AL Wild Card Game: Four factors the Yankees should consider as they prepare to select a starter for a one-game playoff
Masahiro Tanaka? Luis Severino? J.A. Happ? The Yankees have some Wild Card Game starter options
Thanks to a come-from-behind win Tuesday night (NYY 3, BOS 2) and a blowout win Wednesday night (NYY 10, BOS 1), the New York Yankees remain mathematically alive in the AL East race. To win the division they have to go at least 10-1 in their final 11 games while the Red Sox go 0-10 in their final 10 games, which obviously won't happen, but the Yankees have prevented the Red Sox from clinching at Yankee Stadium the last two nights.
Wednesday's win was highlighted by Luis Severino's first truly dominant start since the first half. He allowed one run in seven innings against the high-powered Red Sox after pitching to a 6.35 ERA in his first 10 starts after the All-Star break. Severino was arguably the best pitcher in the league in the first half. He was inarguably one of the worst pitchers in the league in the second half prior to Wednesday night.
Severino's second-half struggles complicated what had been a relatively easy decision for the Yankees. Who would start the AL Wild Card Game? Severino was the obvious choice up until a few weeks ago. He was New York's clear-cut best starting pitcher and one of the best in the league. He's exactly the kind of guy you want to give the ball to in a winner-take-all Wild Card Game. Then, after Severino started the struggle, the choice wasn't so obvious.
"I wouldn't change my plans on who starts in the Wild Card Game based on one specific start,". "That doesn't make a lot of sense. But I want to watch his next couple of starts before the postseason to decide."
Despite the perpetual concerns about their rotation, and despite Severino's second-half struggles, the Yankees do have some good options to start the Wild Card Game, specifically Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ. Here are four things to consider as the Yankees map out their postseason pitching plan.
1. Tanaka has been great lately
Since July 10, which dates back to his return from the disabled list for a pair of hamstring strains, Tanaka has pitched to a 2.39 ERA in 12 starts and 75 1/3 innings. He's held opponents to a .239/.281/.382 batting line in those 12 starts, which are Yangervis Solarte numbers (.230/.282/.387). Tanaka has turned every hitter he's faced in the last 12 starts into a Solarte facsimile.
Furthermore, Tanaka was New York's best pitcher in the postseason last year, allowing two runs and 13 baserunners in three starts and 20 innings. That includes seven shutout innings in Game 3 of the ALDS, with the Yankees down 0-2 in the best-of-five series to the Indians. Tanaka has been excellent lately and he has postseason pedigree, which makes him a pretty good candidate for the Wild Card Game start.
"In terms of the Wild Card, if it happened tonight, I would start Masahiro Tanaka," said Bowden. "I'll tell you why. His ERA since the All-Star break is (2.09), that's the best of any of their starters. In his last five starts, a 1.59 ERA. Again, their best starter over the last five starts. Also, last year in the postseason he was successful ... I look at Tanaka right now as the guy that I would start."
One last thing to consider: Tanaka has not faced the Athletics this season. The Yankees are likely to face the A's in that Wild Card Game -- the Rays are making a late charge up the standings, but it sure looks like it'll be Yankees-Athletics in the Wild Card Game -- and Oakland's hitters would be going in blind. They haven't seen Tanaka this year. Lack of familiarity tends to favor the pitcher.
2. Happ has also been great lately
The Yankees acquired Happ from the Blue Jays at the trade deadline and he has been everything they could've possibly expected. Nine starts, eight team wins, and a 2.39 ERA in 52 2/3 innings. Two weeks ago Happ shut down the A's in Oakland (one run in six innings) and two days ago he shut down the Red Sox in Yankee Stadium (one unearned run in six innings).
Happ has postseason experience with the World Series-winning 2008 Phillies and pennant-winning 2009 Phillies, and, more recently, with the 2016 Blue Jays. He's pitched well all season and especially so with the Yankees, he dominated the A's not too long ago, and he's the kind of low-maintenance veteran who doesn't get rattled in big moments. You could do a heck of a lot worse than sending Happ out there in an elimination game.
