The homer-prone ace with a flourishing finish [2017 Season Review]

ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)
ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)

After a strong 2016, it’s hard to argue that Masahiro Tanaka‘s overall numbers in 2017 weren’t disappointing. He pitched to a 4.74 ERA (107 ERA-) and allowed 35 home runs, fourth worst in baseball. Still, with the way he closed out the year, the 29-year-old starter left Yankees fans with a smile on their faces heading into next year.

Flailing in the first half

Tanaka was the perfect example of why spring training means next to nothing. He had arguably the best spring of any pitcher in baseball, then fell flat in first game of the year. He allowed five of the first six batters to reach in Tampa before allowing a pair of homers later in the game. Overall, he lasted just eight outs and gave up seven runs. Yikes.

He picked up his game towards the end of the month, closing his April with a shutout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Outdueling Chris Sale, he only struck out three yet never allowed Boston to threaten while inducing plenty of weak contact.

But that wasn’t a sign of things to come. May treated Tanaka poorly. He allowed four runs or more in all but one of his six starts, including six runs or more in three of them. On Derek Jeter Day (and Mother’s Day), he allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings vs. Astros. Luckily, he wouldn’t have to face them again, right?

In a nine-start stretch from May 2 to June 17, he allowed 18 home runs. Yikes. That included four (!) three-homer games. It seemed like every game had a few balls crushed, even at spacious road parks like Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.

Returning from the Yankees’ hellish, mid-June West Coast trip, Tanaka put together a few dominant starts to end first half (not to mention him striking out 18 during two starts on that trip). He matched Yu Darvish out-for-out on June 23, tossing eight shutout innings while striking out nine. He held the Blue Jays to one run in seven innings before a less-than-stellar outing against the Brewers to close the first half with a 5.47 ERA.

Resurgence for #TANAK

But he would only fall so far. Tanaka lowered his ERA in six consecutive starts soon after the break, beginning with a near-perfect start against Tampa Bay in July at home. He hadn’t allowed a baserunner for 5.2 innings before allowing a single to Adeiny Hechavarria. He’d give up a homer to Lucas Duda, but struck out 14 and allowed just the one run in eight innings.

Tanaka held both the Mariners and Red Sox to one run in seven innings in consecutive starts before a clunker in Texas. After see-sawing between great and bad starts in September, he finished his regular season on the highest of notes, striking out a career-high 15 and surrendering just three hits in seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays.

For the season, tanaka struck out a career-best 194 while seeing his velocity increase across the board. His swinging strike rate was easily his best.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

However, his other peripherals (walks/HRs) and his hit rates both worsened en route to a poor regular season. Still, consecutive seasons of 30+ starts for a pitcher with injury concerns is a milestone nonetheless.

A dominant postseason

It’s easy to forget about regular season struggles when you ace your way through the postseason. With the Yankees facing elimination in ALDS Game 3, Tanaka gave them exactly what they needed for seven scoreless innings. He splittered the Indians to death and allowed just four baserunners. He got out of his only jam (started by an Aaron Judge-aided triple) with a pair of strikeouts, including one of Jay Bruce, who had hurt the Yankees significantly in Games 1 and 2. It was just a marvelous outing from the veteran starter.

Tasked with beginning ALCS Game 1, he allowed just five baserunners in six innings, but it wasn’t enough against a dominant Dallas Keuchel. His two runs allowed came on a string of hits in the fifth inning. He went away from his splitter and kept Houston off balance with his four-seamer. Regardless of the defeat, it went a lot better than his start against the same squad in May.

And then there was his Game 5 start. No offense to the Jays or Rays regular season games, or any other Tanaka start for that matter, but this was his best start since coming over from the NPB considering the circumstances. He put the Yankees one game from the World Series and put himself in line for ALCS MVP. Still relying on the fastball, he kept the ball on the ground and struck out eight. Still miss the moments when we could think about him vs. Clayton Kershaw in WS G1.

