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Should the Yankees Use an Opener in the Playoffs?

In 2019, the “opener” strategy has worked marvelously for the New York Yankees. Through 123 games played, they have won eleven of the thirteen games started by an opener. Aside from Thursday night’s first inning debacle that caused a landslide of pitching woes, the opener has been, at least according to the win/loss columns, a success. So, at face value, it seems as though it would be a no-brainer for the Yankees to use an opener in the playoffs, where they will find themselves (barring some sort of otherworldly collapse) in October.

To examine the utility of an opener in October, we must first revisit the reason that the Yankees have employed an opener in the first place. For one, the Yankees’ starting rotation has been severely depleted. Luis Severino has yet to throw a pitch in 2019, and CC Sabathia has been on and off the IL with his chronic knee injury. Rising star Domingo German (who leads the league in wins with 16) even had a stint on the IL earlier this season. That primarily left the Yankees with Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton. While Tanaka has shown moments of brilliance this season, including his last two starts, he has been largely inconsistent. Happ has had a problem going deep into games and gives up the long ball like it’s nobody’s business. Paxton has been mostly solid but has also had trouble with depth, especially after an IL stint of his own in early May.

In some cases, because of the IL stints plaguing the Yankees’ staff, there have only been four true starters on the roster at a time. Currently, with Sabathia on the IL again, this roster makeup necessitates using an opener to ensure that all the starters get sufficient rest.

On the surface, it may look like the Yankees’ success in these “bullpen games” can be attributed to stellar starts from Chad Green, who has started twelve out of the thirteen openers (Jonathan Holder started the other). Despite a 5.59 ERA on the season (which is bloated from poor performances before being sent down in late April, as well as Thursday night’s loss to Cleveland), Green has again been one of the more reliable arms out of the Yankees ‘pen. For example, Green sports a fine strikeout to walk ratio of 4.77, a WHIP of 1.49, and a FIP of 4.20 through 48.1 innings this season. It’s worth noting that Green’s numbers were trending in the right direction until Thursday night’s one out, five-run affair.

Despite what this surface-level glance at Green’s success as an opener suggests, arguably, the way that the next eight innings are pitched are much more important to determining the success of the opener. After all, the benefits of a scoreless first inning from Green could be lost if Nestor Cortes, say, comes in and allows five runs in two innings.

We know that wins and losses are a bit antiquated when it comes to evaluating starting pitching talent, so we should be careful to attribute the success the Yankees have had in opener games to just that metric. What’s more important to examine is the Yankees pitching during an opener compared to their overall pitching in the other games this season. How do the two stack up?

In opener games, the Yankees have posted an ERA of 5.38 and a WHIP of 1.45. That ERA is nearly one point higher than their team ERA of 4.48. The WHIP is closer to the overall team mark of 1.32. The question is, then, why would they be winning at a higher rate during opener games if the pitching is objectively worse than overall? Easy. They score more runs.

This season, the Yankees average about 5.97 runs per game. That’s good for best in the Majors. However, during openers, they average about 7.15 runs per game, which is astoundingly high. Obviously, then, the Bombers are scoring enough runs to win most of their opener games despite the pitching being at least a bit worse than it usually is. We can’t really attribute opener wins to pitching then. Furthermore, the disparity in runs per game can only really be explained by chance. Will chance fall in the Yankees’ favor this October? That’s not a question that Aaron Boone would like to be answering.

Practically, with stud Luis Severino hopefully returning this fall, throwing an opener in the playoffs just doesn’t make much sense. Some have even argued that Severino should enter as a long reliever in an opener game this October.

An opener is tossed so a strong reliever can get the hard outs–the top of the opposing lineup–before one of the less strong or consistent relievers that can go multiple innings has a shot at retiring more of the opponent’s hitters. If Severino can only give the Yankees, say, four innings at a time this fall, why would they use an opener? Is Severino somehow not good enough to face, for example, the top of the Astros lineup? Throw him out there and then tag team the likes of CC Sabathia or J.A. Happ (or possibly Domingo German) who won’t be needed in a playoff starting rotation if Severino is on the right track.

The Yankees are looking at a top three of most likely Severino, Tanaka, and Paxton for the playoffs (whether or not you want Paxton or German is an argument for another time). The bottom line is that the opener may be a shiny new toy for managers, but we shouldn’t let the shininess of a stellar win-loss record infatuate us with the potential of the opener. At the end of the day, it’s a tool of necessity, and hopefully, by this October, that necessity will be gone for the New York Yankees.

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