The Yankees are in a somewhat unique situation where they could arrange their three postseason starters in any order and it wouldn’t come as a major surprise. I think it’s fair to say most expect James Paxton to be the team’s top starter throughout their playoff run, but a decision to start Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka in Game One of a series wouldn’t be an earth-shattering development.
The days of having a rotation order set in stone are over and countless variables will come into play as the Yankees decide the order that will give them the best chance to win each series. Consider these factors that likely went into the Yankees’ decision to roll out Paxton, Tanaka, and Severino in that order against Minnesota.
Regardless of the opponent, ballpark, or time of day, the Yankees would have really had to talk themselves out of starting Paxton in Game One against Minnesota. It’s not often that a pitcher rattles off 10-straight wins right before the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean the team didn’t look deeply into the others factors that made Paxton the right choice to get things started.
Paxton only faced the Twins once during the regular season, and he left that game in New York after three innings with knee soreness. However, he gave up just one unearned run in that outing, so there were no red flags with the matchup. Paxton also led all Yankees starters with a 4.02 xFIP in the second half of the season at home. He also registered a 3.35 ERA in his 15 starts at Yankee Stadium, and a 4.33 ERA on the road this season, making it an obvious decision to start him in either Game One or Game Two at home.
The Yankees likely made the decision to start Tanaka in Game Two based on his home/road splits both in his career and this season individually. Tanaka owns a career 3.36 home ERA and a 4.15 road ERA. This season he saw much more dramatic splits, posting an ugly 6.05 road ERA and a 3.10 ERA at Yankee Stadium. Don’t be surprised if the Yankees manipulate the rotation to ensure Tanaka makes most of his playoff starts in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.
Coincidentally, Tanaka faced every team in the American League this season besides the Twins, potentially making him an even more difficult matchup for many hitters who haven’t had a close look at his diverse pitch mix. Also, by starting Tanaka in Game Two, the Yankees have him lined up as a potential Game Five starter at home on four days rest. In Tanaka’s career, he has a 3.78 ERA on both four days rest and five days rest, proving that he can be adaptable in both situations.
For comparison, Severino has struggled in his career with limited rest. The flame-thrower owns a 4.05 ERA in 36 career starts on four days rest and a 3.15 ERA in 34 starts on five days rest. Starting Severino in Game Three likely gives him a long period before his next start, which is highly important for a player who spent most of the regular season rehabbing his shoulder. Severino has also had success at Target Field, albeit in a very small sample. His only career start at Target Field came on September 12 of last season and he pitched 5.2 innings of one-run ball.
All of the historical context, home-and-road splits, and more will factor into the Yankees’ rotation decisions. Ultimately, Aaron Boone and his staff’s instincts will also play a major role. With a five-game series, it’s pretty easy to line up your home and road starters, but it gets harder in a seven-game series. Don’t be surprised if the Yankees choose to implement an opener like Chad Green, potentially followed by J.A. Happ, who’s pitched to a 1.65 ERA in September and October. After some questionable calls in last year’s postseason, Boone will hope to press all the right buttons in the quest for a 28th championship.