Pitching and the Playoffs
If you’ve been reading Start Spreading The News over the last month, I have no doubt but that you’ve noticed that many of us are gazing just slightly into the future. While it’s true that stranger things have happened, the Yankees will likely win the AL East and move on to the playoffs once the calendar turns to October. While we can sit and argue about lineup combinations for a fair length of time, I think that the most pressing concern for anyone who has watched the Yankees this year is the pitching staff. Ironically, while most observers are most worried about the starting pitchers the Yankees will employ in the playoffs, I think that the pitching staff as a whole could very easily be solid enough to take the Yankees to the promised land if the team leans on its strengths.
Bullpen Performance To-Date
While Yankee starting pitchers have had a roller coaster season, the bullpen has been excellent. Somehow, the level of play that the Yankee bullpen has exhibited this season has managed to fly under the radar. Maybe it’s because many people (myself included) predicted that the Yankee bullpen would have one of the best seasons of any bullpen in the history of modern baseball. While injuries and probability have rendered that prediction incorrect, the bullpen has been one of the best in baseball. In fact, according to Fangraphs, the Yankee bullpen has been worth 6.2 fWAR (0.2 fWAR ahead of the 2nd place Rays), making the group the most valuable in baseball by that measure. This cumulative measure includes negative contributions (totaling 0.7 fWAR) from the likes of Chance Adams, Joe Mantiply, Mike Ford, and Austin Romine. Yes, the bullpen value comparisons include contributions from position players like Ford and Romine, so you could pretty easily argue that the bullpen has been even better when compared with the rest of the league. Only the cream of the bullpen crop will see the field in October, and the cream is likely to be supplemented.
First, check out the top 3 relievers on the Yankees this season by fWAR:
Leaderboard courtesy of Fangraphs (click to enlarge).
Chapman has been himself, no surprises there, and Ottavino has been as good as I think the Yankees could have hoped he would be when they signed him. While his propensity to allow walks is scary, he has been an asset. Arguably the most consistent arm of the 3 is Tommy Kahnle, who came into the year as an unknown after he basically lost last year due to injuries and conditioning issues. While we can argue over the relative merits of all three pitchers, all three have been among the best relievers in the game this season, and they will form the base of a bullpen that could be leaned upon heavily in the playoffs. Most importantly, all three have had their innings pitched kept in check, so their high-octane stuff should still be available come October. I think it is safe to assume that each of these three would be allowed to throw 2+ innings on command in the playoffs, much like what Kahnle and David Robertson were asked to do in 2017. The trick will be forming the bullpen around them.
Based on the current whispers out of Yankee staff, it looks like the team will be able to count on additional firepower by the time the playoffs roll around. Both Luis Severino and Dellin Betances should be able to return to MLB action in September.
While Severino may not be built up to pitch as a traditional starter in September, I think it is very likely that he will be able to throw 75-85 pitch starts in the playoffs if he gets on a big league mound for 2 or 3 outings in September. That will allow Severino to pitch for at least 4-5 innings per start in October, freeing up the bullpen for another big time arm.
Betances has been one of the very best relievers in all of baseball during his time as an MLB pitcher. If Betances returns to the mound with his typical stuff in September, there is no reason that he can’t be counted on for big innings in October.
While Severino and Betances are question marks due to health, the last guy who could make an impact in the bullpen in the playoffs is also someone who has not pitched at all in MLB in 2019 (yet). Deivi Garcia is beginning to show evidence of getting used to the MLB ball at AAA. Check out his line at AAA in his last 3 starts:
Deivi Garcia Stats from August, Courtesy of Baseball Reference (click to enlarge).
Garcia is striking out approximately 10.99 AAA batters per 9 innings over his last three starts while inducing a 15% swinging strike rate, indicative of his stellar stuff. While Garcia is walking a few too many, his stuff in shorter outings would likely overwhelm even big league hitters. Assuming his innings are kept in check through September, Garcia should be an asset for the playoff roster. This also assumes that Garcia is on the MLB roster prior to September roster expansion, but I expect that to happen any day now.
The Playoff Bullpen
Let’s assume that the Yankees go with an expanded bench for the playoffs. I think that it is likely that the Yankees will deploy 13 position players on the playoff roster, leaving the Yankees with 12 pitchers on the playoff staff. Of those 12 pitchers, I think that it is likely that Severino, German, Paxton, and Tanaka will be on the roster as starting pitchers. That leaves 8 spots for relief pitchers. The assumed bullpen core (assuming health) will be as follows:
That leaves 2 open slots in the playoff bullpen. As far as I am concerned, here are the options for those spots:
David Hale (assuming health)
Hale has been surprisingly good in 2019, accumulating 0.7 fWAR (4th most on the team), but I’m not sure that he would be the best option for the playoffs given the construction of the starting 4 plus the known bullpen. I would have a lot of trouble leaving Hale off the roster, if healthy, and my decision could change if other injuries occur or if someone’s performance suffers greatly. Consider Hale on the bubble. I think that Loaisiga could be an option if he pitches well over the next month, but he is a less proven commodity, and he’s lost a lot of innings this season to shoulder troubles, so I need to see more from Loaisiga to consider him for the playoff bullpen. I also don’t think that Happ, Cessa, Cortes, and Tarpley have done anything this season to warrant a precious playoff spot.
My choices for the final two spots in the bullpen are CC Sabathia and Deivi Garcia. I love the idea of bringing in CC Sabathia to pitch against tough lefty hitters in the playoffs. While CC has struggled somewhat this season as a starter, he has still been highly effective against left handed batters, allowing a .203/.267/.494 against lefties this season. Yes, the slugging percentage (and by extension, the ISO) are high, but much of that is due to the fact that CC has allowed 7 home runs to lefties this season, much of that coming in July and August this year. Hopefully, CC rights the ship over the next month, and then I’ll feel 100% in on including him on the playoff roster.
Including Garcia makes sense to me: I think he is this year’s David Price, who came up as a rookie reliever for the Rays and nearly led them to a World Series victory.
Most importantly, this is a bullpen capable of providing highly valuable innings. There are enough pitchers in the bullpen that they can be counted on to provide up to 6 innings per game, given the fact that there is an off-night every 2-3 days. Just think about it: Severino or German pitches for 3-5 innings before giving way to any one of the elite options in the bullpen for 2 innings, or piggybacking them with Garcia.
This is a staff that could very easily compete in October.
The Yankee starting pitching staff has been a concern for much of the regular season, but it’s bullpen has been the best in baseball by many metrics. The Yankees’ strong bullpen will only get stronger in the playoffs, and with proper usage, can help make the Yankee pitching staff an asset as opposed to a weakness in the playoffs. While the 12-man pitching staff I outline is dependent on health, I think that the Yankees have enough bullpen depth to create a strong staff even if Severino and Betances do not return to health this season.