Thoughts before rubber game with Toronto

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The sun came up again this morning, meaning that the Yankees will play their biggest game of the season yet again tonight. Is everyone having fun yet? Stressed out? Just a little bit of nerves for all of you, I’m sure.

The Yankees magic number sits at three entering tonight’s rubber match against the Blue Jays. If they win out, not only will the Bombers clinch, but they’ll also ensure a home game in the Bronx for the Wild Card game. They could still get that without winning the next four games, of course. Here are the current standings:

Seattle eliminated Oakland last night, so the possibility of a five-way tie is no more. There’s still a chance for some madness with three or four-way ties now, and you can see how things could shake out by reading Jay Jaffe’s piece over at FanGraphs from yesterday. My head’s spinning from reading it, so I won’t even try to summarize. Just take a look for yourself. But before you do that, here are some thoughts entering tonight’s game with Toronto:

Luke Voit (if healthy) needs to play tonight. Of course, Voit is banged up, although Aaron Boone said that Voit should be be OK. Assuming that is this case, the erstwhile first baseman should be the team’s designated hitter this evening, with Giancarlo Stanton playing the outfield and either Brett Gardner or Joey Gallo on the bench.

Aside from Anthony Rizzo, who has a reverse platoon split, the Yankees should get as many right-handed hitters as possible in tonight’s lineup. Rizzo’s defense is needed anyway with Corey Kluber on the bump for the Yanks. So, that makes Voit an obvious addition. Southpaw Robbie Ray has limited lefties to a .248 wOBA this season, whereas righties have a .289 wOBA against him. Neither are great! But the Yankees need all of the help they can get against the American League’s Cy Young Award favorite.

That leaves either Brett Gardner or Joey Gallo as the odd man out tonight. There might not be much of a debate here depending on the results of Gallo’s X-Rays on his hand. Hopefully, Gallo is OK.

If we go by the hot hand, Gardner is the easy call. Gallo’s 0-for-15 since the middle game of the Boston series with one walk and 8 strikeouts. Even his defense has slipped, as we’ve seen over the last few days. On the other hand, Gardner has a .294/.368/.471 line since the start of the series at Fenway. Yet, Gallo does have one distinct advantage over Gardner: he can hit lefties.

Since 2016, Gardy owns a .230/.305/.323 (72 wRC+) against southpaws (as compared to a 112 wRC+ against righties). He was more balanced earlier in his career, but recent seasons haven’t been great. That said, Gardner has been closer to even this year, though I wouldn’t make too much of that. Meanwhile, Gallo has a lifetime 113 wRC+ against lefties and 116 wRC+ against righties.

Assuming good health, my brain tells me that Gallo should play over Gardner. Aside from being better against lefties, Ray also has a propensity to give up homers (29 in 188 innings). It’s his one weakness, and Gallo is far more likely to make him pay than Gardner, obviously. That said, my gut tells me that Gardner should get the nod. He’s been so good down the stretch and has come through when the Yankees have needed him the most. Gallo hasn’t. I don’t envy Boone’s choice tonight, assuming Gallo is good to go.

Obviously, the debate between Gardner and Gallo could be moot even if X-Rays are negative. Remember, Gallo wasn’t able to hit last night, and Boone may have to play it safe. Having Gardner in center is the better defensive lineup anyway, with Stanton and Aaron Judge flanking him on either side. Regardless, Voit has to play as long as his knee permits.

Gerrit Cole’s bad September. Remember when Cole struck out 15 Angels over 7 innings on September 1st? Good times. But uh, things haven’t been good ever since that start. He’s pitched five times otherwise this month and owns a 6.15 ERA (5.14 FIP) across 26.1 innings in those outings. The Yankees are 2-3 in those games. Two of those losses are against Toronto. Pretty, pretty bad. The ace has to do better.

Cole left the first game of this terrible run early due to hamstring trouble, as you surely recall. That was on September 7th against Toronto in which he lasted just 3.2 innings. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two-and-two together here: Cole’s hamstring can’t be anywhere close to 100% and probably is a big reason he’s having a hard time out there.

I’d guess that this would be an injured list situation earlier in the season, but obviously the Yankees can’t afford that right now. Even some semblance of Cole should still be one of the better pitchers in the game. And it’s not like his stuff has deteriorated. Last night, his velo, movement, and spin rates were all in line with his norms this season.

As Jaime mentioned in last night’s takeaways, Cole’s command has been a bigger issue. One easy way to illustrate that is to look at his edge rate by start:

This should be a pretty decent proxy for command. Pitchers want to throw more pitches on the edges of the strike zone, obviously. And judging by the chart above, Cole’s taken a dip this month. You can see that in all but one start (September 19th, oddly enough a game he allowed 7 runs to Cleveland), the righty has been missing his spots more often than usual. That helps explain why he’s gotten hit harder of late.

