The Yankees are onto the League Championship Series in large part thanks to their bullpen.
The bullpen tossed 13 1/3 of the 27 innings the Yankees needed to advance and allowed just three runs, one of which came in the final inning of a blowout in Game 2.
It was a tour de force for Aaron Boone, who had come under fire for his bullpen management in the 2018 ALDS. The second-year manager displayed significant growth and trusted his bullpen when needed.
That meant giving his top five relievers — the vaunted quintet of Chad Green, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman — all but three of the relief innings. If you were going to draw up a three-game series for this roster, you’d have wanted 24 of 27 innings going to those five plus the three starting pitchers.
Here’s how those top five relievers did in their outings
- Green: 2 G, 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K, 37 pitches
- Ottavino: 3 G, 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 1 K, 29 pitches
- Kahnle: 3 G, 2 1/3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 HR, 35 pitches
- Britton: 2 G, 1 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 HR, 30 pitches
- Chapman: 2 G, 2 2/3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 4 K, 46 pitches
Since it was a three-game series, no one was overworked. Boone made sure to save some bullets for each guy in Game 1 so they’d be available in Game 2, but Didi Gregorius and co. allowed him to go to mop up relievers at the end.
Funny enough, or actually quite intentionally enough, Chapman tossed just 24 fewer pitches in his two October outings than he did all of September. His five-out save Monday was his longest outing of the year and his first time getting more than four outs for the Bombers since the 2017 ALDS clincher.
Meanwhile, despite a home run, Britton proved himself trustworthy just as he had down the stretch. Relying even more upon his new car-esque slider, Britton drove through the top of Minnesota’s order twice in big spots. With his final two months of the season, he’s turned into the Yankees’ best reliever at just the right time.
His ankle injury scare nearly threw a wrench into that Monday. Luckily, it seems more of a precaution that he was pulled from the game than something more serious which can affect him in future rounds. The Yankees’ success correlates highly to how their top relievers are pitching, and Britton may be the tippy-top of that subset of the bullpen.
Ottavino’s usage was curious as he came into both Games 1 and 3 to face Nelson Cruz and no one else. Though he walked him both times, it was the right matchup, a tough right-hander to neutralize Cruz’s game-changing power. Rocco Baldelli deftly arranged his lineup so his top right-handed power hitter was flanked by two nearly-as-potent lefty hitters, and that forced Boone’s hand.
How Kahnle and Ottavino intersect has been a fun game throughout the season. Boone has been able to throw Kahnle against southpaw-laden portions of opposing lineups while giving Britton the hulking right-handers in the middle of orders. The Twins didn’t have a neat break to give and it led to abbreviated outings for both.
That’ll change next round. If the Rays somehow make it through to the Championship Series, Boone won’t have as fearful a lineup to manage against and should be able to extend those pitchers further. Against the Astros, the likelier of the two opponents, Ottavino will move into focus with the Astros’ cadre of righties.
How will Kahnle adapt? Despite some late-season struggles, he can still get righties out, but he could take a turn in Ottavino’s role and become the Yordan Alvarez Antidote. That’s a worthy role considering the damage the rookie can do at the plate.
Boone, though, won’t be able to go to three relievers for one inning, as he did in Game 3, all that often in the ALCS. There’s less room to get cute, and more need for length out of both the rotation or bullpen with more innings to cover.
Of course, Green’s role looms large in that respect. He handled himself well enough against a good fastball hitting team and the Astros would be yet another one (and the Dodgers yet another).
Houston’s advantage comes in its top two starting pitchers, who can give the Astros both quality innings and length. The Yankees counter that with shorter, quality outings from their starters and fully leveraging their bullpen. Green needs to be maximized there.
These matchups may not be ideal for the fastball-toting Green, but that’s the postseason for you. There aren’t ideal matchups anymore, just less awful ones, ones with which you can live.
And that will also turn the focus on J.A. Happ, the presumed Game 4 starter for future rounds. Though he’d be limited to 1-2 times through an order, those outings will be rough for Happ, who Houston beat up on Old Timers’ Day. He could also be another counter to Alvarez (or Michael Brantley) in earlier or later games. Happ’s role will depend on Green, who could open a Game 4.
The other player that looms here is CC Sabathia. He’s throwing again soon, according to his locker room scrum interview last night, and could make the ALCS roster. He can give the team both a lefty specialist, or can turn over the lineup in lower leverage. His health,however, remains a mystery for now.
With a seven-game series, the Yankees could use another arm or two in the bullpen. Dellin Betances is unavailable after his freak injury in September and Domingo German ruled himself out with his alleged heinous actions. Thus, a heavier burden falls upon the quintessential quintet for the Bombers.
If the team wants to add Sabathia, or another arm, it doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of Tyler Lyons or Luis Cessa. Instead, the team may opt to remove Luke Voit from the roster and go with 13 pitchers. That’s a more reasonable decision without a left-handed closer looming (Boone said Voit was on the ALDS roster in part to potentially face Taylor Rogers), nor a key lefty starter. The extra arm rather than a bat may be a better fit.
Regardless, the Yankees have the ultimate test coming, whether the Rays or Astros, as a seven-game series stretches your pitching staff thin. We saw this in 2017 as New York faltered late in the ALCS after the toll of the Wild Card Game and close ALDS led to their collective knees buckling. This time, the Yankees will come into the ALCS as the fresher team with a bullpen at the ready.