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How the Yankees’ bullpen strategy should change in the ALCS

The Yankees need to leverage Adam Ottavino’s dominance if they’re going to advance to the World Series

MLB: ALDS-Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Yankees’ bullpen is one of the strongest in MLB, and the envy of all other postseason teams. Zack Britton left Game Three of the ALDS with an ankle injury and Aroldis Chapman appeared to injure his hand in the postgame celebrations on Monday night, but both are expected to be ready to go in the ALCS. The Yankees’ bullpen was stellar in the three-game sweep of the Twins, posting a 2.02 ERA in 13.1 innings of work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a few changes as they look ahead to the ALCS.

The most surprising development in the ALDS was the Yankees’ deployment of Adam Ottavino, who led the bullpen with a 1.90 ERA in 66.1 regular season innings. In both Game One and Game Three, Ottavino was brought on to face Nelson Cruz before being removed. The Yankees clearly entered the series with the strategy of using Ottavino in high leverage situations against right-handed batters, but they also put themselves in a position where they were forced to use Britton and Chapman for more than the single inning they’re accustomed to. Ottavino issued a walk in both instances, raising the question of why you would burn quite possibly your most dominant reliever in a situation where he records zero of the 27 outs your team needs to win the game.

Luckily for Boone and his staff, the offense put them in a position to make relatively easy decisions in the late innings, but any situation where they were forced to use Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, or J.A. Happ in a close game could have resulted in some second guessing. Use Game One at Yankee Stadium as an example. The Yankees burned through Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, and Britton over the course of 2.1 innings. If they didn’t blow the game open in the bottom of the seventh would Britton have pitched the eighth inning as well? They were able to use Happ once it became a six-run game, but for a team with MLB’s deepest bullpen, it was relatively unclear who their options would be over the final two innings.

The Yankees clearly placed a heavy emphasis on using Ottavino as their official Nelson Cruz stopper, even though it didn’t quite work out that way. If they face the Astros in the ALCS, they should rely much more heavily on the right-hander. Righties batted .177 against Ottavino this season and the Astros normally sandwich the dangerous lefty Yordan Alvarez between four righties. You might think the Yankees would use Kahnle as an Alvarez stopper, similar to how they used Ottavino against Cruz, but Alvarez was equally dangerous against lefties and his greatest weakness this season came against the breaking ball, not offspeed pitches (Kahnle’s specialty). According to Statcast, Alvarez slugged .708 against offspeed pitches–compared to .636 against breaking balls–and he also took Kahnle deep on a 97 mph fastball earlier this season. This all makes Ottavino primed for a much bigger role facing the middle of the Astros order, should they face Houston in the ALCS.

Regardless of the opponent, the Yankees need to find a way to leverage one of MLB’s most dominant right-handers. It’s hard to imagine the Yankees making it through the ALCS only getting a handful of outs from Ottavino. The good news for Boone is that all his relief options are extremely well rested, giving them multi-inning versatility in at least Game One. Don’t be surprised if Ottavino’s role shifts from that of a one-batter escape artist, to a workhorse reliever capable of mowing down the middle of an opponent’s order in the middle or late innings. Few relievers were more dominant in the regular season, and the Yankees will need him to play a huge role if they’re going to advance to the World Series.