Side notes

Just a couple things to mention about Tanaka’s season. First, he continued to decrease his straight fastball usage, this year by four percent from 31.6 to 27.6 percent of the time. He upped his slider and cutter usage to make up for it and now throws the slider more often than the four-seamer. He uses his splitter just 1.3 percent less than his four-seam fastball.

Second, his home-road splits were stark. Having better stats at home is common. But for a homer-prone pitcher whose home games take place at Yankee Stadium? It’s surprising that he would have a 3.22 ERA, 112 Ks and 15 homers in 95 innings at home vs. a 6.48 ERA, 82 Ks and 20 homers in 83.1 innings on the road.

Finally, just wanted to mention that Tanaka remains a strong fielder. Pitcher fielding is such a small part of the job that it can be overlooked and he’s never been a finalist for a Gold Glove. However, he is very smooth off the mound and has made just one error in his four years in New York.

2018 Outlook

Figured I’d be writing this with Tanaka as a free agent, but as you likely know, he opted into the final three years of the deal. Three years for $67 million seems like less than he would have received on the open market, so it’s a solid deal for the Yankees. One has to wonder if his camp was worried about his medicals, but his elbow has held up just fine the last three years, so hopefully it will continue to do so for a long while.

Based on his entire tenure in pinstripes, it seems like Tanaka’s poor first half of 2017 is an outlier rather than a harbinger of bad seasons to come. The way he returned to form and then dominated in the postseason displayed the Tanaka we expected out of the spring. And if there was any doubt he could pitch in a big game, this October erased those worries completely.

For next year, Tanaka should be back at the front of the rotation alongside Luis Severino … and maybe Shohei Otani. He remains as homer-prone as ever but has learned to pitch effectively even if he gives up a long ball or two.

Aaron Hicks: Fourth outfielder to starting in center [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Going into 2017, you would have been forgiven if you chalked up the John Ryan MurphyAaron Hicks deal to a lose-lose with both players going bust in their new environments. Hicks hit .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in his first season with the Yankees while fulfilling mostly a part-time, fourth outfielder role.

Despite his clear tools, his breakout in 2017 was nonetheless surprising.

Forging an opportunity

Just like in 2017, Hicks was the fourth outfielder to start the year. He nearly outhit Aaron Judge in spring training while trying to win the right fielder job, putting up a .268/.379/.518 line.

When the regular season started, Hicks was better from the jump. In his first start (Apr. 8), He went 1 for 2 with a double and a walk. After Brett Gardner was banged up on a play at first, he got a chance to start full-time for a week and he took off. He homered twice to lead the Yankees to a win over the Rays. He walked six times while knocking in eight runs in a four-game span.

Impressively, he had four two-walk games in April despite starting just nine times. Since he was in the minors, Hicks was always renowned for his eye, but it hadn’t quite translated to the majors. He added a pair of three walks games on May 3 and May 11 while notching seven hits in two games in-between against the Cubs. After the May 11 game, he was hitting .333/.474/.627. That’s unreal, even in the small sample size.

Of course, while this was happening, Aaron Judge was taking the entire league by storm while Brett Gardner was beginning to show off some power. Even Jacoby Ellsbury was hitting some, so it would have been simple for Hicks to lose playing time as soon as he had a brief cold streak…

Breaking out

But then came Ellsbury’s concussion on May 24. From there on out, centerfield was Hicks’ job for the taking.

And take it he did. He put together a 21-game on-base streak from mid-May to mid-June. This included a four-hit game with three doubles and six RBI against Toronto. Just killing the ball.

He was walking consistently and wasn’t striking out nearly as much. Meanwhile, Hicks continued to hit for power, posting 10 homers and 15 doubles along with 37 walks to just 42 strikeouts through June 25.

Injuries rear their ugly head

But on Old Timer’s Day on the 25th, Hicks injured his oblique. He’d missed a few games with Achilles soreness just a few days earlier. Hicks had dealt with injuries in 2016, but none that kept him out quite as long as the oblique injury did. It robbed the Yankees of their best option in the No. 2 spot of their lineup, where Hicks had been batting for nearly three weeks.

