Yesterday, I wrote about how the Yankees’ bullpenning strategy this postseason flew in the face of what the other remaining franchises were employing. Though some of the tactics were born from necessity, it still represents a fascinating disparity between superteams.
But in Games 2 and 3 of the ALCS, the Yankees have seen the shortfalls of the strategy and how it could repel their efforts to reach the Fall Classic.
To be fair, the Yankees have also run into Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, two of the best pitchers in baseball. The offense hasn’t done its part to break through and mustered just three runs over two games, which isn’t typically enough to get a win.
Yet the Yankees, simply based on the performance of their starters, now face an uphill climb. Cole ran through their lineup and got more outs than the Bombers’ past two starters combined. The Yankees have to win three of four games against the best team in baseball and will need another win on the road to boot.
Furthermore, they require an extraordinary output from their top relief arms. For two straight games, they’ve had to get 13+ outs from the bullpen. Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton have pitched in all three games, while Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green have each pitched 3+ innings already.
All of that and just one win to show for it. Of course, if Carlos Correa makes an errant throw in Game 2 or Didi Gregorius’ ball travels a half-dozen feet further in Game 3, the Yankees could be in the driver’s seat. They’re not, and those are the margins that decide a series.
Assuming Game 4 is rained out, the Bombers’ road becomes more difficult. Yes, they’d be able to move Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton up a day to start Game 4 and 5, but that doesn’t mean they won’t need a full bullpen game in the four-day stretch to end the series. To get three more wins, it’s not hard to imagine the top arms having to cover 12-15 more high-leverage innings in the three necessary wins alone.
If Aaron Boone wants to continue having a quick hook — and he’s had to have one thus far, both because James Paxton and Luis Severino were off in Games 2 and 3, and because he has a dominant bullpen — then that back-end will be tested in a way it hasn’t been all season. Boone did a good job of limiting the damage Paxton or Sevy caused by lifting them early, but further deterioration from the rotation would add to the bullpen’s heavy burden.
Throwing a wrench into all of that is Ottavino’s postseason performance. Pitching in all six games thus far, he simply hasn’t cut it (or slid it). Batters have an on-base percentage above .500 against him in his lackluster outings.
That leaves the Bombers with four reliable arms — Aroldis Chapman alongside Kahnle, Britton and Green. Can those four cover 9-15 outs a game? Can Ottavino return to regular-season form? All of that is complicated by facing a relentless offensive attack from Houston, and the 27-out bullpen game the Yankees will soon need regardless of rain.
To beat Zack Greinke and the Astros’ own bullpen game, the Yankees’ top arms will have to be near perfect. To then boost their rotation past either Cole or Verlander on top of that? Oof.
This is where Dellin Betances’ injury and Domingo Germán’s suspension set back the Yankees’ further. They don’t have the flexibility of an extra arm to cover for Ottavino or whichever reliever inevitably went through a rough patch. The other four can only get 6+ outs so many times before breaking.
(To reiterate, the effect of Germán’s suspension on the Yankees is an afterthought. His alleged actions were unthinkable and our thoughts should be with the victim. Baseball is a tertiary thought after all of that.)
The Bombers might need key outs from the other guys in the pen, namely CC Sabathia, Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga and J.A. Happ. Happ ended up the weak link in Game 2, while the others have shown some semblance of promise in the last two games. In another high leverage spot, Boone and the fans may have to hold their breath.
The Yankees’ bullpen plans are moot if the Bombers don’t get going at the dish. That’s obvious. However, that resurgence could prove elusive because the Astros’ pitching staff is that good. This doesn’t have to be a narrative of the Yankees’ failing, but they have gone to this fight against a superb rotation without an ace, and having the game’s best bullpen might not be enough to make up for that.