I have no idea how much his hamstring hinders his command (let alone how healthy it actually is), but I imagine it’s holding him back to some degree. At least there hasn’t been a degradation of stuff. Cole’s next start will be his biggest of the year, and hopefully, he can get his command back in order by then. Speaking of that upcoming start…

Should Cole pitch Sunday or the Wild Card game? Obviously, if the Yankees are in a win-or-go-home scenario to end the regular season, he will start. But what if the Yankees have clinched a spot in the Wild Card game already, with homefield advantage still up for grabs? That’s where the debate gets interesting.

The Wild Card game is Tuesday, meaning that as things currently stand, Cole is lined up to start with an extra day’s rest. However, if he were to go on Sunday, he’d have to pitch on short (three days) rest.

Tossing Cole on Sunday is a gamble if the Yankees are already safely in the Wild Card game, but perhaps a risk worth taking if HFA is on the line. Here’s why:

  1. Give me a playoff game at Yankee Stadium over a road game in Boston or Toronto.
  2. I’m pretty confident in the Yankees winning the Wild Card game without Cole. I wouldn’t put it past the Yankees to start Luis Severino and let him air it out for two innings. Jordan Montgomery would probably be the best bet otherwise, though the issue is that he may need to start on Saturday against the Rays.
  3. The bullpen should be able to carry the load of the Wild Card game. If Sevy starts, the options behind him could easily get to the end of the game: Jonathan Loáisiga (who looked great last night), Chad Green, Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta, and Michael King all could bridge the gap to Aroldis Chapman.
  4. Assuming they win the Wild Card game without Cole pitching, he’d be lined up to start Games 2 and 5 of the ALDS, both on regular rest. If he pitches the Wild Card Game, he could only start Game 3 and maybe be a bullpen option in the final game. Two starts for Cole would be a pretty good outcome.

Alright, but what about the downsides?

  1. Getting eliminated in the WC Game without Cole pitching would leave the Yankees with some egg on their face. Not as bad as the Deivi García/JA Happ fiasco in the ALDS last year, that’s for sure. But still not ideal.
  2. There’s always a chance that one bullpen guy just doesn’t have it in a bullpen game and blows up the entire plans.

I’m sure there are more cons that aren’t immediately coming to mind for me. In any case, it’s a fun debate to have. I’ve almost convinced myself that even if the Yankees have already clinched HFA before Sunday, the team should roll the dice and save Cole for two starts in the ALDS. Almost.

Hitters coming around. Understandably, Giancarlo Stanton has been the talk of the town given his heroics over the last week or so. He has a 312 wRC+ (!!) over the last seven days and seven homers over the last two weeks. Pretty incredible stuff. I want to give kudos to three others who have stepped up recently though:

  • Gleyber Torres: .341/.420/.477 (147 wRC+) in his last 50 PA
  • Gio Urshela: .341/.356/.500 (135 wRC+) in his last 45 PA
  • DJ LeMahieu: .282/.391/.333 (111 wRC+) in his last 46 PA

The Yankees have really missed the offensive production from these guys for the majority of this season. Torres has been dreadful practically all year long. Urshela has been a bit disappointing, although also hurt. DJLM has been a major disappointment, though he’s dealt with triceps and now a leg injury that he’s played through.

With them finally clicking, the lineup is much deeper and circular. They’re having good at-bats and keeping the line moving while Stanton and Aaron Judge knock everyone in. It’s been terrific to see. This is the top-to-bottom production the offense has sorely missed. Hopefully, it’s here to stay in October.

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16 Comments

  1. JG (Brendan Ryan)

    We did it

  2. MG309

    You can’t predict baseball, Susan, and this half inning just proved once again

  3. dasit

    it’s too early to assume that game 162 will even matter. we’ve seen this team turn on a dime more than once this season, so losing the next 3 games is not hard to imagine. if game 162 ends up deciding HFA, the difference between a non-cole starter and the current (possibly hurt) version of cole is not enough to risk HFA by holding him back until tuesday. i’ll take some version of a bullpen game at home over cole at fenway

  4. This is ZERO fun for me as a fan. You know what’s fun? Winning the division and playing stress free games the last month of the season. That’s fun. The Rays are having fun. If the Yankees weren’t in the thick of all this drama I would be having fun, but this? This is the opposite of fun. I just want a Yankees team that dominates the division, is that too much to ask for?!?!?!

  5. The Original Drew

    I think the majority of Yankees fans gripes against Boone as a manager is that he is playing for tomorrow when today is on the line. You HAVE to start Cole in a win or go home game no matter what even on 3 days of rest. Can the Yankees get by a win or go home game without Cole on the mound? Sure Monty proved that in Game 4 of the ALDS last year but that was because Cole was starting the next day on 3 days rest. Not starting Gerrit Cole if he’s available is the ultimate galaxy brain Buck Showwalter in 2015 type of move. I am very much against it.

    • Unless the reason why Cole hasn’t been good lately is because he’s fatigued, in which case starting him on 3 days rest is a very bad idea.

  6. H. Avis

    Again, the Yankees are a flawed team that probably should not be in the playoffs. Huge changes are needed to turn the team around next season. That is, if we even have a baseball season in 2022.

  7. Dan

    Tonight has a “win or go home” feel to it.

    Buckle up.

