In the 2017 AL Wild Card game between the Yankees and the Twins, lightning struck three times. First, Luis Severino, who’d established himself as an ace in the regular season, had nothing and gave up three runs while recording just one out. Second, the Yankees’ offense immediately came back in the bottom of the first. And third, and perhaps most importantly, the Yankees’ bullpen was virtually flawless, going 8.2 innings, surrendering just one run, and allowing only five hits and three walks. While it wasn’t the plan, the Yankees bullpened their most important game of the season to date.
While the Yankees certainly had the bullpen strength to plan that sort of game, it wasn’t what they intended. It happened by necessity and paid off. Had they planned to go the bullpen route, who knows what would’ve happened.
Once again, the Yankees are poised to make the Wild Card game and have a strong bullpen. Their ace has struggled at times, as has his ‘back up’ in Masahiro Tanaka. Should the Yankees employ the bullpen strategy during the Wild Card game?
It’s easy to see the bare bones of how they could do such a thing. Chad Green or Dellin Betances could start the game, using their high-octane stuff against the top of the order. For argument’s sake, let’s say it’s Green who goes first and handles the first two innings. After that, you could throw in one inning of Jonathan Holder against the bottom of the lineup to get you through the third, then Betances for two in the fourth and fifth. From there, David Robertson takes the sixth and seventh with Zach Britton and Aroldis Chapman for an inning each to end it.
Alternatively, the Yankees could have a reliever start the game, throw two innings, and hand the ball to a starter for the next three before he makes way for the back end of the bullpen–Robertson, Betances, Britton, Chapman playing matchups.
This strategy is certainly tempting, but ultimately, I think only the absolute right set of circumstances would need to exist for it to be something the Yankees should try. First, the Yankees would need to be ‘out’ of viable starters. To me, that means that they had to fight for a playoff spot or division title down the stretch and used one of Severino or Tanaka before the Wild Card game. Second, they would need to try it at least once or twice in the regular season. Pitchers tend to be creatures of habit and having them break those habits for the first time before the biggest game of the season would likely be unwise.
Despite any struggles they’ve had this year, I’m much more inclined to trust Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka in a big game like the Wild Card game than I am a new strategy, even if it should work in theory. It’s something the pitchers are likely to be unfamiliar with and the playoffs is not the time to make your own players uncomfortable.