So far this year, news about the AL East has largely been about the Yankees and Red Sox, and deservedly so. They're both filled to the brim with high-end talent, in addition to being incredibly deep. Combine that with the fact that the rest of the division is under .500, and, well, no wonder they're the talk of the division. However, the Tampa Bay Rays recently stole away the headlines; not by being better than the Yankees or the Red Sox, but by being willfully, gleefully unorthodox.
For a detailed look at what the Rays did and why they did it, please read this piece by Ian Malinowski of DRaysBay (seriously, give it a read, it's a great article). If you don't have the time, here's a quick and easy synopsis: on May 19 and 20 against the Angels, Kevin Cash and the Rays elected to let Sergio Romo pitch the first inning, inserting their scheduled starters from the second inning on. The results were mixed in one sense, as the Rays won the first game and lost the second, but in another sense the experiment worked, as Romo pitched a scoreless first in both games.
It's tempting to say that the Rays started Romo because they're weird and be done with it, but the reasoning behind their strategy is more sound than you'd think. The Angels' 1-2-3 hitters in each game (Zack Cozart - Mike Trout - Justin Upton in Game 1, Ian Kinsler - Trout - Upton in Game 2) were all right-handed, and Romo is a right-handed reliever who destroys righties. By letting your “starter” come into the game after Romo takes care of Trout and company, you can let him work deep into games without having to face the Angels' best hitters for a third time. In sum, all the Rays did was play the matchups - they just took that concept to the extreme.
The Yankees, of course, would be foolish to copy what the Rays did outright. The Rays enacted this strategy because all the stars aligned in just the right way - their SP matchups, their bullpen, the handedness of the opposing lineup, and so on. The Rays also have nothing to lose in terms of the standings, and are therefore much more incentivized to experiment with weird stuff than the Yankees, who are in the midst of a tight division race with the Red Sox that's only sure to get even tighter.
A similar strategy couldn't come in handy for the Yankees, though. Starters tend to get progressively worse as they face the order for the second, third, and fourth (or more) time, and the Yankees' starters are no exception. Sure, Luis Severino is great and can work deep into games. But can you say the same about Masahiro Tanaka? Sonny Gray? CC Sabathia? Domingo German? Wouldn't they benefit from facing the top of the lineup one less time?
To take things a step further, imagine the following scenario. It's Game 2 of the 2018 ALDS, a rematch between New York and Cleveland. The Yankees are down a game, having dropped a pitchers' duel between Severino and Corey Kluber in Game 1. Cleveland's starting lineup is strong at the top with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez hitting 2nd and 3rd, but the remaining hitters are largely uninspiring. Instead of starting Tanaka like you normally would, why not let one of the Yankees' relief aces handle the first inning? If you're worried about “closer mentality,” why not let Chad Green, who is a former starter and is used to unorthodox usage, have a go at it?
I'm just spitballing here; I wouldn't go so far as to recommend that the Yankees do such a thing should the situation arise. Indeed, we don't even have enough data to determine if the strategy is working out for the Rays or not. But there's a method to the madness, and the Yankees would be unwise to dismiss the Rays' experiment outright. The Yankees have been receptive to other new and unorthodox pitching strategies, with increased breaking ball usage among the foremost of them. They should at least keep a tab on this strategy too. If the Rays show it works, then the Yankees shouldn't hesitate to try it out for themselves.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Yankees would treat their less wealthy peers as major-league “farm teams,” letting them develop stars only for the Yankees to snag them via trades and enjoy their primes. The advent of free agency and the tendency of teams to lock up their young stars early has made this strategy hard to follow, especially in recent years. However, the Yankees can do the same even now - not with players, but with ideas and strategies. If a small-market team, helmed by an intelligent maverick manager, wants to find a competitive advantage within their limited budget constraints by trying out weird stuff, let them. Monitor their progress closely. And if they make it work, emulate it. That's how an evil empire should behave.