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Should the Wild Card be a bullpen game for the Yankees?

In a one-game playoff, it might make sense to leverage their best asset.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There’s no denying that the Wild Card game has changed the way baseball teams are constructed. The concern in the single Wild Card era was that it just became another division title. Because there was no further incentive to win the division over the wild card, a team like the Yankees this season would feel pretty comfortable coasting to the finish instead of wasting energy chasing the Red Sox. Not only does this new change make September more interesting, but it also changes the calculus quite a bit.

For one, your season could end in a single game. The Yankees will likely finish near 90 wins, which is a miracle all things considered, but they could be washed in a single affair by a Twins or Angels team that is clearly inferior. That’s what makes it interesting, obviously, and the Yankees have luckily prepared for this possibility.

That preparation involved, primarily, stacking together an elite bullpen. It’s easily the best bullpen in the league (next to the Indians), and it could definitely be better if some of the key actors start picking up the slack. David Robertson (29 ERA-), Chad Green (39 ERA-), Tommy Kahnle (64 ERA-), Dellin Betances (70 ERA-), and Aroldis Chapman (84 ERA-) make up the core of the bullpen, and despite the latter two going through major negative regression, this is still an impressive group.

Where this comes into play is a theory that is oft-referenced in sabermetric circles, that the wild card game should exclusively be a bullpen game. Dave Cameron first opined about this back before the Yankees’ last Wild Card game against the Astros, where the result was ironically their ace Dallas Keuchel shutting them down. He writes:

“[R]elievers are more effective on a per-batter basis than starting pitchers, and most teams don’t have the kinds of starting pitchers who can justify being left in the game a third time through the batting order, especially when their team’s season hangs in the balance.”

Let’s talk about a few examples, though, and see how they would match up in this type of scenario. Here’s how each prospective starter stacks up in their first, second, and third times through the order this season, expressed in opponent wOBA:

Yankees Starts Each Time Through Order

Pitcher 1st Time Through Order 2nd Time Through Order 3rd Time Through Order
Pitcher 1st Time Through Order 2nd Time Through Order 3rd Time Through Order
Luis Severino 0.268 0.246 0.272
Masahiro Tanaka 0.311 0.351 0.322
Sonny Gray 0.261 0.301 0.284

By this chart, the important thing is the jump between the first time and the second time. By this metric, at least, it would only make sense to leave in Severino more than one time through the order, but by the third one should call it quits. This is because if you look at how relievers have performed, the second and third time through the order’s iteration of each starter is not as good as a prospective reliever.

  • Chapman: .281 wOBA
  • Betances: .268 wOBA
  • Green: .199 wOBA
  • Robertson: .224 wOBA
  • Kahnle: .267 wOBA

This is what I mean. Even if a pitcher is completely rolling, these numbers matter. Once you get past the first time through the order, there’s almost no argument that one of those starters at that level is better than one of these fresh relievers. The only exception is maybe Severino, but even with him I wouldn’t let him through the third time; there are still four relievers with a better wOBA than his third time through.

I don’t think this should be some hard and fast rule, but essentially the strategy should be one or two times through the order, and pulled at the first sign of trouble. Let’s hope the Yankees win the division and it isn’t a concern, but if I’m being honest, that probably isn’t the case. Luckily the Yankees have built their team for this exact scenario, it’s just up to them to actually use it correctly.