Swinging early in the count may be Yankees’ best chance against Dallas Keuchel

(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

Later tonight the Yankees will face Dallas Keuchel in the winner-take-all wildcard game. If I had to hand-pick any pitcher in the big leagues to face the Yankees in an elimination game, I’m pretty sure I’d pick Keuchel. He’s the embodiment of everything the Yankees seem unable to solve, and by that I mean he’s a left-handed finesse guy with a changeup and command. If he were a rookie too, forget it. Game over.

Anyway, the postseason is not easy, and if you’re going to win the World Series, you have to beat pitchers like Keuchel. He’s a legitimate Cy Young candidate, and while he will be working on three days’ rest of the first time in his career tonight, I’m not sure fatigue will be a huge issue. Keuchel will have plenty of adrenaline pumping in his first career postseason start. Solving Keuchel is no easy task. Few teams have done it this year. Here’s a look at how the Yankees may be able to do it.

Head-to-Head Stats

This seems like a convenient place to start. I absolutely believe certain hitters can “own” certain pitchers and vice versa, but head-to-head stats don’t help us identify those matchups well. We’re usually talking about only a handful of at-bats spread across several years. That said, Joe Girardi relies on head-to-head data all the time, and I’m sure it’ll factor into his lineup decision. Here are the numbers, via Baseball Reference:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Chris Young 21 20 6 2 1 0 2 1 2 .300 .333 .500 .833
Chase Headley 13 13 3 1 0 1 3 0 6 .231 .231 .538 .769
Carlos Beltran 10 9 4 1 0 1 2 1 1 .444 .500 .889 1.389
Jacoby Ellsbury 8 7 2 0 0 0 0 1 1 .286 .375 .286 .661
Dustin Ackley 7 7 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 .000 .000 .000 .000
Alex Rodriguez 7 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 4 .143 .143 .143 .286
Brendan Ryan 6 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
John Ryan Murphy 5 5 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 .400 .400 .400 .800
Stephen Drew 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Brett Gardner 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Didi Gregorius 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Gregory Bird 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 92 89 18 4 1 2 8 3 25 .202 .228 .337 .565

This is Keuchel’s third full season in the big leagues and only his second as a full-time starter, so it’s no surprise the head-to-head plate appearances are limited. He’s not even in the same division. Keuchel totally dominated the Yankees in two starts this season (16 shutout innings with 21 strikeouts), so it’s no surprise the head-to-head numbers aren’t good. How much does this tell us going into tonight? Not much really. Keuchel is very good. We knew that already.

The Stuff

Keuchel is not a power pitcher. His fastest pitch of the season was 94.9 mph back in May. He hasn’t throw a pitch over 92.0 mph since August, so says PitchFX. Keuchel is a four-pitch pitcher with a sinker right around 90 mph, a cutter in the upper-80s, and both a slider and changeup right around 80 mph. He’ll occasionally throw an upper-80s/low-90s four-seamer as a get me over pitch. Words don’t do much, so here’s some video of Keuchel in action this season.

As you can see, he locates just about everything to both of the plate, and everything seems to break late. I have no idea how to quantify this, but my guess is all of Keuchel’s pitches look the same out of his hand. He must be real tough to pick up.

Like most pitchers, Keuchel attacks early in the count with his fastball (sinker, in his case) then goes to town with his offspeed stuff. The changeup is for righties but he will throw the slider to both righties and lefties. Here’s his pitch usage breakdown by handedness, via Brooks Baseball:

Dallas Keuchel pitch selection

I know we’re all used to the “take pitches, work the count, get the pitch count up” approach and it is pretty successful, by and large. The Yankees tried it against Keuchel in his two starts this season, at least early in the game, but it didn’t work. He fills the strike zone then goes to his offspeed stuff when ahead in the count.

Considering the data shows Keuchel throws a lot of first pitch sinkers, I think it might be worth it to forget the whole “work the count” approach and instead look to ambush some sinkers early in the count. Opponents hit .307 with a .119 ISO on the first pitch against Keuchel and .291 with a .148 ISO when putting one of the first two pitches of the at-bat in play. From the third pitch of the at-bat onward, opponents hit .187 with an .077 ISO against Keuchel this year. Big difference!

