the performance says no. His most recent outing in Oakland makes letting him start a do-or-die game seem problematic. After his second start against the As, Severino owns a 6.23 ERA against them this year. Still, he has a month to right the ship back to his first-half standard. He is on the list, but let’s look at other options. One more thing, Severino is much better at home than on the road, and this game seems likely to be a home game for the Yankees.
CC Sabathia: This is where some old-school writer yells at a cloud about putting “The Veteran” on the mound for the big game. Unfortunately, that hypothetical writer has a point, but for a different reason. CC, even with his rough start in Oakland, is good during his first time through the order, where he has a 2.26 ERA with a 3.42 FIP. The second time through the order is where Sabathia tails off with a 3.86 ERA and 4.53 FIP. He is also better in the Bronx than on the road this year, with a sub-3.00 ERA. If he is going to start the game, it needs to be a strict limit on three innings or nine batters, whichever comes first.
Masahiro Tanaka: Tanaka pitched brilliantly in the Wild Card game last year, so +1 for old-school credentials. Tanaka has thrown much better in the second half as well. He has the second-best ERA/FIP combo in the rotation when going through a lineup two times. He should not go through a third time, where his ERA jumps to 9.00, but right now he is neck and neck with Severino in the numbers. Tanaka has not faced Oakland this year so he would be a fresh arm they have not seen. To me, between overall performance and current performance, he is the leading candidate. The one knock? He is better on the road than at Yankees stadium, where he has a higher ERA, WHIP, and OPS against.
J.A. Happ: Happ has been shouldering about as big of a load a back-end starter can since coming over at the trade deadline. Happ, like Tanaka, has been pitching well down the stretch and is solid when going through a lineup the first and second time. He has faced Oakland once as a Yankee and limited them to one run over six innings. Happ is another veteran with postseason experience with the Phillies and the Blue Jays, so he slots into the second spot.
Lance Lynn/Sonny Gray: Nope. No. Do not do this.
Did that clear anything up? Not really. Severino’s numbers are buoyed by that strong first half. Sabathia is an option only if strictly limited to one time through the order, which is three innings at best. Tanaka and Happ are currently performing well and seem like the best options if they are limited to two times through the order, with advantage to Tanaka since Oakland has yet to face him this year. The thing that should be stressed is that whoever starts should not go through Oakland’s lineup more than two times. Each starter is considerably worse going through a lineup the third time.
This will probably not happen, but it seems worthwhile to discuss. Both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A’s successfully used openers throughout the season. It would not be surprising to see the A’s use an opener in the wild card game either. What would a bullpen game look like for the Yankees, though?
Let Chad Green start the AL Wild Card game.
Let him go through the first six batters at most and let a starter enter the game against the bottom part of the lineup.
Green has pitched in three games against the A’s with no hits against nine batters with six strikeouts.
Green has starting pitching experience, but this would be just like entering a game as a reliever with no one on to start an inning. When asked to pitch more than one inning in an outing, Green has responded with a 2.81 ERA in 32 innings. After Green going two innings, throw it to Happ or Tanaka. This will depend on who is more comfortable entering the game later after going through their warm-ups.
If things have gone well, ideally this should cover six to seven innings between Green and one of Happ or Tanaka. Lining up the seventh for David Robertson, the eighth for Dellin Betances and the ninth for Aroldis Chapman. Will this happen? No, Aaron Boone will probably use a starter. This was more a hypothetical exercise than anything else.
One note, the bullpen should be all-hands-on-deck for Boone. No one should be off limits if a high leverage situation occurs early in the game. Robertson, Betances, Chapman should be ready for trouble in the first inning, because there is only one shot at the wild card.
For example, Dave Roberts brought Kenley Jansen in for three innings against the Cubs in the 2016 NLCS to finish a game. Terry Francona summoned Andrew Miller in as early as the fifth inning against the Red Sox in 2016 to get out of a jam.
Buck Showalter famously left Zach Britton in the bullpen because it was not a save situation in a game they lost. Fredi Gonzalez did the same with Craig Kimbrel. That cannot happen in this wild-card game, manage for today and figure out the Divisional Series after you win the Wild Card.
These are but a small amount of options we could see. Being that this is Aaron Boone’s first year managing, everything will be unknown but set a precedent for how he handles the playoffs going forward.
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