    • And we won’t beat Robbie Ray. He’s too good and unlike Cole he’s an actual ace. Let’s hope Kluber has a better game plan than Cole did last night. Cole’s strategy was just to groove fastballs to a fastball hitting team and even when they were mashing the fastball he kept throwing it. He finally changed to more offspeed after 4 runs had scored and started having more success. You have to win ballgames when your ace is on the mound.

    • dasit

      kluber will go 5 at the very most. burning out the bullpen and losing anyway would have a serious domino effect

  8. stydings2425

    Love the piece, Derek! Quick addendum to the Cole starting Sunday debate: What if the Yankees have clinched that they can’t be eliminated Sunday, but would need to win Sunday (or have either Seattle or Toronto lose) to avoid a Game 163?

    On one hand, you’d want to start him to avoid that game. On the other hand, you can potentially try and either use Taillon (if he’s recovered), Gil or a bullpen game to win while hoping that the potential tying team (Toronto/Seattle) loses, knowing all the while you have Cole laying in wait for the Game 163. On the other hand, you’re probably better off playing it safe and going with Cole, even on short rest, particularly since you want to save those bullpen arms for Tuesday if possible.

    The other complicating factor is a three-way tie, which you want to avoid at all costs, or that you would have to go to Toronto for a Game 163 vs. you’d be home vs. Seattle.

    • Nick

      I think that both you and Derek are massively overthinking this thing. In both your scenario and his, the choice is really, really obvious.

      We need to win game 162 to avoid a potential game 163? You pitch your ace. You’re paying him 36M/year for these games.

      We secure a wild card spot? You pitch your ace in the wild card game.

      We can all use pretzel logic to convince ourselves that maybe its better to hold Cole for 2 ALDS games instead of using him in the wild card game, but at the end of the day you absolutely CAN NOT lose a win-or-go home while holding your ace back for a potential future game. You just can’t. And I disagree with Derek’s claim that it wouldn’t be as embarrassing as the Deivi/Happ. Situation. It would be 100 times worse. Again, you can’t lose a win-or-go-home game with Cole on the sidelines. That’s a fireable offense if it happens.

  9. Anthony Rizzeddardo

    I’d DH Voit, play Stanton in LF and Gardy in CF, Derek. Gallo does nothing but strike out and drop fly balls. He dropped one in Fenway and another one last night. He adds nothing to the ballclub but Italian memes. Or better yet, call up Greg Allen and get a switch hitting bat with speed and energy in the lineup. We were a better club with him.

    Stop making excuses for the guy. Cole is just not an ace in the mold of a Max Scherzer. If his hamstring is barking then he shouldn’t be out there because we can easily insert Sevy and do a bullpen game. A 6 ERA down the stretch is not an ace. We’d be better off recalling Andrew Heaney from Guantanamo.

    Cole should not pitch Sunday or the wildcard game. If Kluber does well tonight he should be our ace and start the WC game. If not then Nestor. And you could also go a bullpen game with Sevy, King, Holmes, Green, Loisaga, Chappy.

    The hitting has been there. If they had moved Gleyber to 2B months earlier as we were begging them to do he woulda been hitting like this much sooner. The pressure at SS was eating away at him. And DJ seems to have thrived at 3B. He’s made some great plays defensively and is actually hitting. And Gio made a play last night from his back that Gleyber woulda turned into 3 runs. He’s a wizard at short. Everyone is in their correct position now.

    • Nick

      The narrative that Gleyber is hitting because he moved back to 2B is a lazy one. Before the move, he had been hitting .310 in August and September. His offensive success as a second baseman has been a continuation of the hot streak he was on before the move.

    • DMC04005

      Dude, just stop. I’m sure you as well as everyone know that Gallo is a 3 true outcome player. He’s never going to hit for average. He’s going to hit a bomb, walk or strikeout. He’s also a gold glove outfielder. The drop at Fenway drifted on him. Not an easy catch by any stretch of the imagination. One that should still be made? Probably. The one last night? Mostly Urshella’s fault for ranging that far back on a ball that was clearly Gallo’s. Gallo’s charging, Urshella is ranting back and would need to make a circus catch. I’d be willing to bet a substantial amount of money Gallo pulled up because he heard Gio coming and despite being called off knew the best way to avert disaster was to let the ball drop, rather than risk a collision with Urshella and a ball potentially doing a lot more damage than it did.

      I’ll leave “everyone in their correct position” alone because DJLM is better at second. We’re essentially playing “hide Gleyber’s glove.”

      You’re also nuts if you think Cole shouldn’t pitch Sunday in a win or go home scenario. The Wild Card I can see getting away with a bullpen game. But game 162 or 163, season on the line, you give the ball to Cole and let him do his job.

      Cole is also a fastball pitcher, who has a better fastball than 99% of the league even when he’s ineffective. So yes, he’s going to pump fastballs. Kluber used to be that guy too. But he’s had to reinvent himself, so yes, his approach to Toronto tonight is going to rely more on his breaking balls rather than his fastball that he’ll use to keep the batters honest.

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