Of course, the “swing early in the count” approach could very easily backfire, especially if Keuchel has his sinker working. If those early count swings don’t turn into hits, the Yankees are going to look up in the fourth inning and see Keuchel’s pitch count in the 30s or 40s. That would be a problem. The data suggests Keuchel is going to throw his sinker early in the count. If he’s leaving the pitch up in the first inning, it might be time to swing away early in the at-bat.

The Running Game

As a lefty, Keuchel has an inherent advantage when it comes to shutting down the running game. He’s staring at the base-runner at first base the entire time. Opponents attempted only five stolen bases against Keuchel this year — all five were successful! — and only 31 in his 671 career innings. That’s nothing. Teams don’t run on him.

So Keuchel must have a great pickoff move, right? Well, no. In fact, he very rarely throws over to first base. He made five (!) pickoff throws to first base last season and only 19 this season, according to Sporting Charts. That works out to 0.08 pickoff throws per base-runner, or one every 12.5 base-runners. That’s not even one pickoff throw per start.

This seems like something the Yankees might be able to exploit, right? Specifically Jacoby Ellsbury. (I think Brett Gardner‘s going to sit in favor of Chris Young tonight, but we’ll see.) Ellsbury attempted only eleven stolen bases after coming off the DL, but three of them came in the last two weeks of the season. He was successful all three times. So at least he started to run a little more late in the year.

Ellsbury’s quick and usually an aggressive base-runner, and Keuchel is not going to throw over to first base all that often. Considering opponents never run on him, I’m guessing Keuchel varies his times well and has a quick slide step, but Ellsbury can generally outrun that stuff. He’s an elite base-runner when healthy. Pushing the envelope on the bases, even with something as simple as taking a bigger than usual lead, could be in the cards. That assumes Ellsbury actually gets on base against Keuchel, who dominates lefties.

Fatigue?

Keuchel is starting on three days’ rest for the first time … as a big leaguer. He did it in college when Arkansas went to the 2009 College World Series. Doing it in the big leagues is different than doing it in college, sure, but it’s not a completely new experience to him either. The Astros wouldn’t throw him out there if they didn’t believe he was up for it.

(Brandon Wade/Getty)
(Brandon Wade/Getty)

“I can’t really tell you maybe (the adrenaline is) going to help me throw 91 instead of 90. I don’t know,” said Keuchel to reporters yesterday. “It’s a big game. So I’m sure I’ll be up for it no matter what. But at this point in time, the routine is there. I feel comfortable going in. I feel great. There’s no end-of-the-season fatigue, I feel like. So I’m excited.”

How will we be able to tell whether Keuchel is fatigued? Boy, I have no idea. Wildness and reduced velocity would be one way, but that’s about it as far as the eye test goes. We could look at the PitchFX data and compare release points and movement and things like that, but that doesn’t help in real time. The hitters will tell us if Keuchel is fatigued. Are they taking comfortable swings? That’ll be the best indication.

In a winner-take-all game, I can’t imagine Astros skipper A.J. Hinch will leave Keuchel out there long if he thinks he is fatigued and unable to compete at a high level. The Yankees should just forget about the short rest thing as far as I’m concerned. Assume Keuchel is at 100% and won’t lose anything as his pitch count climbs. This is no game to get caught waiting around.

* * *

There’s no denying Keuchel is a tremendous pitcher. He’s a bonafide ace with unconventional methods. Keuchel dominates by keeping the ball on the ground, not by missing bats or blowing the ball by hitter. He has struggled on the road this season — struggled is a relative term, Keuchel had 1.46 ERA (2.04 FIP) at home and a 3.77 ERA (4.01 FIP) on the road in 2015 — and he will be working on short rest, which may or may not come into play.

The Yankees have seen Keuchel twice this year, and while he dominated them both times, getting two looks at him has value. They’ve seen him up close. There’s no mystery. (Or at least there’s less of a mystery.) It appears hunting sinkers early in the count may lead to positive results, and if Ellsbury gets on base he should take an exaggerated lead given Keuchel’s lack of pickoff throws. Other than that, hope Keuchel has an off night. He’s tough.

