A Radical Post-Season Yankees Strategy
by Lincoln Mitchell
September 27, 2022
As the season winds down, the Yankees have clinched a post-season berth and will very likely soon clinch the AL East title and the number two seed in the American League. This means that to win the World Series, the Yankees will, unless they stumble badly in the next few weeks, need to win three playoff series and a total of eleven games.
It is very likely that the Yankees will have to beat one, and probably two, of the other elite teams, the Astros, Dodgers, Mets and Braves to achieve the goal of winning the World Series. The Astros and Dodgers are by pretty much any measure better than the Yankees, while the Braves and Mets, in broad strokes, are about as good as the Yankees.
The only way the Yankees can get past these teams is if they do everything they can to win. That seems like a rather obvious point, but based on what the Yankees have done this regular season and the last few post-seasons, it is not clear they will do that. Let me explain. The Yankees seem to make decisions based on narratives that are no longer relevant, risk aversion and efforts to seem like they are keeping up with the more innovative teams. These approaches serve the interests of managers and executives worried about job security but not of fans who just want to see the team win in October.
One narrative that seems unquestioned among the Yankees management, and that is not supported by empirical data, is that Gerrit Cole is an ace. Based on that narrative, he will likely start the first game of the post-season and, when possible, whatever other post-season series the Yankees play. This is a mistake. Cole is no longer the ace of this staff; Nestor Cortes is. Over the last year and a half this has become unmistakably clear. Since the 2021 All-Star break, Cole is 19-11 with a 3.67 ERA. During that same period, Cortes has been 13-7 with a 3.29 ERA. This year the difference has been much more stark as Cortes has an ERA+ of 153 and Cole of only 112. Cole is a useful pitcher, but Cortes is an ace. However, in a triumph of narrative over data, the Yankees are likely to give Cole more starts than Cortes over the course of the post-season.
On the other elite teams, Cole would be a third or fourth starter. The San Francisco Giants are not good this year, but Cole would be the third best starting pitcher on that team as well. If the Yankees wanted to win, rather than to assume Cole is an ace because of how much he is paid, they would probably make Cole the third starter behind Cortes and Domingo German, or depending on how well he does in his next starts, Luis Severino. This decision would be counter to the Gerrit Cole narrative, but it would give the Yankees a better chance of winning.
The second thing the Yankees should do is to construct their roster in a way that prioritizes winning over ensuring that Aaron Boone is not blamed for running out of pitchers. In other words, the Yankees should carry no more than 13 pitchers, but 12 would be better, on the postseason roster. The risk averse move would be to carry 14 pitchers, meaning a ten man bullpen, so that they can mix and match pitchers for every inning of every game. The problem with this strategy is that the Yankees bullpen is not so deep that they benefit from the last three guys in the bullpen getting into games. Moreover, a deep bullpen comes at the expense of a bench.
In the post-season, teams have 26 players on the roster. Fourteen pitchers means only three bench players. In the Yankees case that would mean Kyle Higashioka and two of the three players, Aaron Hicks, Oswald Peraza and Marvin Gonzalez. However, if DJ LeMahieu or Andrew Benintendi are healthy they would make the roster. This approach leaves the Yankees almost no possibility of pinch-hitting or substituting for a slumping players. The Yankees should carry 12 pitches because an eight man bullpen-teams only use for starters in the playoffs-is sufficient for a post-season series, particularly as there is more rest in the post-season than in the regular season. Carrying a few extra players on the bench would allow the Yankees to pinch hit, pinch run, take advantage of platoon opportunities and, you know, do the things you need to do to win baseball games.
As Aaron Judge closes in on the American League home run record the Yankees have been batting him leadoff to give him more opportunities to break the record. As a fan, I fully support that, but I hope the Yankees recognize that is not a wise approach in the post-season. I also understand the larger strategy behind leading off with Judge-it ensures that the team’s best hitter gets more plate appearances during the game, but it also means that the Yankees best power hitter has fewer opportunities to drive in runs. One way to see this is that 40 of Judge’s 60 home runs have been solo shots. Only one other player in all of baseball this year has more home runs than Judge has solo home runs.
Leading off with Judge is additionally tempting because the two most natural leadoff hitters on the team, who can get on base the most in front of Judge, LeMahieu and Benintendi are injured and unlikely to be fully recovered in time for the playoffs. This means the Yankees have to either find a leadoff hitter or be content with Judge not driving in a lot of runs. At first glance, Harrison Bader profiles like a leadoff hitter, but his .319 career OBP, that has fallen to .302 this year suggests he is not up to the task. Aaron Hicks, who may not even get a spot on the post-season roster is no longer even able to draw enough walks to justify his presence in the leadoff spot, or in the lineup at all. Anthony Rizzo has been the Yankees second best hitter this year and has .339 OBP for the season. He has been a fine number two hitter behind Judge, but would also work well in the leadoff spot.
A more risky solution would be to give Oswald Peraza a shot as the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter for the rest of the season with an eye towards keeping him in the spot in the postseason. In his month with the team, Peraza has been excellent at the plate and in the field. He is unlikely to continue to get on base at a rate of 40% as he has done since joining the big league squad, but he has earned a shot. The Yankees have little to lose as Isiah Kiner-Falefa has proven to be a likeable player who should not be the starting shortstop on a team that is trying to win the World Series.
The Yankees decision to bat Judge leadoff has the bit of a feel of a team trying on a new strategy because other teams are doing it, like a kid who goes takes a pair of scissors to his new dungarees because all the cool kids at school are wearing torn jeans. That kind of thing too frequently ends in humiliation. The Yankees should follow a strategy that tries to maximize runs rather than one that seems like it is cutting edge, because the Yankees are not cutting edge and cannot pull of that look.
The macro question for the Yankees is whether they choose to make riskier moves that could lead them to the World Championship or prefer the safer and more defendable decisions that will lead a middle of the pack playoff team to an early exit. As a fan, I prefer the former, but too frequently executives and managers with jobs on the line want to make decisions that have lower potential payoffs, but are easier to defend.