Who Should Start Game 2 of the ALDS? A VF314 Debate

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It’s playoff time–and, as usual, the run-up to the ALDS means there are more questions than answers. One of those questions is over the way in which the Yankees will line up their starting rotation for the first three games against the Twins. Here’s what we do know: in some order, James Paxton (provided he is healthy, which he should be), Luis Severino, and Masahiro Tanaka will take the mound in the first three games.

If we go by the order in which they pitched this weekend, it would seem to line up like this:

  • Game 1: James Paxton
  • Game 2: Luis Severino
  • Game 3: Masahiro Tanaka

But the reality is that, as long as Paxton is actually healthy, Games 2 and 3 are fairly interchangeable. Both Severino and Tanaka will be on regular rest for both games. Here at Views, we’ve been having a spirited argument about which order makes more sense–as you can guess, we have opinions. Most of that discussion was between Randy and myself, so we decided to write it out because why the hell not. Randy will be arguing in favor of Tanaka starting Game 2 in the Bronx, and I will be arguing in favor of Severino.

RANDY: It is important to provide some context on why I believe Masahiro Tanaka should be the Game 2 starter. James Paxton is the deserving Game 1 starter. He’s become the team’s ace this year and it is important to throw your ace in the first game. With that said, I believe Luis Severino is the Yankees’ best starter. Since Paxton is more than capable of taking on the Game 1 responsibility, it makes sense to me to pitch your best starter in the more difficult situation, which is Game 3 on the road. The Minnesota Twins are devastating offensively at home. We saw this first hand in July. Severino is better equipped to take on the Twins lineup in what will be a tough environment for the Yankees to play in. I understand the idea of having Paxton and Severino potentially pitching two games in a short series. This makes total sense. My counter is Game 3 is the most critical one in a five game series and your best should be on the mound for that swing game.

There is also the issue of Tanaka’s home/road splits. They are pretty significant. Masa’s strikeouts drop on the road. His strikeout/walk rate drops pretty significantly. The slugging, OPS+, sOPS+ and WHIP against him considerably jump up. I don’t believe starting Masahiro against one of the best slugging teams of the last ten years in their ballpark puts him or the team in the best position to win a game. The manager’s job is to put his players in the best position to succeed and I don’t believe Boone would be doing that by starting Tanaka in Game 3 in Minnesota. 

BOBBY: Fully agree about Paxton. The dude has really come into his own recently, and I don’t think there is any doubt any more about his status as the deserving Game 1 starter. I also agree with you about Severino being the best pitcher on the team. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close. That gets at the heart of why I think he should get the ball for Game 2, which you already hinted at. I want him and Paxton available to pitch twice in a 5-game series, and the only way that’s possible is if he goes in Game 2. For a reminder, here is the schedule:

  • Game 1: 10/4
  • Game 2: 10/5
  • Game 3: 10/7
  • Game 4 (if necessary): 10/8
  • Game 5 (if necessary): 10/10

Paxton and Severino would both be able to go for Game 5, and, if the series goes that far (let’s hope not), I suspect the team would piggyback the both of them–or at least have both of them available for that role. I’d guess that Paxton would start the game, go until he can, and then have Severino right there behind him to play damage control if things get messy early on. That’s especially true because Game 4, no matter what they do, will likely be a heavy bullpen game. 

But let me not get ahead of myself: I am in love with the idea of running out the Yankees’ two best pitchers to start the series at home. I’d rather not get too cute with home/road splits or anything else. In the short tournament, give me the best pitchers as early and often as possible. For me, that’s Paxton and Severino in that order.

RANDY: I totally get wanting to prepare for as many scenarios as possible. You do have to strategize with all five games in mind. Luckily, I’m not Aaron Boone so I can approach it in a different manner. I would love for the Yankees to end this series as soon as possible. You’re getting the presumed best out of Tanaka in Game 2 simply by pitching at home. Despite having a good season overall, I am not terribly afraid of the Twins pitching. There is some chance that the Yankees can take the first two games at home with a chance to sweep the Twins in Game 3. Why put yourself in a weaker position to accomplish that goal? I believe having your best pitcher available to close out a series is ideal especially in a hostile environment. 

We also have to factor in the bullpen with these decisions. I would much rather have as many bullpen options available for Tanaka than Severino especially if the Yankees attach an opener to Masa’s starts. Just for the sake of this conversation, I am going to assume that Paxton pitches deep into Game 1. That allows Boone to unleash his pen in the case of Tanaka having a shorter start. I don’t believe Masa will have the opportunity to pitch three times through the lineup so having the pen available with as minimal amount of stressful playoff pitches on their arms entering Game 2 feels more advantageous. 

There will be an off day before Game 3, but I feel more confident in Severino giving more starter’s innings than Tanaka, especially on the road. So in this scenario, you’re putting your bullpen in a position to impact the earlier games in support of a starter who may not give you length and you’re utilizing the length of your best pitcher in a more difficult environment. For me, this all comes down to using your best pitcher to mitigate tough circumstances. Severino feels more equipped to do that than Tanaka. Yes, you are running the risk of Severino impacting a Game 5, but my thought is to do everything you can to avoid a Game 5. Everything goes out the window in a do or die game as Yankees fans are well aware of after two straight years of Wild Card games. 