Refsnyder, Heathcott, Sanchez all make Wildcard Game roster

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Rosters for the 2015 AL wildcard game were due at 10am ET this morning, and shortly thereafter the Yankees officially announced their 25-man squad for their first postseason game in three years. Here is the Astros’ roster and here is the Yankees’ roster for tonight’s winner-take-all game at Yankee Stadium:

PITCHERS (9)
RHP Dellin Betances
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Bryan Mitchell
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP James Pazos
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
RHP Adam Warren
LHP Justin Wilson

CATCHERS (3)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy
Gary Sanchez

INFIELDERS (7)
2B/OF Dustin Ackley
1B Greg Bird
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
2B Rob Refsnyder
DH Alex Rodriguez
IF Brendan Ryan

OUTFIELDERS (6)
RF Carlos Beltran
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
LF Brett Gardner
OF Slade Heathcott
PR Rico Noel
OF Chris Young

I’m glad the Yankees took only nine pitchers. There’s really no need for more than that. Plus it’s not like the Yankees are swimming with options right now. CC Sabathia is unavailable after checking into rehab and next in line is probably Andrew Bailey, who wasn’t too good during his September cameo.

Both Severino and Nova started Saturday, so they aren’t fully available tonight. Today is their usual between-starts throw day, so they can probably give an inning or two, maybe three if they’re really efficient, but I doubt it would be much more than that. Obviously the plan is Tanaka to Wilson to Betances to Miller. Anything other than that is probably bad news.

Sanchez had only two garbage time at-bats at the end of the regular season, and the fact he is on the roster suggests the Yankees may start Murphy against the left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Murphy starts, McCann takes over once Keuchel is out of the game, and Sanchez is the emergency catcher. Sanchez could also be a pinch-hitter or DH option if A-Rod gets lifted for Noel at some point.

The rest of the roster is pretty self-explanatory. As I said this morning, I think Young will start tonight’s game, likely in place of Gardner. Young has good career numbers against Keuchel and Joe Girardi loves his head-to-head matchups. Gardner figures to come off the bench as soon as Keuchel is out of the game though. With any luck, no one outside the starting lineup and big three relievers will be used.

Thoughts prior to the 2015 AL Wildcard Game

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Later tonight the Yankees will host the Astros in the 2015 AL wildcard game. The loser goes home, the winner goes to Kansas City to play the Royals in the ALDS. It’s Game Seven without all the fuss of Games One through Six. I’m excited and I want to puke at the same time. Here are some thoughts.

1. Talking about the baseball implications of CC Sabathia‘s decision to go to rehab is kinda uncomfortable but it is something that needs to be discussed. The Yankees have already had these talks, after all. Sabathia was going to be on the wildcard roster as an extra long reliever tonight — Brian Cashman all but confirmed it during his press conference yesterday — and now they don’t have anyone for that role. At least not anyone besides Adam Warren, who may be needed in middle relief. Michael Pineda just started Sunday and can’t pitch tonight. He won’t even be on the roster. I do expect Luis Severino and Ivan Nova to be on the roster as just in case arms, but a) I doubt Joe Girardi wants to use them, and b) they won’t be able to provide much length. Both started Saturday and today is their usual between-starts bullpen day (I think), so maybe the Yankees can get an inning or two out of them if necessary. In that case, if the game is tight and Girardi needs three outs before going to the usual late-inning relievers, maybe it’s best to let Severino air it out for an inning so Warren is available in extras. The hope was Sabathia wouldn’t have to pitch, but the fact he won’t even be on the roster now may change the bullpen dynamic.

2. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Chris Young will be in the starting lineup tonight. For starters, he has pretty great numbers against Dallas Keuchel — 6-for-20 (.300) with two doubles and a triple, though the two doubles came back in 2012, long before Keuchel broke out as an ace — and Girardi loves that stuff. He uses hitter/pitcher matchups all the time even though they aren’t the most predictive thing in the world. Eno Sarris had a more convincing reason why Young should be in the lineup: fly ball hitters tend to have a lot of success against ground ball pitchers. Young has one of the highest fly ball rates in baseball and Keuchel is the game’s most dominant ground ball pitcher. I think he’ll be in the lineup tonight and I think it’ll be Brett Gardner who finds himself on the bench. I’d rather see Jacoby Ellsbury on the bench — they’ve both been terrible in the second half, but at least Gardner’s at-bats are competitive, Ellsbury anecdotally makes a ton of weak contact early in the count — but there’s no way that happens. Gardner has sat in favor of young more often than Ellsbury this year and that’s what I think will happen tonight.