While he was replaced by Ellsbury on the roster, it was still a blow to the team as they lost Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday around the same time. The team was left shorthanded and their lineup took a hit.

Hicks would return more than a month later on Aug. 10 and he wasn’t quite the same despite a clutch homer and outfield assist in his second game back.

He went from hitting .290/.398/.515 before the oblique injury to hitting .265/.367/.463 when he left with another oblique injury. At the time, it was thought that it may end his season. He had put up six hits on Aug. 30-31 over nine plate appearances, but it was still a disappointing finish.

However, he’d make it back for six more games (five starts) to close out the year. He robbed his second grand slam of the season in his first inning back on Sept. 26 and walked three times in the game. He’d hit homers each of the next two days and close out the year hitting .266/.372/.475 (127 wRC+), a career-best line.

You're probably wonder how I ended up here... (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
You’re probably wonder how I ended up here… (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Highlights in the field

Here are the two grand slams he robbed. One was in Anaheim in mid-June (the road trip from hell) and the other in Tampa.

Hicks had yet another strong year in the field. Despite Ellsbury’s hot streak to end the year, he earned the starting centerfield job back in part due to his far superior arm in center. It definitely discourages teams from taking an extra base on him like Eduardo Nunez tried to in August.

As for his overall fielding, he occasionally misreads a ball yet he tends to make up for it with his speed. His first oblique injury came making a play near the wall, so he made need to be more careful there moving forward.

Still, Hicks had a career-best 15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a UZR/150 of 13.5. While he had a strong year at the plate, he didn’t let himself take off plays in the field. A testament to him and his all-around game. True five-tool player.

Back in the nick of time

Returning just in time for the postseason, Hicks was right back in center field. It gave the Yankees their best defensive arrangement and a batter with a strong eye near the bottom of the lineup. Getting back into center so quickly showed that he’s well above Ellsbury in the Yankees’ plans.

And Hicks produced some big playoff moments, including a bases-loaded walk in the Wild Card Game to extend the lead and a monster home run to KO Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 2. He nearly opened the ALCS with a homer off Dallas Keuchel in Game 1, but he hit to the wrong part of Minute Maid Park. While he hit well in the ALDS (.316/.350/.526), he was mostly silent at the plate in the ALCS, finishing the postseason with a .196/.260/.304 line.

2018 Outlook

Hicks likely goes into 2018 as the Yankees starting centerfielder. He’s opened the door for the Yankees to salary dump Ellsbury while still having a more than adequate replacement.

If healthy, he has the approach at the plate that can produce something close to his 2017 production over a full year, even if maybe not quite as productive. He hit just .218/.319/.396 in the second half, still showing off his ability to draw walks but striking out a fair amount more while working around injuries.

Still, there’s less pressure on him to be a top-of-the-order hitter with Judge, Sanchez, Bird and others ahead of him. He works anywhere in the lineup with a limited left-right split (surprisingly close splits, even for a switch-hitter) and his approach at the plate.

A career year for the powerful, tweet-happy shortstop [2017 Season Review]

(Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

After a strong 2016 season, it wasn’t certain whether Didi Gregorius was going to maintain his powerful breakout or return to Earth. Well, he maintained … and then some. The Yankees’ shortstop put together the best offensive year of his career to go with a defensive bounceback, culminating in career-year.

Strong from the start

Gregorius injured his shoulder while preparing for the last round of the World Baseball Classic and missed all but three games in April. The Yankees were forced to fill in with Ronald Torreyes and Pete Kozma (remember him?) for a few weeks until Didi was back in the fold.

In his first game back — which just so happened to be the crazy 14-11 comeback vs. the Orioles — Gregorius reminded everyone of his defensive prowess by making a diving stop in the second inning.

He hit for very little power in his first few weeks back, finally hitting a home run in his 11th game.

(Fangraphs)
(Fangraphs)

Whether there were lingering effects from his shoulder strain is unclear, but he maintained a high average, batting .307 through the end of May. He had begun to pull the ball more and had some balls fall in, but it was unclear how sustainable his success was.