BOBBY: I’m not sure that I agree that the Yankees put themselves in a worse position by starting Paxton/Severino to open the series. In fact, I think that is them putting themselves in the best position to be up 2-0 (although, as we all know, the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry). I love Tanaka and I always have, but Paxton and Severino are a cut above to me.

Also, I just don’t buy the home/road splits for Tanaka at all. He’s always been a bit worse on the road, to be sure, but this year’s are so stark because of the two disaster starts in London and Fenway. Those starts happened, but they’re also pretty clearly outliers that are skewing the overall data. Nevertheless, I think it’s a bit reductive to assume he won’t be effective on the road just because of this. 

Ultimately, I trust Tanaka to weather the Minnesota storm no matter the situation–regardless of whether the Yanks are up 2-0, tied 1-1, or (God forbid) losing 2-0, I trust Masahiro on the mound. In fact, I trust him on the bump more than any other pitcher on the team in those situations. My man has always been a fierce competitor (he does have a 1.50 playoff ERA) and I can’t think of a big start for which he hasn’t shown up. I don’t expect that to change, no matter where he pitches or under what circumstances.

RANDY: A lot has been made of these two disaster starts skewing Tanaka’s road numbers, but he’s only pitched fifteen more innings at home than on the road. I don’t see how two poor starts out of 16 appearances is a strong enough sample to just dismiss as outliers. He simply didn’t perform as well on the road as one would hope. We can’t dismiss the clear difference in performance simply because of two bad starts. We’re not excluding two good performances as outliers in a pretty pedestrian season overall so it isn’t appropriate to dismiss the poor ones as outliers.

I love Masahiro Tanaka. He is a fierce competitor and a proven playoff pitcher. Again, my point is to put him in the best possible position to succeed. I especially think this is necessary if you take a peek at his Statcast rankings. He is below average in K%, exit velocity, xBA and xSLG. He’s also giving up the most hard hit contact in his career since Statcast was introduced. This doesn’t feel like the best profile to match up with a super slugging team in their own ballpark. 

At the end of the day, I believe the Yankees are the superior team. The AL Central reminds me of the AFC South in the NFL. One team greatly benefits from the weak division. This Twins team is better than past editions, but I wouldn’t consider them elite. Regardless of how the Yankees set up their rotation, it feels like their starters will perform well before giving it up to the bullpen. I believe Bobby and I can agree on that.

BOBBY: I guess we’ll have to see how it all plays out. I hear the point about setting Tanaka up for success by starting him in the Bronx, I’m just don’t put as much stock into those splits as you do. But anyway, I think it’s time to wrap up. And yes–we certainly agree on that last point. The Twins are no joke, as our coverage this week will illustrate, and they will be tough. But I am confident that the Yankees will get the job done no matter how they line up their rotation. I’m excited to watch it all play out.

I just have one last question before wrapping this up: is it Friday yet?

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7 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    My prediction based on nothing (or almost nothing): Paxton, Tanaka (with Green opening) and Severino (on the road).

  2. While I agree that you cannot throw 2 bad starts out entirely, that London game is a wholly different animal than any other road game for me. In addition, the 12 ER debacle in Boston gets about half weight for me, as he would have been pulled at about 6 ER (50%) if the rotation hadn’t been terrible and given no length in the 3 games leading into his start. There’s a reason why very few players have ever given up 12 ERs in a game, because what manager would let it get that far!? Boone was between a rock and a hard place. It goes on Tanaka’s numbers and it is 2 bad starts. But, these aren’t 2 normal bumps in the road of a grueling 162 game schedule, they’re were extenuating circumstances. Ultimately, we have a much larger sample size to draw from (prior seasons), and he is about a half a run better at home, not 3 runs better.

    • Also of note, Masa started game 3 in 2017, after Gray AND CC, in order to have him pitch at home. Maybe we miss read the situation and home/road was less of a target compared to magnitude of the game? But if it was home/road at issue, starting him in Minnesota would be quite the turnaround

    • Randy

      What do prior seasons have to do with this year though? His overall performance is down from the previous years and his peripherals aren’t as good as they have been. Again, we’re qualifying bad starts without just cause. I understand trying to give context, but they were bad starts. He didn’t perform well. If it was 6ER or 12ER, he was bad that day. If you want to throw out London because it wasn’t a true baseball environment that is fine. The splits are real in every possible way. They are legit from an overall performance perspective.

      • I’m not throwing away what he’s done in prior years, he’s had a few years where he was better on the road too. I’ll give you this though, the new ball took the snap out of his splitter, and he has had to adjust so maybe it is better to focus on only the current year. Then again, they play with the same ball everywhere… I agree, cannot throw games out entirely. I’m merely pointing out if he didn’t need to soak up innings because his fellow mates stunk it up in Minnesota, that start is a still a clunker but his road ERA is closer to 5 (still not good) than 6.

        IMO they lined up this way expecting more length from Masa then Sevy. Don’t want back to back days (G3 & G4) where they are expecting 5-6 innings from the pen. Sevy has built up a bit, so they could swap now.

        I’d throw my 2 best at home (Pax & Sevy) and give the team the best chance to guarantee a game 5 in the Bronx before they hit the road.

  3. The Original Drew

    Perhaps this would have been better as a podcast?

    • RetroRob

      I’m hoping 314 adds a Podcast and a weekly chat, especially in the off season.

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