The New York Yankees have a better starting rotation than the Milwaukee Brewers. It’s nothing against the Brewers, but a quintet of Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and C.C. Sabathia is simply better than one that potentially includes Jhoulys Chacin, Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson, and Junior Guerra. But when it concerns the construction of their pitching staff, the Yankees are copying what the Brewers did in 2018 — and it makes a lot of sense.
Last season the Yankees won 100 games, but were a Wild Card Seed and lost to their arch rival Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series. The biggest reason for their inability to escape the first round and the biggest talking point this offseason surrounding their roster has been their starting rotation. While he didn’t surrender a run in the Yankees’ Wild Card Game matchup with the Oakland Athletics, Severino couldn’t pitch through the fifth inning after laboring through at-bats and surrendered six runs in three innings in Game 3 of the ALDS. A year removed from recording a 5.63 ERA in four postseason starts, Severino still struggles to pitch effectively in October.
Happ surrendered five runs and couldn’t escape the third inning in Game 1 of the ALDS. While he only surrendered three runs in his Game 4 outing, Sabathia doesn’t pitch deep into games anymore. And Paxton, who the Yankees acquired from the Seattle Mariners in November, has never made a postseason start. Tanaka was the only Yankees starter who pitched through the fifth inning in the postseason, and he owns a career 1.50 postseason ERA.
Many felt that general manager Brian Cashman would prioritize adding top-of-the-rotation starters this offseason. The Yankees opted not to match the Washington Nationals’ six-year, $140 million deal for left-hander Patrick Corbin and haven’t been overwhelmingly linked to left-hander Dallas Keuchel — who were considered the top starting pitchers on the open market. Now, they did retain Happ on a two-year, $34 million deal, but it’s difficult to say the Yankees have a bonafide ace, or that their starting rotation will turn the corner if it reaches the postseason in 2019.The @Yankees have recently added to a bullpen that was already the class of @MLB, and are beginning to resemble the @Brewers in their bullpen-first approach.Click To Tweet
So, in a game that’s becoming more reliant on the bullpen, what do you do if you can’t sign multiple high-profile starting pitchers? You get premier relievers.
While they lost David Robertson to the Philadelphia Phillies on a two-year, $23 million deal, the Yankees have been aggressive on the free agent reliever market. They re-signed left-hander Zach Britton — who they acquired from the Baltimore Orioles before the MLB trade deadline — on a three-year, $39 million deal and agreed to a three-year, $27 million deal with former Colorado Rockies right-hander Adam Ottavino Thursday afternoon.
Britton endured arguably the most challenging season of his career in 2018. He missed the first two months of the regular season with a ruptured Achilles, and, the year prior, suffered an elbow injury. Sure his 2.88 ERA with the Yankees was competent, but he put runners on base often and recorded an abysmal 5.40 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in the postseason. With that said, he got his money, will enter spring training healthy, and should be able to resemble more of the reliever that some clamored should’ve been a Cy Young finalist in 2016 than the inconsistent left-hander of the last two years.
Ottavino is fresh off the best season of his eight-year career. Recording a 2.43 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while totaling 112 strikeouts in 77.2 innings, he was the Rockies most reliable reliever in 2018. He also has one of the nastiest sliders in the sport. While some could argue his career inconsistency could carry into 2019 (the right-hander has recorded ERAs of 8.46, 4.56, 2.64, 3.60, 0.00, 2.67, 5.06, and 2.43), Ottavino will be leaving Coors Field to pitch in Yankee Stadium, which, while a hitter’s park, is not at a disadvantage due to altitude. Meanwhile, before Britton and Ottavino, the Yankees bullpen already featured the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Chad Green.
While he has given them headaches from time to time and been placed on the disabled list a number of times, Chapman is one of the best closers in Major League Baseball. Last season he recorded a 2.45 ERA and 1.05 WHIP while totaling 93 strikeouts in 51.1 innings. When he has his command Chapman’s fastball — which exceeds 100 miles per hour — is virtually unhittable. And while his near-$17 million annual salary is a hefty sum, the southpaw, like Britton and Ottavino, is under contract through 2021.
