Back-to-back short starts put Yankees’ bullpen on the brink

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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.


ALCS Game 3: Offense falters against imperfect Cole


ALCS Game 4 postponed


  1. Mr.Bootleg

    A common theme so far in these playoffs is that “bullpenning” doesn’t put you in a situation to win World Series. You need reliable, gritty and battle tested starting pitching. Maybe not 1-5 but AT LEAST 1-3. Think back to ’09. You had CC as your ace and horse, Burnett(who saved the world series in game 2) and your STUD Andy Pettite. Sure, Pettitte wasn’t Cole, but you knew that even if he bent, he wouldn’t break. Bullpenning might be nice for a team like Tampa that has no payroll and consistently exceeds expectations, but we expect more of our team.

    The idea that you can rely on Tanaka(yes), Paxton (unknown commodity), and Severino was quite ridiculous, especially in a long series.(and especially not knowing if you’d have severino until the last few weeks of September!!!!!) You might be able to get by in a 5 game but even then who knows what would have happened if the Twins didn’t turn into a AAA team and the series went 5.

    Tanaka is great, but you can’t use him on short rest. So even if he goes in game 4(presuming a rain out), would you have him for game 7? Would they actually go to a bullpen game in a game seven?

    Over the course of 162 with roster mobility using a 40 man and experimental or undependable starters you can get away with a SuperBullpen™ but the fact is being exposed that this team is not built to win a seven games series. Especially not one with two Cy Young candidates on the other side of the field.

    How long will it be until Green finally has a stinker? What happens if Champan goes all ’16 Game 7 on us when we are actually in a position to win?

    Having rambled on about all of that, the biggest pain in this series is having both Cole and Verlander on the ropes and doing nothing. If you told me Sevvy would go 5 and give up 2ER all while Cole puts something like 12 or 13 runners on, I would have been all for it.

    It’s not over, lads. There are still at least two games to play, and we’ve made their elite starters look very human. That gives me hope.

    • Mr.Bootleg

      Oh and as for German, it kills me. There were points in this season when we thought he would get Cy Young votes. This really rests on him But 12 of the 14 players (mostly young) who have been under scrutiny of or suspended under the MLB policy against Domestic Violence have been Latin born ball players. The same could be said for the PED program.

      I think MLB is organizations across the MLB are failing young foreign born Latin ball players. I’m not sure if it’s a language barrier or cultural issue, but these players are some of the greatest most talented players in the game. In many cases they are typically on the younger side. We need personal development protocols to help these boys become men. They flee these very poor countries because of their God given talents, earn these life-changing contracts, but they’re still just young men. What flies elsewhere does not fly here and in a single moment of rage you can not only ruin your career but also do major damage to a woman or family member in your life.

      I think it needs to be looked into.

  2. The Original Drew

    This goes all the way back to the deadline and hoping that guys would just be healthy and good instead of actually addressing the needs. Nobody could have saw Germans suspension coming and (f**k him FYI), but you’re just expecting Dellin to come back and guys to not be worn down or struggle at all? Cashman failed this team by not making any additions at the deadline.

    The series is far from over, but the next two games seem like must wins, no? You can’t go back to Houston down 3-2 and having to beat BOTH Verlander and Cole at home. Beating one is a tall order to begin with.

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