Through three unique and weird games, the Yankees are 3-0 while using the opener strategy. They’re 4-0 if you go back to Jonathan Holder’s opener debut last season. (Some might consider this 2017 win a precursor to the opener, but it was more of a bullpen game with no defined bulk pitcher).
In 2019, two things have tied together the Yankees’ opener games: Chad Green to start and a bulk of runs by the end. Outside of that, the Bombers have used three different bulk pitchers, three different ending strategies and beaten three different teams.
Before we get into the actual pitching, it’s important to emphasize the offense: The Yankees have averaged eight runs per game and put up at least five in all three of these outings. That takes a tremendous burden off the pitcher when the offense is scoring with great fervor.
Let’s get into the early returns on the opener strategy in the Bronx, even though the Bombers won’t need one this weekend anymore.
Green’s the right opener… when he’s right
Assuming the Yankees are going to keep their Fab Four relievers at the end of games, they have two real options for openers: Green and Holder. While Holder has been OK this season, Green would be the ideal option. He’s shown the ability to be an elite late-inning reliever when right.
His most recent opening act was vintage Green. On Memorial Day against the Padres, the right-hander needed just 14 pitches to dispatch with the top third of the Friars’ nine, striking out all three batters. Derek will get into Green’s post-MiLB-trip performance later today, but this was the best of Green, getting swings and misses with both his fastball and slider.
Green hasn’t had the same dominance in his other “starts.” He allowed three hits to the Royals while giving up two home runs to the bottom half of the Rays’ lineup. Welp.
While Monday’s game was encouraging, we don’t quite know what the real Green looks like right now. If he’s right, then he can be the ideal opener.
The Bulk Guys
The Yankees have used three “bulk guys”: Nestor Cortes Jr., Chance Adams and David Hale. Cortes had the shakiest of the three outings, going in and out of trouble against the Rays and giving up a long three-run homer. Still, he may have had the hardest offense to face and subsequently looked better in mop-up duty against the Royals.
Adams similarly gave up three runs, though it would almost all be attributable to poor defense with Brett Gardner losing the ball in the KC lights and Clint Frazier … struggling in right. His ability to keep a grip on the game despite the miscues behind him was impressive for the rookie, even if he uses the wrong warmup music.
Meanwhile, Hale had a rough inning, just like the other two, before retiring 10 straight Friars to end his outing. He picked up five swings and misses combined on his two-seamer, changeup and curveball while gaining efficiency as the outing went on.
With Adams starting in Scranton on
Thursday Friday, Hale would have been the likely bulk guy this weekend. The rainout eliminates the need for one.
Super bullpen shortening game
In each of these opener games, the bulk guy has gotten the game through the fifth inning, though none of them have completed the sixth. They haven’t had to: The Yankees can basically cut off the game after the fifth if the opener keeps game tight or hands them lead. From there, it’s Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman in some order.
Since that foursome has been taxed heavily, Jonathan Holder has also gotten some run in closing out opener-started games. Can you imagine how short the games can be once Dellin Betances is back? Woah.
The other option for ending an opener game is using a second mop-up reliever. That’s how the “start” against the Rays ended after a seven-run sixth inning allowed Adams to earn a three-inning save. Having the second mop-up guy allows the main bullpen arms to rest and then gives the Yankees an option to shuffle between available Triple-A arms.
Born by necessity, not choice
The Yankees toyed with using the opener by their own volition before the year with potential openers for Domingo Germán and Jonathan Loaisiga. Yankees tossed that idea aside and Germán hasn’t looked back: He has allowed one run in 10 first innings after having an 8.36 ERA in the first last year. Loaisiga, meanwhile, struggled to give the Yankees length in his few starts.
Concurrent injuries to James Paxton, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino and Loaisiga gave the Yankees just three starters for a short period and required the improvising that the 2018 Rays underwent. With Tampa’s blueprint easy to follow, the Yankees jumped on it. Fortunately, with Paxton and Sabathia back, the opener can be put in the bag for the time being.
If Yankees sign Dallas Keuchel or acquire another starter before July 31, there’s strong chance we don’t see opener until their pair of August doubleheaders. Severino’s pending return lessens the need for an opener further. Still, New York will have plenty of options for “bulk guys” and could have more if Jordan Montgomery or Loaisiga return to health.
The strategy has been successful in large part due to the offense, but it also has simply spared the bullpen in a bizarre stretch full of doubleheaders. It may still be a bad look for baseball with no normal starter, but it’s worked in a small sample for the Yanks.