Betances is one of the best setup men in MLB. His fastball can touch 100 mph, and he’s recorded an ERA no higher than 3.08 and totaled 100-plus strikeouts in each of the last five seasons. The biggest issue with the hard-throwing right-hander has been his often shuffled role over the last three seasons, but when Betances consistently pitches the seventh, or eighth inning, he’s electric. Although he’s projected to hit the open market after 2019, Betances can, for the meantime, help the Yankees’ efforts in winning a World Series.
Like Chapman and Betances, Green is one of the best in the sport at his niche — that being serving as a long reliever. He doesn’t put runners on base often, has relieved starters in the wake of make or break moments, most notably Severino in Game 1 of the Yankees’ 2017 Wild Card Game matchup with the Minnesota Twins. Over the last two seasons, Green has recorded ERAs of 2.50 and 1.83 and WHIPs of 1.04 and 0.74. Meanwhile, right-hander Tommy Kahnle is a year removed from being a reliable backend reliever in the Yankees pen, and Jonathan Holder recorded a 3.14 ERA in 66.0 innings in 2018.
Britton, Ottavino, Chapman, Betances, and Green, among others, give the Yankees one of, if not the most lethal bullpen in the sport. Last year the Brewers had that same luxury and utilized it to extremes in the postseason.
After winning a Game 163 tiebreaker against the Chicago Cubs to claim the National League Central division crown, the Brewers went into the postseason heavily relying on their bullpen — which finished 2018 fifth in MLB in ERA (3.47) and opponent batting average (.230) and fourth in strikeouts (708). They were also fifth in innings pitched (614.0). On the other hand, their starting rotation was 19th in innings pitched (847.0).
Manager Craig Counsell‘s reasoning for leaning on his pen to the extent which he did was justifiable. With the likes of Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Brandon Woodruff, Jeremy Jeffress, Dan Jennings, Corbin Burnes and Joakim Soria — who was acquired from the Chicago White Sox before the MLB trade deadline — in place, the Brewers had a plethora of reliable bullpen arms.
Counsell allowed a starting pitcher to go through the fifth inning in just three of the Brewers’ 10 postseason games. Heck, he even decoyed left-hander Wade Miley as his starting pitcher for Game 5 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers by removing him from the game after one batter, and then brought him back to start the ensuing game. It’s not to say that the Brewers didn’t have good starting pitchers, but Counsell and company were well aware that their rotation wasn’t on the level of the teams they were facing in the postseason. They countered by strategically using their bullpen and keeping opposing managers guessing.
While you could argue that overworking their bullpen was, at times, a mistake, the biggest reason why the Brewers didn’t advance to the World Series was their offense averaging just 3.7 runs per game. When your bats don’t answer the call, you can’t solely rely on your pitching staff to carry the load; you’ll only go so far.
For the Yankees’ sake run support shouldn’t be an issue in 2019. They have a lineup and positional depth chart that projects to include Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Luke Voit, Troy Tulowitzki, Austin Romine, and, if he can get healthy, Didi Gregorius. All in all, you could argue the Yankees have the most well-rounded roster in MLB.
Manager Aaron Boone‘s starting rotation is capable of performing at a high level. Severino has been considered worthy of Cy Young consideration, totaled 220-plus strikeouts, and pitched deep into games in each of the last two seasons; when healthy, Paxton has proven to be one of the best left-handers in the sport and is fresh off a season where he totaled a career-high 208 strikeouts in just 28 starts; Tanaka has struggled in the first half of each of the last two seasons, but is capable of pitching deep into games and has kicked it into another gear late in the year; Happ is a reliable fly-ball pitcher who recorded a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts with the Yankees after coming over in a midseason trade with the Toronto Blue Jays; Sabathia has recorded an ERA under four in each of the last three seasons, is an impactful veteran presence, and Yankees royalty.
With that said, there are still questions as to whether any of their five starters, with the exception of Tanaka, can be a force on the rubber in the postseason and/or be more consistent in 2019. To avoid having to dangerously rely on that transpiring, the Yankees have made their bullpen a force to be reckoned with and one that features multiple relievers who can pitch several innings and handle different roles, especially in the postseason.
The sport is changing and so are the Yankees.