3. I’m not sure pitching on three days’ rest will be a big deal for Keuchel — I think the adrenaline of pitching in the postseason will more than compensate for any additional fatigue — but with any luck, he’ll tire out in the middle innings and force manager A.J. Hinch to go to the bullpen. A revived relief corps was a huge reason for Houston’s success this season, though that same bullpen struggled in September. They blew a lot of leads and let some winnable games slip away. That said, Hinch’s core relievers were fine in the final month:

Astros bullpen

All small sample sizes, obviously. Pat Neshek’s the only one who seems to have some real problems given his inability to miss bats or get ground balls. The other guys all had strong strikeout and walk rates — except for Will Harris, I guess, his strikeout and walk numbers were closer to average — and they weren’t getting clobbered with hard contact. I don’t want to make too much out of such a tiny number of innings. Houston’s bullpen had a mess September, yes, but the core relievers were mostly fine. Some bounces just didn’t go their way, hence the ugly ERAs.

4. So who’s ready for Postseason Carlos Beltran? By now you all know he has incredible career October numbers — those numbers: .333/.445/.683 (195 wRC+) with 16 homers in 51 games — and there is zero doubt in my mind his postseason success was a reason the Yankees targeted him two years ago. The only reason? Of course not. But definitely a reason. Can Beltran still do that stuff at age 38 — he “only” hit .268/.388/.464 (140 wRC+) in 17 postseason games with the 2013 Cardinals — after running around the outfield all summer? Gosh, I hope so. The offense has looked sluggish for weeks and the arrival of October Beltran would be one heck of a shot in the arm.

5. The Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to win a game just like this one, and I feel like he’s not getting nearly enough respect heading into tonight. Don’t get me wrong, Keuchel had a tremendous year and probably deserves the Cy Young award, but Tanaka’s no slouch either. He’s shown the ability to step up in big games — Tanaka was the only Yankees starter to put up a fight against the Blue Jays down the stretch, and he flat out dominated that offense (22 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 3 BB 20 K in three starts) — and that’s why the Yankees lined him up to start the wildcard game. The Astros offense had the second highest strikeout rate (22.9%) and the 11th highest chase rate on pitches out of the zone (31.3%) during the regular season. Tanaka, meanwhile, had the second highest chase rate this year at 38.6%. (Carlos Carrasco was first at 38.7%, so he and Tanaka were neck and neck.) He excels at getting hitters to expand the zone. Keuchel might dominate the Yankees because he’s left-handed and has a changeup, sure. But don’t forget that the pitcher who is better than just about anyone at getting hitters to chase out of the zone is about to face a bunch of hitters who tend to hack at pitches off the plate.

Workout Day Notes: Eovaldi, Capuano, Shreve, Beltran

Today is an off-day around baseball, but both the Yankees and Astros held a workout at Yankee Stadium this afternoon. Needless to say, CC Sabathia checking into rehab was the big story. Everyone in the organization stood behind him, from Brian Cashman to Joe Girardi to his teammates. “We play for CC now,” said Alex Rodriguez.

While Sabathia’s announcement dominated the workout today, there is some other news and notes to pass along. Here’s the important stuff from today’s workout:

The wildcard game rosters do not have to be made official until 10am ET tomorrow. An official announcement should come around that time.

It’s official: Masahiro Tanaka starting AL wildcard game

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

As expected, Joe Girardi announced today that Masahiro Tanaka will start Tuesday’s AL wild-card game. No surprise here. The Yankees lined Tanaka up for the wildcard game when he returned from his minor hamstring injury last week. Tanaka was the obvious choice.

With Ivan Nova and Luis Severino starting yesterday’s doubleheader, and Michael Pineda starting today, the only realistic candidates for the wildcard game were Tanaka and CC Sabathia. And I guess Adam Warren, but he’s needed in the bullpen. Tanaka will have an extra day of rest heading into the wildcard game. Sabathia would have been on normal rest.

