Starting pitching was the big thing that held the Yankees back in 2019, but the team tried to be clever in working around their biggest drawback. By acting resourcefully and eschewing the traditional concepts of starters and relievers, the 2019 Yankees more or less employed “pitchers” who could come in at any time – some starters were used out of relief, and several relievers “opened” games.
It’s a strange idea that took some time getting used to, but it was a necessary one for the team. When ace Luis Severino went down for all but three starts and James Paxton, Domingo German and Jordan Montgomery also all missed time, it forced the Yankees’ few remaining starters into larger roles, roles they were not equipped for. Aging starters like CC Sabathia or J.A. Happ could barely pitch five effective innings at this point of their careers, and certainly weren’t going to go deep into games. At some times last year, Masahiro Tanaka was the club’s only reliable starter.
Thus, enter bullpen games. Chad Green started 15 games but only pitched 19.1 innings in those brief starts, serving as an “opener” in most of his games – the guy who got through the first three-to-six batters before giving way to a host of relievers or the traditional starter. Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley, Jonathan Holder and Nestor Cortes also opened games, while Tanaka, Happ, German, Sabathia and Motgomery all came out of the bullpen at least once during the season. The innings-by-committee approach got the Yankees’ tattered pitching staff to Game Six of the ALCS, where the team lost, ironically, in a bullpen game.
However, while the strategy was generally effective for the club last year, it’s not a strategy that the Yankees will likely have to use too much moving forward. If there’s a day game after a night game during a thick part of the schedule, a starter is injured or a doubleheader pops up, then using a bullpen game might make sense. But using a shortened rotation and relying on bullpen games every fifth day? That seems like a trend that will stay in 2019, for the most part.
Most importantly, the Yankees have upgraded their rotation. For all intents and purposes, they never had Severino or Montgomery last year, who “replace” Sabathia as the rotation’s only loss. German’s status is still up in the air due to MLB’s investigation into an alleged domestic violence incident, but he will probably be back with the Yankees at some point. And of course, the team signed arguably the best pitcher in the league, Gerrit Cole, to a massive contract. The Yankees didn’t back the Brinks Truck up to Cole’s place to have him lead a rotation full of relievers.
Now, the Yankees have seven starters (counting German) for five spots, and could even look to add a veteran on a minor-league deal. The team also has Deivi Garcia and Jonathan Loaisiga around, the former a top prospect, and the latter a still-talented young hurler with injury concerns. With all that rotation depth, the Yankees could be set in the event of an injury without having to use a bullpen game.
The Yankees’ bullpen has also gotten slightly worse this offseason by (so far) failing to replace Dellin Betances, who left for the Mets. The bullpen was overworked as the season dragged on, declining in the playoffs. Not adding another piece and instead doubling down on the rotation seems to indicate a shift in strategy for the Yankees, re-prioritizing traditional starting pitching over acquiring more relievers.
As baseball gets even more analytics-driven and the fear around overexposing starting pitchers grows, bullpen games will never go away, but they might become less common for the Yankees in 2020 and beyond. It’s good to know that the Yankees have it lying around as a viable safety net in case of emergency, but game-planning to regularly use an opener is probably not the Yankees’ preference next season.