As it stands, the New York Yankees are a Wild Card team, meaning they will be forced to compete in a one-game, winner-take-all matchup with an American League foe for the chance to play in the American League Division Series. These Wild Card games, since their inception in 2012, have been thrilling from start to finish.
Baseball’s reputation as the thinking man’s game is enhanced tenfold. The strategy, the matchups, and the managerial decisions are amplified at every turn in the two Wild Card games. Some managers have been criticized relentlessly for their questionable, gutsy decisions, but for Yankees manager Joe Girardi, things will be a lot easier.
The Yankees’ bullpen is a combined fifth in wins by a relief pitcher (28), fourth in bullpen earned run average (3.47), second in strikeouts (602), and first in opponent’s batting average (.210). The ‘pen in the Bronx has been arguably (you can cite Aaron Judge as another huge reason for success) the most significant building block to their postseason chances. There is, of course, a reason for that.
While formidable pitching rotations are as valuable as anything in Major League Baseball, we are beginning to see an end to the dominant starters throwing seven or eight innings every game. Especially in the MLB postseason, where pitching is often the deciding factor in close games in which runs are at a premium, the effectiveness of bullpen arms is of the utmost importance. For example, let’s take a step back to the 2016 AL playoffs.
The Cleveland Indians made an improbable and inspiring march through the AL Playoffs with relative ease despite losing starters Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer. Of course, Corey Kluber was nearly unhittable, but the combination of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and others became lethal for Terry Francona and his crew. The Tribe, by many, weren’t projected to win more than a game in the postseason, but were a run away from winning it all in the World Series.
It would be absurd to suggest that a similar run is coming from the Yankees, as a large part of Cleveland’s success was due to simple luck and cold streaks from the other clubs, but New York has all the tools. Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle, and others allow for Girardi to, in a way, prepare for the potential ALDS. Managers often live by a day-by-day basis, just throwing worries out come postseason time, but New York’s bullpen gives them the opportunity to prosper after the Wild Card game.
See, the Yankees won’t have to use ace pitcher Luis Severino — who might have earned an AL Cy Young nomination — in the Wild Card game, and save him for the potential Game 1 of the ALDS against one of Cleveland, Houston, or Boston. They could line Severino, trade deadline acquisition Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, and one of Jaime Garcia or C.C. Sabathia up as a playoff rotation after using one of their bottom-two starters in the Wild Card elimination game against the Minnesota Twins (their most-likely opponent).
If the Yankees elect to use Garcia or Sabathia versus Minnesota and preserve Severino, Gray, and Tanaka for the Division Series and, perhaps, beyond, they could hope for four or five good innings and then just turn things over to their extremely talented relievers. Say Garcia, who started on Monday against the Twins, gets 15 outs and keeps the score reasonable (which his career 3.66 ERA suggests), Girardi can flip the game to his reliable bullpen after. With a lead, the Yankees could have Kahnle or Chad Green pitch the sixth, give the ball to Robertson in the seventh inning, then use Betances and Chapman in the eighth and ninth.
Facing a deficit, things could become trickier, but the overall advantage remains: the Yankees’ bullpen is their uncontested biggest strength, and the flexibility of their ‘pen will be vital for their starting pitching situation. Joe Girardi can sleep easy in preparation for the Wild Card game, and maybe look past that and ready his team for a legitimate World Series push.