Tanaka, 26, has a 3.51 ERA (3.99 FIP) in 24 starts and 154 innings this year around hamstring and forearm issues. He’s been pretty awesome the last few weeks, pitching to a 2.98 ERA (3.80 FIP) in nine starts and 60.1 innings since early-August. The only concern with Tanaka is his penchant for the long ball (1.46 HR/9), though he usually limits the damage to solo homers because he’s so good at limiting base-runners (0.99 WHIP).

The Yankees still don’t know who or where they will play the wildcard game. Chances are it will be the Astros but it could still be the Rangers or Angels. A win today or an Astros loss clinches home field advantage for the Yankees in the wildcard game. If that doesn’t happen, it’ll be in the other team’s park.

Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Position Players

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are in position to clinch a wildcard spot very soon, possibly tonight, so it’s time to start thinking about the wildcard game roster. Earlier today we sorted through the pitching staff, trying to figure out which ten or eleven pitchers the Yankees will carry in the wildcard game. It was easier said than done.

Ten or eleven pitchers — my guess is ten, but you never know — leaves 14-15 position player spots to fill. Joe Girardi will have a decent-sized bench at his disposal, but ideally it won’t come into play too much. The starting lineup will decide the game. As we did with the pitchers, let’s go through the position player group and try to figure out who will be on the wildcard game roster next Tuesday.

The Locks

This is the easy part …

Catcher: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy
First Base: Greg Bird
Second Base: ???
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Chase Headley
Outfield: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran
Designated Hitter: Alex Rodriguez

That’s nine of the 14-15 position player spots right there and they’re all self-explanatory right? Right. That is eighth-ninths of the starting lineup and the backup catcher. All easy calls. Next.

Second Base

For most of the summer, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan platooned at second base. That is no longer the case. Drew has been dealing with some dizziness/concussion issues that may end his season, but even before that Dustin Ackley wrestled the starting job away from him. Ackley got some playing time, hit right away, and he’s continued to play against right-handers.

Meanwhile, Rob Refsnyder has started each of the Yankees’ last four games against left-handed starters, not Ryan. Chances are Refsnyder will start against lefties Wade Miley, Rich Hill, and Wei-Yin Chen the next three days too. Like Ackley, he got a few at-bats, got some hits, and has received more playing time. That Drew/Ryan platoon was together for 140 games or so. The last 16 have gone to Ackley/Refsnyder.

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

At this point there is no doubt Ackley will be on the wildcard roster. The rest of the guys is where it gets tricky. Refsnyder is starting against lefties, but would the Yankees actually start him in the wildcard game if they face, say, Dallas Keuchel or Scott Kazmir or Cole Hamels? I get the sense Girardi would stick with Ackley in that situation and just roll with his best player.

If Refsnyder’s not going to start the game, then what’s his role? Pinch-hitter against a lefty reliever. That’s all. I guess he could pinch-run too, but there figure to be other guys on the roster to do that. Refsnyder’s not going to come in for defense. Pinch-hitter against a lefty is a big deal though! It could be the difference in the late-innings of a close game. Given the extra bench spots, I think Refsnyder’s in.

With Ackley and Refsnyder on the roster, the Yankees will need to carry a shortstop-capable backup infielder. Neither of those guys can play short. Not even in an emergency. That leaves a spot for Drew or Ryan. In a vacuum, I’d take Drew over Ryan eight days a week and twice on Sundays. But Drew isn’t healthy and we shouldn’t count on him getting healthy before the wildcard game. He’s still dealing with this dizziness/concussion stuff and has been for almost two weeks now. That puts Ryan on the wildcard game roster along with Ackley and Refsnyder.

The Pinch-Runner

Rico Noel will be on the wildcard game roster. I’m sure of it. One of the benefits of shrinking the pitching staff in the postseason is creating an open roster spot for someone just like Noel. A burner who can come off the bench to pinch-run in the late innings of a close game. Look at Rico run:

The kid can fly and his speed can potentially have a huge impact in the wildcard game. The Yankees brought Noel up this month strictly to pinch-run and I fully expect him to be on the postseason roster. Remember, they carried Freddy Guzman on the postseason roster in 2009 for this exact reason. Noel’s on the wildcard roster. I have no doubt about it.

