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A modest proposal for the Yankees’ playoff rotation

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Forget Happ vs. Tanaka. It’s time for the Yankees to be bold.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

As Virgil wrote in The Aeneid, Audentis Fortuna iuvat. Fortune favors the bold, indeed, and the Yankees can put that thinking to use in the coming weeks.

The New York Yankees will be one of two participants in the 2018 American League Wild Card game. At time of writing they were 8.5 games back of the division with 19 to play. They held the first wild card by 2.5 games over the Oakland Athletics, but after taking a series against Seattle this weekend, are up on the second wild card by ten games. Despite the more irrational takes of some folks out there, the Yankees have an easier path to winning the division than to dropping out of the playoffs all together.

So we know that the Yankees will be in the playoffs for at least one game, and possibly then some. There’s a lot of discussion surrounding their playoff picture, and a hearty debate over who should pitch, who should be on the playoff roster, and so on. I’m here to propose the Yankees do something they’ve never done, when the stakes are the highest.

There shouldn’t be a starter in the Wild Card game. There shouldn’t be a starter in a hypothetical ALDS matchup with the Red Sox, either. It’s time for the Yankees to adopt the practice of one of baseball’s biggest surprise teams, the Tampa Bay Rays. Yep, it’s time for the opener.

The theory behind the opener is pretty solid. The first inning is the most dangerous for a pitcher to navigate, since they’re guaranteed to face the other team’s best hitters. The league wide ERA for the first inning is 4.65, higher than any other inning. This high-scoring environment combined with the fact that the first inning always starts out tied means the inning is also close to the top of the highest-leverage moments – which is one reason why “clutch” isn’t really reliable.

The first inning carries an LI of 0.97, which is the highest of any inning before the eighth, which is traditionally seen as a higher-stakes, more-important inning. Getting behind early in the first inning can take a team out of the game before it’s really started, and the Yankees have had experience with this in spades.

Go back to last Wednesday night against Oakland. That was the inning where Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez seemed to be competing to see who could hurt the team more before getting three outs. Sanchez gave up three passed balls, Severino surrendered four hits of more than 100 mph off the bat. The Yankees gave up four runs and never recovered. That’s exactly why the first inning is so important and such a high-leverage environment.

The opener, then, is a high-leverage specialist. He’s a pitcher that would traditionally work in the seventh or eighth inning, strikes a ton of batters out, and is used to being called upon to face the other team’s best hitters. If only the Yankees had a few relievers like that.

It’s no secret the Yankee bullpen is the strength of their pitching. ERA isn’t the best stat, but it’s simple enough that combined with leverage index and a few other reasons, using the opener for the playoffs is the correct move:

The only innings where the Yankees’ team ERA is below four is the third inning – we’ll get back to that – and the last third of the game, when the bullpen, and especially their high-leverage relievers, take over. Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman and David Robertson are both better per batter pitchers than anyone in the Yankee starting rotation, and that bears out in the above chart.

So what about the third inning, why is that ERA so much lower relative to the other innings? Teams don’t just score fewer runs against the Yankees in this inning, but against the league as a whole. It has to do with the spots in the lineup that you traditionally see in the third inning. Barring an early blowout, the ninth hitter almost always hits in the third, and in a “perfect” start, a pitcher would face the seventh and eighth hitters as well. Facing this lower level quality of hitter naturally leads to fewer runs allowed.

Use of a high-leverage opener, like say David Robertson, plays into these facts in a number of ways. He gives up fewer runs on a per-inning basis than anyone in the Yankees’ starting rotation, and so is more likely to get through the top of the order than Severino, Masahiro Tanaka or J.A. Happ. That first inning in the playoffs is even more important. The first inning of the Wild Card game will almost certainly feature Matt Chapman and Khris Davis coming to the plate, and an ALDS series with Boston would see Mookie Betts and JD Martinez hitting in the first.

If those hitters were due up in, for example, the seventh inning, we’d all be crying out for Aaron Boone to go to one of his many high-leverage arms for three outs. We know that the first inning is generally a higher-leverage spot than the seventh, so why wouldn’t you go to your highest-leverage arm right out of the gate?

The opener also helps the traditional starter. Using the model I’m promoting here, a reliever pitches the first inning. Unlike what the Rays do, the Yankees don’t go to a glorified long man, but an actual bonafide starting pitcher. Robertson pitches the first, Masahiro Tanaka takes over in the second. Yankee pitchers struggle to go more than five innings, averaging just 5.42 innings per start in 2018. In the higher-leverage, 2017 playoff run, the Yankee starters pitched even fewer innings, just 4.87 innings per start!

Using the opener, that’s okay, since that fifth inning pitched by a starting pitcher faces the bottom of the order, increasing their chance of making it through cleanly. Obviously, this assumes “perfection” but it’s a good rule of thumb for how the batters-faced breakdown would work:

And in a practical sense, this is how we’d see the Wild Card game play out:

Again, the batters faced is not realistic – the Yankees aren’t going to throw a combined perfect game – but if all the pitchers do their job, which given their assignments should be easier than the traditional way of approaching games, the batters faced will be closer to this than they would otherwise be. Also, no pitcher faces the top of the order – remember, Matt Chapman and Khris Davis, or Betts and Martinez – more than once, and we know that the more often a hitter sees a pitcher, the more the advantage is slated to the hitter.

The central questions around this strategy are which reliever you use to open, and whether starters are willing to come out in the second inning. You can’t use Chad Green to open the game, since his primary value is the ability to work multiple innings. If this idea ends up going down in flames, you need someone like Green to come in and settle things down, just like last year’s Wild Card start by Severino. I’m not sure Zach Britton has earned the trust of the Yankee decision-makers to work such a high leverage inning, and so we’re left with Robertson and Betances as the most likely options.

The second question is harder to answer. Starting pitchers are creatures of habit; they all have their warmup routines that could be thrown off by the use of the opener strategy. At the risk of sounding bullheaded though, you hear players talk all the time about “doing whatever the team needs me to do” if it means winning the game. The use of the opener probably increases the Yankees’ chances of winning the game, so the starting rotation would have to put their money where their mouths are. This is the best strategy for playoff success, so if you actually want to win, buy in.

Random chance has also granted the Yankees a great chance at testing this strategy to ensure the comfort of the starting rotation. Of the nineteen games left in the season, six come against the Blue Jays and Orioles, the bottom of the AL East barrel. Both series are at home as well, giving the Yankees even more of an advantage to start with. The time to test the opener is now. Get Robertson or Betances used to pitching in the first inning against an underwhelming Orioles lineup. Have Sabathia and Tanaka experiment with the second inning start by facing Randall Grichuk before they have to face Steve Pearce. The Yankees’ playoff position is all but locked up, so use the remaining games as an avenue to prepare for the postseason. Heck, the opener strategy increases your chance of winning anyway, so do it purely because six games against the Jays and Os at home are six winnable games.

Audentis Fortuna iuvat. Virgil’s words don’t just fit in the Classics. The Yankees have a very real weakness in the first inning, and the leverage index facing the tops of the order of AL playoff teams will be through the roof. The team’s best chance to win is a bold stroke, but one that should be taken. Let’s see the opener in the postseason.