The 2019 Yankees find themselves in an uber-competitive ALCS series with one of the most well-rounded and balanced teams in recent memory. While the Yankees’ firepower offense can keep pace with the Astors’ bats, Houston came into the series favored due to their immense advantage in starting pitching.
With Washington on the brink of winning the NLCS on the shoulders of their starters, the Yankees are bucking the traditional route of relying on your best starting arms to get you through a playoff schedule that includes multiple off days in each series. The Nationals have ridden Max Schezer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin to a commanding series lead, and for the remainder of the ALCS, we would all likely expect much of the same from Houston, as they lean on Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.
The Cardinals subscribed to a similar philosophy this postseason, as evident by their usage of ‘ace’ Jack Flaherty in their winner-take-all game five. Despite having a 10-0 lead before Flaherty even took the hill, skipper Mike Shildt asked him to go six innings, throwing 104 pitches (this coming off a 117-pitch outing in game two of the series).
In today’s game, where 12-15 pitchers per playoff game is not infrequent, the Nationals and Cardinals are throwbacks who got themselves to the final four teams standing.
Then we have the Yankees.
The Yankees decided against bolstering their starting rotation, and preferred to spend their offseason money elsewhere. While this strategy would have been nearly unthinkable in the old-guard George Steinbrenner ownership days (let’s just do both!), we are far beyond that point in franchise history.
It’s not as if the Yankees kept the status qup and hoped for the best. Rather they added D.J. LaMaheiu to the lineup (arguably the team MVP), and Zack Britton to the bullpen. Even midseason, they improved by adding James Paxton to their rotation, though Paxton is hardly the ‘ace’ caliber pitcher typical of postseason favorites. The old-guard Yankees likely would not have watched Dallas Keuchel sit on the shelf for months, though New York’s strong position in the AL East standings gave no reason for them to panic. All seemed to be working well, even amidst a litany of injuries across the board.
The strategy of compiling the seventh-most reliever innings in baseball led to great success so far this year. New York ran away with the AL East and were able to rest their players early. They brought their best roster of the season into the playoffs, with the added benefit of a first round bye matchup with the Twins.
Things could not have lined up better for New York when Tampa Bay took Houston to a fifth game in their LDS series. It meant that New York would avoid the Cole / Verlander one-two punch to start the series. One disadvantage of the traditional approach to giving your starters the most innings possible, when you’re on the rails, all future innings are irrelevant to the current emergency.
It would be unfair to say that the rest of the Houston / New York series will be a referendum on the reliever-heavy usage versus starter-heavy usage in the playoffs, but both teams’ strategies will be on display. Houston planned for Cole and Verlander to pitch them deep into October, just as the Yankees figured they could position themselves well with their relief corps.
Success in this regard may be good for the Yankees, but four-hour marathon games where 15 pitchers parade in a nine-inning game does lend itself to lesser aesthetics, and a less pleasant fan experience. Not to mention the foregoing of unforgettable narratives such as ‘’Playoff Madison Bumgarner’ and deciding-game ‘aces’ coming in on short rest to snuff-out a rally, or to finish a deciding game. These are exciting moments, where we get to see the best and most exciting players in the highest-leverage situations. It’s a lot less interesting when a rally is quelled due to the parade of multiple relievers, followed by even more relievers, all of whom come in to face a handful of batters (or only one, for that matter).
It will be fascinating to see how the Yankees do against Houston’s top-tier starters for the rest of this series. Even if they manage to muddle their way through this ALCS with their cavalcade of relievers, the Nationals are well-positioned to be next in line representing the National League. Similar to Houston, they bring top-notch starters they plan to ride to a championship run ---- except they likely will have plenty of rest before their next series.
The Yankees went all-in on a bullpen-first strategy, now’s the time to see whether or not it will pay-off against teams that acquired strong starting pitchers. If the Yankees are left without a championship (it would be their second decade ever without one), and they decide to need an ace, there’s a Cy Young candidate in Houston who is itching for a major payday, and who very well could be coming off a classic World Series performance.