Heart of the lineup again

As the temperature heated up, so did Didi. He primarily batted in the bottom third of the order up until the end of June, when injuries and his solid performance prompted a move towards the middle.

This wasn’t necessarily expected despite him finishing 2016 by often hitting cleanup. Yet he justified it with his powerful bat. I detailed just before the postseason how he adjusted to lift the ball more and take advantage of Yankee Stadium as well as the potential juiced baseball.

You can see in the ISO chart above that he really peaked near the trade deadline and at the very end of the season. At the end of July, he had four home runs in a three-game span and followed that up in September with homers of three consecutive days against the Orioles. He finished the year with a career-best 25 home runs and .191 ISO while having just two fewer extra-base hits than 2016 in 17 fewer games.

Improvements in the field

Defensive metrics were down on Gregorius in 2016, but they rated him as a strong fielder again in 2017. It seemed like he made fewer mistakes on routine balls while still making some of the spectacular plays he usually gets.

Overall, in about 130 fewer innings, he committed six fewer errors. Not bad! Ultimately, outside of Brett Gardner, he’s probably the guy to whom you want the opposing team hitting the ball. While he wasn’t a Gold Glove finalist, he was still as sure-handed as ever. Perhaps more so.

Tweets and sideline reporting

Just a quick aside, but how much fun was it watching Didi when he wasn’t playing? He’s a delight. The post-win tweets were the perfect cap to all 98 wins in 2017 and it became an intriguing guessing game to figure out how each emoji represented each new player.

However, the best thing may have been the post-home run interviews in the dugout. The team took the lead of the Cubs and others and took it the stratosphere, making the interviews complexly laid out with a YES microphone flag to boot. Gotta love The Toe-night Show.

While Gregorius may not be an 80-grade celebration specialist like Yasiel Puig, he’s high up there. At least a 70.

Let's flash to Corey Kluber's nightmares (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Let’s flash to Corey Kluber’s nightmares (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Three homers in October

Gregorius had some big moments in the regular season sprinkled among his defensive gems, 25 home runs and myriad of multi-hit games. But he shined brightest by arguably hitting the three biggest home runs of the Yankees season. If not THE biggest, then certainly three of the top five.

It’s pretty hard to forget the three-run homer in the first inning to tie up the Wild Card Game. He fought back against Ervin Santana to force a 3-2 count and pounced on a fastball over the heart of the plate and drove it into a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd.

Honestly, that would have been enough out of him for the postseason. That hit propelled the Yankees into the ALDS and avoided a shameful offseason of rehashing a loss to a lesser Twins squad. It’s the type of hit that justified his spot in the order.

But he wasn’t done. He hit a pair of homers off inside pitches from presumed AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 5 — another winner-take-all masterpiece. (Side note: AL pitchers, stop going inside on Didi. He’ll burn you to a crisp.) That was enough to put the Yankees into the ALCS in remarkable fashion.

The trio of homers leaves a perfect imprint on Didi’s season, announcing loud and clear his transformation into a middle-of-the-order hitter. He came up clutch in the ALCS (the triple and single in the Game 4 comeback come to mind), but in the fashion of 2017 baseball, his home runs stand out.

2018 Outlook

He’s shown his power is sustainable as long as current environment holds together. But more importantly, he’s displayed that he’ll be a key part of the core. He doesn’t have to be looking over his shoulder at Gleyber Torres and has probably cemented himself as the shortstop for a while, meriting consideration for a contract extension.

As crazy as it may have sounded before this year or when the Yankees acquired him, he could be a 30-HR SS in 2018. Get excited. We may not have seen peak Sir Mariekson Julius Gregorius yet.

The small things added up in Yankees’ Game Four win

Slip 'N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Slip ‘N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Whenever you have a big win, some big things have to go your way. A homer here, a double there, a strikeout here, a double play there. This all kind of goes without saying.