(Since he wasn’t called up until September 1st, Noel will technically have to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have two position player injury spots available thanks to Mark Teixeira and Mason Williams.)

The Backup Outfielder

Noel will be on the wildcard game roster but he’s not really a backup outfielder. He’s a pinch-runner and that’s all. (The scouting reports indicate Noel is a pretty good defender, but the Yankees haven’t used him defensively all that much.) The Yankees will still need to carry a legitimate backup outfielder if for no other reason than to replace Beltran for defense in the late innings. Chris Young, who is the only righty hitting outfielder on the roster, held that job all season and I expect him to be on the wildcard roster. I know he’s stumped lately, but there’s no reason to think the Yankees won’t carry Young in October. In fact, I’m not sure how you can look at the 39-man active roster and saying Young doesn’t belong on the wildcard game roster. He’s in.

The Final Roster Spot

We still have one last roster spot to fill. The nine locks above plus Ackley, Refsnyder, Ryan, Noel, and Young gets us to 14 position players. I suppose the Yankees could carry eleven pitchers, but I doubt it. It was hard enough coming up with ten pitchers worth a spot on the wildcard roster. One last position player makes sense.

There’s no point in carrying three catchers, so Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are out. The remaining candidates are Jose Pirela and Slade Heathcott, assuming Drew is indeed done for the year. With Refsnyder on the roster, there’s no need for Pirela, another righty hitter. Yeah, Pirela can play the outfield if necessary, but he’s an emergency option out there only. Noel and Ackley are available as emergency outfielders. I also think Pirela would have played more this month if he was a serious wildcard game roster candidate.

Slade. (Presswire)
Slade. (Presswire)

That leaves it between Heathcott and a possibly but not likely healthy Drew. If Drew is not over high dizziness/concussion symptoms by next week, this questioned gets answered for us. In the unlikely event Drew is healthy though, would it make sense to carry another infielder or another outfielder? I think an extra outfielder makes more sense. Between Ackley, Refsnyder, and Ryan, you’ve got the second base starter and two backups. The only backup outfielder is Young considering Noel’s job is pinch-running.

Heathcott gives the Yankees another potential pinch-runner — he’s no Rico, but he’s faster than Young or Refsnyder — and another quality defender, as well as a left-handed bat on the bench. In fact, Drew and Slade are the only possible lefty bats off the bench, and one’s hurt. Besides, if Drew is healthy, it’s Ryan or Heathcott, not Drew or Heathcott. I’d take Heathcott over Ryan.

With Slade on the roster, the Yankees would have two backup infielders even without Drew (or Ryan), and Heathcott at least has a chance to contribute offensively and defensively. I mean, if Drew’s healthy and on the roster, what’s the point of Ryan? What does he offer in a winner-take-all game? I’d expect neither guy to actually play in the game, but, if pressed into action, it’s easy to see Slade having more potential impact than Ryan.

So after all of that, here’s the 25-man wildcard game roster we’ve kinda sorta pieced together today:

Catchers (2) Infielders (7) Outfielders (6) RHP (5) LHP (5)
McCann Bird Gardner Masahiro Tanaka (SP) Andrew Miller
Murphy Ackley Ellsbury Dellin Betances Justin Wilson
Gregorius Beltran Adam Warren Chasen Shreve
Headley Young Andrew Bailey Chris Capuano
A-Rod (DH) Heathcott Nova/Severino/Pineda CC Sabathia
Refsnyder Noel (PR)
Drew/Ryan

Remember, the Yankees can change their 25-man roster prior to the ALDS should they advance, and they’ll have to change it too. They’d need to get more starting pitchers on the roster. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. One thing at a time.

That appears to be the best 25-man roster the Yankees can carry in the wildcard game. Maybe not the most talented, but the most useful given the circumstances. We’re not planning for a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. It’s one game. One stupid little game where anything can happen. Hopefully Girardi won’t have to use anyone beyond the nine starting position players, Beltran’s defensive replacement, Tanaka, and the big three relievers. That’s the best case scenario. If the Yankees need to dip any deeper into their wildcard game roster than that, then, well, just hang on tight.

Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Pitching Staff

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At some point soon, possibly later today, the Yankees will officially clinch their first postseason berth in three seasons. It’s only a wildcard spot, sure, but a wildcard spot is better than nothing. Both the Royals and Giants went to the World Series after being wildcard teams last year, remember.

The wildcard game is considered its own distinct playoff round, which means it gets its own 25-man roster. It’s not a regular season game, so no expanded rosters with September call-ups, but the Yankees would also be able to change their roster prior to the ALDS, should they advance. They can build a roster specifically for the wildcard game.

There have been 12 wildcard teams since the current system was put in place in 2012, and those 12 teams averaged 9.67 pitchers on the roster. Three teams carried eleven pitchers, three carried ten, five carried nine, and one carried eight. There’s no need to carry all the extra starting pitchers, so teams have taken advantage and expanded their benches.

Whoever starts Game 162 for the Yankees on Sunday won’t be on the wildcard roster. There’s no reason to carry him since they won’t be available for the wildcard game on Tuesday. It also wouldn’t make sense to carry the Game 161 starter since he’d be on two days’ rest in the wildcard game. Right now Luis Severino and Michael Pineda are lined up to start Games 161 and 162, respectively, though that can change.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees love to match up with their relievers, so my guess is they end up carrying ten or eleven pitchers in the wildcard game. I’d be surprised if it was any fewer but I suppose it is possible. Which ten or eleven pitchers should the Yankees carry in the wildcard game? Let’s try to figure it out. Later today we’ll tackle the position player side of things.

The Locks

Might as well start with the easy ones to get them out of the way. Masahiro Tanaka will start the wildcard game — he will return from his hamstring injury tonight and start with “no restrictions” (no pitch count, basically), putting him in line for the wildcard game with an extra day of rest — and we know Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson will be in the bullpen. That’s four of the ten or eleven spots right there. You can be sure Girardi would prefer not to use anyone other than those four in the wildcard game too.

If Tanaka’s hamstring acts up tonight, my guess is the Yankees would rearrange their weekend rotation and go with either Severino or Pineda in the wildcard game. (Likely Severino given Pineda’s dud last night.) CC Sabathia is starting tomorrow night and would be able to start the wildcard game on regular rest, though I’d be surprised if he got the call. Yes, Sabathia has pitched better of late, and he is the team’s highest paid starter, but the Yankees wouldn’t even run him out there against the Blue Jays in a regular season game. In a winner-take-all wildcard game? It would surprise me to see him out there if better options available (i.e. Severino).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Safe Bet

Given their need in middle relief and the fact they have four other starters for the postseason rotation, it makes perfect sense for Adam Warren to be on the wildcard game roster and ready for middle innings work. He is currently stretched out to 80+ pitches and lined up to start Friday, which means he’ll be on three days’ rest for the wildcard game. The Yankees could always cut Friday’s start short — say three innings or 50 pitches, something like that — to make sure Warren is fresh for Tuesday. Unless someone gets hurt and Warren has to remain in the postseason rotation, I expect him to be on the wildcard game roster. He’s too good not be in the bullpen for that game. So five of the ten or eleven pitching spots are claimed.

Whither Shreve?

Considering how well he pitched for most of the season, it’s hard to believe Chasen Shreve‘s postseason roster spot is now in question. He’s been that bad in recent weeks. Girardi has already reduced his high-leverage work, so Shreve’s falling out of favor. Once the Yankees clinch, Girardi and the Yankees absolutely should use Shreve as much as possible these last few regular season games to try to get him sorted out, and those last few outings could easily determine his wildcard roster fate. Right now, given his overall body of work, my guess is he’s on the roster.

The Extra Starters

Tanaka is going to start the wildcard game but it would also make sense to carry an extra starter or two in the bullpen, at the very least to serve as a long relief option in case things get crazy in extra innings. As I said, Sabathia would be on full rest for the wildcard game and could serve as the extra starter. Ivan Nova is another candidate — he started Monday and probably won’t start again during the regular season — but I think it’s more likely Nova starts Saturday or Sunday, leaving Severino or Pineda available for the wildcard game. I have a hard time thinking Nova will be on the wildcard game roster, but I guess it’s possible. Do the Yankees need one or two extra starters? I guess that depends how the rest of the roster shakes out. For now I’m thinking Sabathia and another starter will be in the wildcard game bullpen.

