“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. I’ve always thought that this saying is bunk. I prefer, “If you can’t beat ‘em, figure out what they’re doing, then do that better than ‘em, then beat ‘em”. It’s not quite as catchy, but it’s a better overall strategy. To this end, consider the Houston Astros, and in particular their efforts in the 2017 ALCS.
The Astros didn’t win that series through black magic or some crucial Yankee mistake. They won because of their innovative “piggybacking” technique, where starters turned relievers like Brad Peacock and Lance McCullers Jr immediately followed brief, high-intensity starts by Charlie Morton. The most obvious example is the crucial Game Seven, where McCullers threw just four innings.
This trend continued into the World Series, where starting-caliber relievers on the Astros threw a combined 11.2 innings across the seven games. It’s a strategy that most teams couldn’t employ outside of the playoffs, but the Yankees appear uniquely able to.
Adam Warren and AJ Cole don’t see much time in games. Cole has been a regular target of jokes about how he pitches once every three weeks, and he’s pitched just 14 times this season, while Warren has made only 20 appearances. Both pitchers enter the game relatively rarely, but often work multiple innings at a time. 35% of Warren’s appearances have gone more than one inning, while 75% of Cole’s relief efforts involve more than three outs. Cole also made two starts this season for the Nationals.
The upshot is that Cole and Warren look like perfect candidates for the Yankees’ own piggybacking strategy. The idea here is pretty simple. Aside from Luis Severino, none of the pitchers in the Yankees’ starting rotation are particularly great at giving length in their starts. In particular, both Domingo German and Sonny Gray have struggled to work deep into games, with just 46% and 50% of their starts this year going more than five innings, respectively.
Instead of hoping that these two pitchers figure out how to stretch out their starts, the Yankees should lean into the fact that neither of them are great at going deep into games. Match one of the Yankees’ long relief pitchers, Cole or Warren, with each of German and Gray. The starter has a goal of recording 9-12 outs, at which point they yield to the reliever, who also works to get 6-9 outs. By the end of that stretch, the Yankees would have six to eight innings of a “start”, at which point the regular high-leverage relievers can take over.
The advantages to this proposal come mostly from allowing German and Gray’s stuff to “play up” in shorter outings. Almost all starters see themselves perform better in relief – which is why they’re deployed in playoff games more and more. When a pitcher knows he only has to work a couple of innings, he can throw at max effort since there’s no sixth inning to reserve energy for. German and Gray clearly have better stuff than they show at times, and in working in shorter bursts, their respective 10.53 and 8.44 K/9 rates could bump up.
It’s also important for both pitchers to avoid facing a lineup for the third time. German and Gray both boast their highest HR/FB% the third time through the order, which means they’re more likely to give up that devastating late home run that can dramatically change the entire outlook of a start. The third time through penalty applies to virtually every starter, but German’s 5.99 FIP and Gray’s 4.82 highlights that these two are hit harder than most by the third time penalty. Piggybacking with assigned relievers is the best way to avoid that penalty.
By choosing Warren and Cole specifically, the Yankees also avoid having to use a higher-leverage reliever when they don’t need to. Take two of German’s recent starts for example. On June 24 in Tampa, he pitched just three innings, giving up six runs. He was immediately relieved by Warren, who went to work in a fairly low leverage spot, with an LI of 0.64.
In a start against the Braves on July 3, German was relieved after just 4.1 innings in lieu of Cole, who came in in a high-leverage (LI=2.13) spot. You It’s possible that a higher-leverage reliever was needed in this spot, but more importantly, the team needed length. The Yankees are already preparing to use Warren or Cole in these kinds of situations, so it’s time they codified it.
All athletes are creatures of habit. Their meal plans, workout routines and media exposure are usually carefully managed, and anyone who has ever watched pitchers warm in the bullpen can attest to the fact that pitchers form the thickest habits of all athletes. The Yankees would be well served by adding Warren and Cole as official piggybackers, setting a fourth or fifth inning appearance every five days as routine. The team is one of only a handful in the league with a deep enough bullpen to pull it off, and it’s the best way to cauterize the wounds that the rotation has inflicted so far in 2018.