But there are also the little things that change everything. The borderline strike call. The tiny bit of experience you have against the opposing pitcher. The fielder being shaded a foot this way or that.

In Game 4, the big ones are obvious. The Aaron Judge hits (MVP!), Gary Sanchez‘s double and really any hit from the seventh inning on. Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman keeping the Astros relatively silent. But I wanted to break down or simply note a few of the small details that changed the complexion of the contest and led to perhaps the Yankees’ biggest win since Nov. 4, 2009.

1. Sitting on McCullers’ curve: Going into Game Four, Judge had about as good a feel against Lance McCullers as any Yankee hitter. He was 2 for 4 with a double and a walk against the righty in five career plate appearances and walked in one of his first two PAs on Tuesday.

McCullers is obviously a curveball-first pitcher, especially in Game 4, as he should be with that good a curve. But Judge has seen it well and McCullers has actually avoided the curve against Judge this year, often using his fastball and change. He’d only led off with a curve for a strike once, his first AB against Judge back in May.

But Judge is a smart hitter and knew to keep looking for it. It doesn’t take an MVP to hit a hanging curve, but it takes a good hitter to be waiting for the right pitch. He got his first pitch curve over the plate and took advantage.

2. The ABs against Chris Devenski: The Yankees have figured out Devenski. Some credit definitely goes to the Yankees’ advance scouts, including former reliever Matt Daley, who Suzyn Waldman mentioned on the WFAN postgame as involved in watching the Astros the last month or so.

Maybe the league has figured out Devenski and he just needs to adjust. Or maybe it’s just a rough stretch. The changeup master seems to have lost some steam in recent months and his three at-bats against Yankee batters were a perfect example.

The Bombers know to wait for his fastball and spit on his offspeed stuff, which he hasn’t been throwing for strikes. Didi Gregorius lined an 0-1 fastball for a triple (more on this in a second), Gary Sanchez got a 2-1 fastball and drove it to right and Greg Bird spat on a nice 2-2 change before drawing a walk. Bird did swing through a 2-1 change, but he made the adjustment.

3. Defensive non-replacement: In case you forgot, the Yankees lost a game to the Astros on May 11 this year because A.J. Hinch went to Jake Marisnick as a defensive replacement in left field and he threw out Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate. Marisnick is a very solid corner outfielder and would have been welcome for the Astros in the later innings.

But he’s out for this series after fracturing his thumb in September. That’s part of why Cameron Maybin was in left field to miss Greg Bird’s double on Monday and Marwin Gonzalez was in left on Tuesday. Gonzalez is a fine hitter and solid fielder, but has below average foot speed. If Hinch has Marisnick, he likely puts him in left starting in the seventh, when he would have had a chance to flag down Didi’s triple for an out. Or hold him at second. Either way, an injury to a backup on another team in September could have made a difference tonight.

4. Cutting down Gurriel: Backing up a moment, I just wanted to quickly mention the cut-off on Yuli Gurriel’s three-run double. Todd Frazier does a good job of cutting the ball, surely aided by his teammates, and getting Gurriel in a rundown. Finely executed rundown with the putout by Judge coming in from right field. The big man helping in all sorts of ways! The play helped keep the game at 3-0 for the moment and was a nice team effort.

5. Chase Headley and Joe Musgrove’s cutter: Musgrove tried a backdoor cutter to Headley to start the eighth-inning at-bat and missed. Headley mentioned postgame that he kept it in his mind that Musgrove may go back to it. Sure enough, he did on 2-2 and Headley lined it into left-center. That’s just smart baseball from Headley.

6. Headley’s slide: This one, pictured above, was delightful at the start, scary in the middle and exhilarating at the end. How many times have the Yankees made outs on the bases this postseason? Feels like too many. This was less a bad baserunning play and more bad luck with Headley stumbling. He’s a smart baserunner and gets lucky that Carlos Correa doesn’t hold the ball a split-second longer to wait him out. Phew. This was a small one that was a big one if you know what I mean.

7. The non-called strike: Judge fouled off the first pitch from Ken Giles. Like every pitcher this postseason, Giles then went for an offspeed pitch away. However, he didn’t get the call.

