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Figuring out which Yankee pitcher should start the Wild Card Game

Matt Gregory

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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 Approach

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.

1) Tanaka
2) Happ
3) Severino
4) Sabathia

Bullpen Game/Opener

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.

Born and raised in New Jersey in a Yankee household, Matt works with computers by day but has always loved baseball. When he's not doing either of those things, he's probably thinking about Villanova basketball way too much. Follow him on Twitter @MattchewGregory.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. fuster

    September 11, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    go with CC for up to 65 pitches and tell him to use them liberally and to avoid giving up more than one run as he’s exiting the game as soon as it looks as though he might yield a second one

    and then ride the bullpen.

    it’s probably far better to have the rotation set for Boston than to use the best starter for the wildcard.

    the real difference between losing the WC and getting beaten by Boston because of an unsettled rotation is merely a matter of gate revenue.

    it’s stilla less than successful season if the team doesn’t get back to the ALCS

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New York Yankees

Yankees year in review | The starting pitchers

Matt Gregory

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Yankees Year in Review. This is the third of four parts looking at each position group for the Yankees. This week, it’s the starting rotation’s turn.

If you had to pick one weakness of the Yankees in 2018, it would have to be the starting rotation. Going into the season, it looked like this:

Luis Severino
Masahiro Tanaka
Sonny Gray
CC Sabathia
Jordan Montgomery

Much like the infield, this is not what the rotation looked like by year’s end. That is not surprising, starting rotations rarely survive a whole year without injuries or poor performance. There was some good and some bad, let’s start with the bad.

The fifth starter was a rotating door, as the Yankees lost Jordan Montgomery after six starts to an elbow strain. That would eventually lead to Tommy John surgery, ending his 2018 and potentially his 2019 season. His initial replacement was Luis Cessa who was also bitten by the injury bug with a hip issue.

Domingo Germán would then get his opportunity to lock down the fifth starter. While he stayed healthy, the results were mixed. Germán has a starter quality pitch mix, the issue was walks and home runs, which kept him from holding onto the spot.

CC Sabathia was a consistent bright spot for the rotation and statistically the third best starter in his age 37 season. It was announced on November 7th that Sabathia signed a one-year contract for 8 million dollars. He also stated that 2019 would be his last season. Sabathia raised his K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) from 7.26 in 2017 to 8.24 in 2018.

Additionally, he cut down his HR/9 (home runs allowed per nine innings) to 1.12 from 1.27 in 2017.
Getting 2.5 WAR from a 37-year-old back-end starter is impressive and if Sabathia can give the Yankees another 150 innings as he did in 2018, then it would be an undeniable success. One milestone to watch: Sabathia needs 14 strikeouts to reach 3,000 in his career.

That brings us to Sonny Gray. The Yankees dealt James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler for the righty in 2017 and he performed fine in those 11 starts. His first full season with the Yankees was bad. Gray walked 3.94 batters per nine innings and had an ERA of 4.90. He was sent to the bullpen where he would be used in long relief and an occasional spot start to end the year.

General Manager Brian Cashman has been rather open about his intent to deal Gray, telling Matt Ehalt of the Bergen Record that Gray “has got a good makeup, I just don’t think this is the right spot for him.” Unless he is packaged with some prospects, it seems hard to believe that Gray will bring much of a return in prospects, maybe some lottery ticket type players.

To replace Gray and strengthen the fifth spot, Cashman dealt from the surplus of players and prospects who were blocked for Lance Lynn and J.A. Happ. Both performed as good, if not better than what was expected of them coming over. Lynn was worth 1.8 fWAR in 9 starts while Happ was worth 1.1 fWAR in 11 starts. Both are free agents and potential targets for backend innings. Lynn can also provide extended innings out of the bullpen, something he did both in the regular season and playoffs for the Yankees.

Masahiro Tanaka was not healthy for the full year but still turned in one of his better seasons statistically. He sliced his ERA down by a full run to 3.75 and his HR/9 to 1.44. Still, he only pitched 156 innings. When healthy, he is arguably the second-best starter to Luis Severino in the rotation and will be with the Yankees for another two years since he did not opt-out of his contract.

Speaking of Severino, he started off the year with Cy Young caliber stuff. The problem was that his ERA in the second half was 5.57, which for reference was higher than Sonny Gray’s full-season ERA. Severino has the pure stuff: a high 90s fastball and a wipeout slider. He did not use the changeup much until the second half, but it showed flashes as a good pitch. There is also some evidence that Severino was tipping pitches, specifically in the playoffs. The hope would be that the team caught this, and it gets addressed going into next season.

Still, with Severino, Tanaka, and Sabathia there are two spots left in the rotation. There are three routes the Yankees could choose: internal promotion, free agency, and trades. Internally, the Yankees have Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams, and Jonathan Loaisiga. Adams and Loaisiga both made starts during 2017, while Sheffield made some relief appearances late in the year. Loaisiga performed better than Adams but he also dealt with shoulder issues. Expect all three to compete in Spring training 2019 for a spot.

This free agent class looked impressive for pitching a couple years ago and now, it merely looks okay? Clayton Kershaw was taken off the market by signing an extension with the Dodgers in early November. Hyun-Jin Ryu is rumored to most likely accept the Dodgers’ qualifying offer. So, those are two fewer options.

According to Keith Law (insider paywall), the best pitching options still left are Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Nathan Eovaldi. Corbin would be an “ace” type acquisition, though he has been injured in the past. Keuchel also has missed some time in 2016 and 2017 but would be a great option as a mid-rotation starter. Morton is on the older side and the Yankees may be wary to sign Eovaldi again, especially with the workload he shouldered coming off Tommy John.

Finally, we come to the trade candidates. James Paxton, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber have all been rumored to be available so far this offseason as both the Mariners and Indians decide whether they want to shed payroll. Any one of the three would be welcome additions but come with hefty price tags, though it has not stopped Cashman from dealing before.
No matter what, the rotation will be the number one priority this offseason. Expect Cashman to get creative as he addresses the clear weakness of this Yankees team.

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Gary Sanchez has shoulder surgery, will be ready Opening Day

Stacey Gotsulias

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Gary Sanchez
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In today’s episode of Locked On Yankees, Stacey discusses Gary Sanchez’s shoulder surgery (try saying that three times fast), Luke Voit’s insane offseason workouts, Brian Cashman’s comments about Chris Sale and she takes you around the league.

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CC Sabathia signs one-year deal to stay with the Yankees in 2019

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