"The other factor -- I like J.A. Happ because he's done really well, 2.54 ERA in his last five starts -- but Oakland is going to have a mostly dominant right-handed hitting lineup with power," Bowden said. "I don't like Happ against that specific lineup. As of today -- again, subject to change -- it would be Tanaka."
3. It's probably going to be a bullpen game anyway
The Yankees are built around their bullpen. They are designed to take an early lead, usually by socking some home runs, and then suffocating the other team with power arms out of the bullpen. That bullpen makes the Yankees a very dangerous team in a short postseason series because the built-in off-days mean their high-end relievers can pitch almost every day.
Whoever the Yankees select to start the Wild Card Game, manager Aaron Boone will be ready to deploy his bullpen at the first sign of trouble. Aroldis Chapman returned from the disabled list earlier this week -- he missed about a month with a knee issue -- and, with him back closing games, that leaves Chad Green, David Robertson, Zach Britton, and Dellin Betances for setup duty. Robertson and especially Green can go multiple innings. Those five could easily combine for seven innings in a postseason game. Maybe more.
Obviously the Yankees would love eight scoreless innings from whoever starts the Wild Card Game. More realistically, they'd be happy with four or five good innings. Maybe even less. Three innings might do the trick. Consider the numbers the first time through the lineup for the Wild Card Game starter candidates:
|Pitcher||Opponent's AVG/OBP/SLG||Opponent's OPS+||Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate|
Even with his second-half struggles, perhaps the best Wild Card Game option is starting Severino and telling him to go all-out to get through the lineup one time. Max effort Severino with his upper-90s fastball and razor blade slider could carve up any offense in baseball. Let him get through the lineup once, then turn it over to the bullpen? It's something to consider.
4. What about the ALDS?
Yankees manager Aaron Boone made an interesting comment about the team's Wild Card Game starter decision on Wednesday. He indicated that, while winning the Wild Card Game is of paramount importance, the Yankees also have to take a big picture view and look at what gives them the best chance to win the World Series. That means being in the best possible position to beat the Red Sox in the ALDS should the Yankees win the Wild Card Game.
Here's more from Boone, via Billy Witz of the New York Times:
"If we're going to get where we want to go, all three of those guys (Happ, Severino, Tanaka) are going to play a huge role," Manager Aaron Boone said. "How do we choose for a particular start as we get to the postseason? There's varying things that can happen over the next 10 days: schedule-wise, what our needs are the final few days of the season, who we're matching up against. All those things will kind of get baked into the cake and we'll make the best decision possible."
Of course winning the Wild Card Game is the priority. There is no ALDS or potential World Series parade without that happening first. But, is it wrong to look ahead to a potential ALDS matchup with the Red Sox when plotting out the Wild Card Game?
Consider that Happ has pitched quite well against Boston this year (0.54 ERA in 16 2/3 innings) while Severino (3.56 ERA in 30 1/3 innings) and especially Tanaka (6.60 ERA in 15 innings) have had a tougher time. If Severino shows Wednesday's start was not a fluke and he's back to being one of the top starters in the game, and the Yankees consider all three of these guys viable Wild Card Game candidates, would it be wrong to use this information as a tiebreaker? They could start Severino or Tanaka in the Wild Card Game and save Happ for a potential Game 1 of the ALDS at Fenway Park. It's something to consider.
At the moment the Yankees have Happ lined up to start the Wild Card Game on Wednesday, Oct. 3, on normal rest. That doesn't mean a whole lot though. There's still enough time and enough spare arms on the roster to rearrange the rotation so the Yankees can start whoever they want on however many days rest in the Wild Card Game. (They like to give Tanaka an extra day between starts whenever possible, for example.)
Severino has two more regular season starts remaining and, if he shows Wednesday night's start was a sign he is truly back to being a top shelf pitcher, the Yankees are probably going to hand him the ball in the Wild Card Game. He's their best hope for a dominant start against a very good A's team. If not, Tanaka and Happ represent two other viable winner-take-all game starters. All three guys are quality Wild Card Game options. The tricky part is picking the right one.
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