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

Perhaps he should have. Perhaps this was karma from the baseball gods for all the bad calls Judge has seen at times this postseason. If the count goes 0-2, who knows if Judge can fight his way to tie the game? At 1-1, Judge maintained some control and it led to his big double. Also helps that he’s seen Giles a few times now dating back to the regular season and knew what the tough righty threw.

There were plenty other examples.  One pitch in his walk on Friday perhaps led to Gary Sanchez’s go-ahead double off Giles. Maybe Didi’s bunt on Monday changed the Astros’ defensive alignment to allow his seeing-eye single in the eighth. It’s hard to discern at times.

The Yankees need many more big hits, defensive plays and strikeouts to get through this series and another seven-game set. To accompany those, they’ll need some of these small ones to go their way as well.

Brad Peacock may be Astros’ secret weapon in Game Four

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

The Astros changed course this series, opting to start Lance McCullers Jr. and not Brad Peacock in an important Game 4.

If you were seeing this in July, you would have laughed. McCullers was the Astros’ No. 2 starter then behind Dallas Keuchel and you could have argued he was their No. 1. Now? Not so much, yet maybe that ace-like performance comes through Tuesday.

But even though he isn’t starting, you can’t forget about Peacock. He has a role to play in this series, in the rotation or not.

Before this season, Peacock was an OK swing-man who was shuffled between Triple-A and the majors. He had made a total of 11 appearances over 36.2 innings in the majors in 2015-16. But he pitched nearly like an ace for much of this season, in large part because of his new slider he learned from teammate Jordan Jankowski in 2016.

His slider is actually his primary pitch now. He throws the low-80s slider nearly 40 percent of the time. He’s cut down significantly on his four-seam fastball usage (52.6 to 27.2 percent) and utilized his sinker more (24 percent). He’ll occasionally use his curveball and changeup, but he’s basically a fastball-slider pitcher.

Thanks to the slider, he’s become a significant strikeout pitcher. He was eighth among pitchers with at least 100 innings in strikeout rate with a 29.5 percent mark. The guy ahead of him? Clayton Kershaw. The guy behind him? Luis Severino.

The 29-year-old starter had never struck out more than 8.3 batters per nine, but has K’d 11.0 this season. He walks nearly four per nine, but makes up for it with plenty of grounders and soft contact.

With that in mind, Peacock could be the Astros’ secret weapon in this series. Why not start him then? That’s a fair question, but he might be the perfect multi-inning reliever.

Here’s the main reason why: The first time through the order as a starter this season, he held opposing batters to a .145/.222/.198 line. That’s unreal. His lines got significantly worse each time through the order to the point where he was not effective at all once the lineup turned over a third time.

A.J. Hinch was criticized for removing Peacock pretty early on in his start during ALDS Game 3, but Hinch is likely seeing the same statistics we are. Removing Peacock early wasn’t a poor decision (maybe going to Francisco Liriano was, but I won’t judge).

In the regular season, Hinch could let his starter go a second or third time through without worrying too much. But in the postseason, Hinch can afford to pull him early, particularly with the dependable arms of Keuchel and Justin Verlander coming in Games 5 and 6. It also helps to have Collin McHugh absorb four innings on Monday night.

So if McCullers struggles at all, Hinch has an easy decision: Go to Peacock. He can turn over a lineup before the Houston manager has to make any decisions about which relievers he trusts besides Chris Devenski and Ken Giles. And if McCullers can get through the lineup a few times just fine, well, Peacock has short relief experience, too, and could be a factor in 1-2 inning appearances the rest of the way.

It remains to be seen how Peacock will be used on Tuesday, if at all. But if he’s piggybacking McCullers, the Astros could merge two starts into one, coalescing into a strong challenge to Sonny Gray and the Yankees.

The Astros’ bullpen may have some depth issues heading into the ALCS

Devenski (Elsa/Getty Images)
Devenski (Elsa/Getty Images)

During the 2017 season, the Houston Astros’ bullpen developed a strong reputation.

