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Is the Yankees’ long-term bullpen strategy about to pay off?

The Yankees used a clear set of guiding principles with regard to reliever usage this year. Is it about to pay off, or backfire?

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an old adage in chess that states that one’s ability is determined by how many moves ahead one can see. There’s much more to chess than that, but making decisions with long-term ramifications at front of mind is crucial. The benefits of making an aggressive, attacking move in the short-term must be weighed against the possible defensive liabilities such a move could create far down the line.

Much like a chess player weighs whether to advance that pawn deep into enemy territory early in the game to initiate a quick attack, the Yankees and Aaron Boone spent much of the season weighing the strategic merits of short-term attacks versus long-term stability. Rather than gauging the value of pushing a pawn, however, the Yankees had to determine night after night the extent to which they should use their elite bullpen.

It is clear where the Yankees came down; the team decided to avoid putting any undue stress on their relievers. They forsook short-term attacks in lieu of a long-term plan. Instead of pushing their relief aces hard in June and July, the Yankees made every effort to keep their top arms as fresh as possible to the end of the season, presumably with an eye towards the playoffs.

In his bullpen playoff preview piece for ESPN, Sam Miller noted the incredible restraint the Yankees used all year. Miller writes “They hardly ever used relievers on back-to-back days -- only 83 times, lowest among contenders. They never used any of their top five relievers three days in a row, which is notably conservative.” So, the Yankees stand out like a sore thumb; they have the best relievers in the game, but they never asked them to strain themselves during the regular season

Adam Ottavino pitched two innings twice all year, and in each instance he threw no more than 23 pitches. Zack Britton recorded more than three outs once, when he got four outs on 22 pitches back in May. Tommy Kahnle went more than an inning just twice. Aroldis Chapman did not pitch more than an inning all year. Chad Green was the team’s only relief ace to consistently pitch outside the one-inning-at-a-time format.

This strategy has obvious benefits. The depth of the Yankee bullpen allowed the team to focus on keeping their relievers happy and healthy. While the roster around them staggered beneath the weight of historic injuries, the bullpen trucked along. The Yankees’ core of elite relievers, save Dellin Betances, whose circumstances are somewhat aberrational, stayed on the field all year, likely thanks to relatively light, and structured, workloads.

Ottavino appeared in 73 games but pitched just 66 innings, after averaging 74 innings per 162 games with the Rockies. Chapman pitched just 57 innings in 60 appearances despite staying healthy all season, after averaging 67 innings per 162 games entering the year. Britton threw 60 innings; with the Orioles from 2014 to 2016, the last years before 2019 that he stayed healthy throughout, Britton averaged 70 innings a year.

The Yankees’ top relievers stayed on the field, but the Yankees uniformly asked each of them to pitch about 10 innings fewer than they typically would in a season in which they had full health. From this view, their strategy of rarely asking them to pitch on back-to-back nights, and literally never asking them to pitch more than two nights in a row, was a success. Their best relievers never strained during the year, and in theory, they are now fresh and ready to take on a heavier workload in the playoffs.

Or are they ready? Just as easily as I could argue that the Yankees’ healthy and fresh set of relief aces is ready to pitch early and often in October games, I could argue that the team’s conservative tact in the regular season has left their elite relievers ill-prepared for the gauntlet of the postseason. Ottavino, Chapman, and the rest are quite likely about to be asked to perform tasks they haven’t had to all year.

Now that the ALCS has shifted back to New York, we are about to find out if they’re ready. The Yankees just rode their bullpen hard in Game Two, and after a travel day, face three consecutive games against the Astros in the Bronx. Luis Severino starts Game Three, having lasted just four innings in his last start. A potential bullpen day looms in Game Four, when the relief corps could be asked to provide just as much length as they did in covering for James Paxton on Sunday.

Unless a series of blowouts allows Boone to tap Luis Cessa and Tyler Lyons, the Yankees’ big guns will be forced to shoulder a load they haven’t experienced in 2019. The schedule simply demands it. There is already wear on the bullpen after the Game Two marathon, and the chances of a starter stepping up with a long start any time soon appear low. Some of the Yankees’ best relievers are going to have to pitch on back-to-back-to-back nights. Some will have to pitch more than one inning on consecutive nights. Some might have to total seven or eight innings in a four-game span.

We haven’t seen them do any of this, and thus, we don’t know how they might respond. Will the freshness in their arms allow them to attack the Astros night after night without worry? Or will they crumble, having been asked to perform a job they didn’t practice for, just when the lights were brightest?

The Yankees may have played the regular season with a prescience on the level of a chess grandmaster, or they might have done the equivalent of asking a bunch of sprinters to run an 800-meter race after having them train for the 100-meters for months. Which side of the fence they fall on could determine the pennant.