The Rest of the Rest

Assuming Warren, Shreve, and two spare starters are on the wild card roster, the Yankees still have two or three pitching spots to fill to get their staff up to ten or eleven. They have no shortage of candidates, that’s for sure. Andrew Bailey, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Chris Capuano, Bryan Mitchell, Chris Martin, Caleb Cotham, and Nick Goody are all on the active roster at the moment. Those last two or three arms will come from that group.

Process of elimination: Goody is out because he’s barely pitched in September, making only two appearances. He seems to be at the very bottom of the Triple-A reliever depth chart. Martin is basically one rung higher — he’s made five appearances this month and three lasted one out. He’s out too. Mitchell looked pretty sharp in short relief earlier this season but has not been all that effective since taking the line drive to the face. Can’t afford to risk his wildness in a winner-take-all game. He’s out.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

That leaves Bailey, Pazos, Pinder, Rumbelow, Capuano, and Cotham. Bailey is a Proven Veteran™ who Girardi has tried to squeeze into some tight spots of late. Sometimes it’s worked (last Friday against the White Sox), sometimes it hasn’t (last Wednesday in Toronto). Pazos and Capuano are lefties, and I thought it was interesting Capuano was used in a true left-on-left matchup situation Monday night (he struck out both batters). He warmed up again for a similar spot last night, but did not enter the game. Pazos has been okay — lefties are 2-for-7 with a walk against him this month — but not great. The next few days could be telling. If we see Capuano get more lefty specialist work, he’ll probably be the guy.

Out of all the guys on the bullpen shuttle, Pinder has spent the most time on the big league roster this year while both Rumbelow and Cotham seemed to get chances to grab hold of a middle relief spot at various points. Neither really did. Both have shown flashes of being useful. Flashes shouldn’t be enough to get them on the wildcard roster though. Right now, I believe both Bailey and Capuano will make the wildcard roster with the caveat that Capuano could get smacked around in the coming days and lose his spot. In that case I think they’d take Pazos as the emergency lefty specialist.

The mechanics of getting Bailey on the roster are simple. He was in the organization before August 31st, so he’s postseason eligible, but he didn’t get called up until September 1st. That means he has to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have three pitching injury spots to play with: Chase Whitley, Sergio Santos, and Diego Moreno. (The injury replacements have to be pitcher for pitcher, position player for position player. No mixing and matching.) Whitley and Santos had Tommy John surgery while Moreno had bone spurs taken out of his elbow. Bailey replaces one of them. Pazos would get one of the other two spots if he makes the roster.

Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) is in the middle of a throwing program but has already been ruled out for the wildcard game. The hope is he can join the bullpen should the Yankees advance to the ALDS. Probably should have mentioned that earlier. Anyway, so after all of that, here’s my ten-man pitching staff guesstimate for the wildcard game:

Righties
Bailey
Betances
Nova (or Severino or Pineda)
Tanaka (starter)
Warren

Lefties
Capuano
Miller
Wilson
Sabathia
Shreve

That might be it right there. The Yankees don’t have to carry an 11th pitcher. Ten is plenty — especially since both Sabathia and Nova/Severino/Pineda would be available for super long relief — and is right in line with the previous 12 wild card teams. If they do carry an 11th reliever, I think it would be a righty just to even things out. So … Cotham? Girardi has used him in some big-ish situations of late. Either way, the 11th pitcher’s role on the wildcard roster would be what, 25th inning guy?

The ten-man pitching staff includes Tanaka (the starter) and two extra starters for long relief purposes, giving Girardi a normal seven-man bullpen. For one individual game, that should be plenty. The pitching game plan is pretty simple too, right? Get at least five innings from Tanaka, then turn it over to Wilson, Betances, and Miller. Warren is the next “trusted” reliever. If Girardi has to start dipping into guys like Capuano or Bailey or Shreve, something’s gone wrong.