They posted the most fWAR in the first half of the season (4.9). For the whole season, they struck out a shade under 11 batters per nine innings and boasted five relievers who threw at least 40 innings and struck out at least 10 per nine. Ken Giles bounced back to his 2014-15 form and Chris Devenski emerged along with his signature changeup.

But when you look below the surface, the bullpen isn’t nearly as intimidating as they seemed early in the year.

In the second half, the Astros produced a 4.49 bullpen ERA with an elevated home run rate and the 20th highest fWAR. Granted, they acquired Tyler Clippard in August, so that could explain some of it, but it was also about their top relievers letting them down.

Giles was just as dominant, perhaps more so, down the stretch, so he should be exempted from this conversation. But batters seemed to adjust to Devenski somewhat as his K/9 fell by more than four Ks and his walks rose. He still held batters to a .198 average (38 points higher than the first half), but his ISO against rose from .134 to .232. Yikes.

But their reliable back-end of the bullpen from 2015 is no longer quite so usable. Luke Gregerson still strikes out a batter an inning, but he allowed 13 home runs, more than all but one MLB reliever this season. Devenski gave up 11 yet threw nearly 20 more innings than Gregerson. His walk rate is nearly a career-worst and was only used in the eighth inning of blowouts during the ALDS.

Will Harris has similarly been relegated to a lesser role despite having a solid season. He still sports a K-BB rate of over 25 percent and a 2.98 ERA. Yet A.J. Hinch refused to use him in big situations against the Red Sox in the ALDS. He got the eighth inning of Game 1 with a six-run lead and couldn’t even finish the inning after giving up back-to-back singles. He could have been part of the bridge to Giles in Game 4, but Hinch eschewed Harris for Justin Verlander.

Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)
Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)

Beyond those four, the Astros used just two other relievers beyond the Brad Peacock-Lance McCullers Jr. piggyback start in Game 3 and that was Joe Musgrove and Francisco Liriano. Liriano is just a matchup lefty for them and Musgrove is mostly a long man.

Hinch will simply have to go to Harris or others in key situations against the Yankees or keep his starters in, perhaps past their breaking points. He can’t use Verlander or Keuchel in relief until a winner-take-all situation in a seven-game series. Perhaps the Astros can out-hit the Yankees to the point where there aren’t too many high leverage innings for their middle relievers. However, I’d bet that we’ll see Hinch have to go to a reliever he doesn’t quite trust with a game on the line.

And that’s before you dissect the ALDS performance of the two relievers he does trust. Devenski and Giles combined for 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs on seven hits. They struck out five and walked none. The latter part is encouraging yet they didn’t shut the door.

Terry Francona relied upon more relievers than Hinch and he was still stretched thin at times by the Yankees’ offense. As evidenced by Todd Frazier and Brett Gardner in the ninth on Wednesday, the Bombers will take every pitch and wait out mistakes. They were able to get the Indians’ starters out after an average of 12 outs. The Astros won’t have the luxury of going to a deep bullpen for long innings and will need their rotation to go long, thus emphasizing the importance of the Yankees’ long at-bats against the starters.

A key to look for: Devenski’s reverse split. Thanks to his changeup, he holds lefties to a .110/.178/.236 line compared to righties batting .238/.314/.448 against him. If he comes in against a lefty/switch-hitter heavy part of the lineup, he’s more likely to excel. If he’s asked to face one or two of Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and co., he could be in for trouble.

If the Yankees can’t hit Keuchel, Verlander and the other Astros starters, the potentially soft underbelly of the Houston bullpen won’t matter. But if this series goes anything like the Indians series, this series might come down to a few at-bats from relievers who haven’t seen high leverage outings recently … and for good reason.

The optimal bullpen usage for yet another winner-take-all

(Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Yankees will play on Wednesday just their sixth game of the postseason, yet it will be their second winner-take-all. Unlike the first one, this game will likely ride more on the starting pitchers with the performances of CC Sabathia and Corey Kluber looming large.

However, with the way Joe Girardi has managed his bullpen over the last eight days, we have seen a variety of different game options after the starter. In their last two wins, it’s been ‘Rely on the starter and then go to the big guns.’ The win over the Twins was the routine ‘Get 26 outs of top four relievers’ game. You know, basic stuff we see all the time.

And we’ve also gotten a taste of every reliever in this series outside of Jordan Montgomery, who will likely be the long man in late extra innings on Wednesday.

So with that in mind, here’s my take on the optimal use of the pen.

1. Make the same decision with CC as in Game 2: Girardi caught flak for many things after Game 2. Rightfully so. But pulling Sabathia early wasn’t as big a mistake. You only have to go back to the last Monday of the regular season for a game where Sabathia was left in a little too long and let the opposing team back in the game.

And this time, the Yankees have a more rested bullpen to get the final few innings, especially if Sabathia can get two times through the order. Once you’re into the fifth or the sixth, CC should probably be batter-to-batter except in the extremely unlikely case of a 6+ run lead.

2. If Chad Green warms up early, he needs to come in early: This one is simple and worked to a tee in the Wild Card Game. Girardi got Green hot in the first and then went to him and rode him into the third. With four days off, Green should be able to do something similar if the situation calls for it.

But if Green gets hot in those first few innings, he better come in or he likely goes to waste. Green warmed up in the second and third innings in Game 2 but didn’t come in until the sixth. That’s a good 80-plus minutes or so after sitting down. It’s no wonder he seemed off.

We saw the same thing with Alan Busenitz in the Wild Card Game. I know, I know, not nearly as reliable a reliever. But the Twins got him warm in both the first and second inning and he didn’t come in until there were bases loaded and two outs in the seventh. That’s a lot of downtime and it thus makes sense that he threw four straight balls to walk in a run.

So hopefully Girardi doesn’t repeat this mistake. It’s better off skipping Green if he warms while CC gets out of early trouble than having Green warm, throw a ton of warmup pitches over the course of a few innings and then sit, just to come in off of his game.

3. Ride Robertson, Kahnle and Chapman (duh): At this point, I have no idea what the Yankees can get out of these three, but they need to seize every last drop in Game 5. A Houston series or beyond is irrelevant right now.

Here are their lines through five games:

  • Robertson: 3 G, 5.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 8 K, 87 pitches
  • Kahnle: 3 G, 5 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 6 K, 59 pitches
  • Chapman: 3 G, 4.2 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 9 K, 81 pitches

Kahnle’s thrown fewer pitches (and those numbers!) but also pitched most recently. Are two days off enough for full throttle Robertson and Chapman? You have to figure Chapman can get you at least three outs. Robertson, too. Between the three, they should be able to get the last four innings. Maybe five.

How do you tell who’s up for what? That’s gotta be a gut feel for Girardi, who needs to be willing to pull them too early rather than too late. You’ve still got Adam Warren, Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray after them if needed. But we should see at least Chapman at some point and probably all three of these big guns.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

4. Avoid Betances: Dellin Betances can’t come into this game. He just can’t. It’s tough to see Betances struggling like this. His command just isn’t there and he needs to be at the very back of the bullpen. Probably behind Montgomery and Jaime Garcia. Would you feel comfortable with him in extras? Not ahead of Warren or one of the starters.

The Baseball America podcast brought up the question of whether he should even be on a possible ALCS roster and it’s unfortunate that it’s a valid question to raise. But until the ALCS roster is something worth discussing, Betances shouldn’t be pitching, even in a blowout.

5. Get by without the starters until extras: It’s really tempting to go with Tanaka after how he looked on Sunday. However, you never know how someone who hasn’t relieved will react to that situation. With the depth of this bullpen, the Yankees can survive without finding out what they can get from Tanaka or Gray (or Severino) until extra innings. If Sabathia struggles, Green and Warren are fine long men to get you to the fourth/fifth. Once you’re in extras, it’s all hands on deck in a pure scramble.