The Yankees’ 2019 season hasn’t at all gone to plan. To their credit, they’ve fought through all the injuries and are right there with the Tampa Bay Rays for the AL East lead. Still, a couple of recent injuries to James Paxton and Jonathan Loaisiga left them without a clear-cut fifth starter. It might be time for the Yankees to start using an opener.
There are four unquestioned starters on the Yankees’ active roster: Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German, CC Sabathia, and J.A. Happ. After them, it’s unclear just who the next-best starter is exactly. Chance Adams and Nestor Cortes Jr. have both spent the majority of their professional careers as starting pitchers. However, they have fewer than 15 MLB innings between the two of them, and their combined body of work doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence.
There’s also Luis Cessa, who the Yankees previously used as their spot starter, but he’s not exactly a traditional starter anymore. He hasn’t made a five-inning start in the big leagues since last July. Since then, Cessa’s thrown 43.1 innings in 20 appearances. Not bad, but not really a starter, either.
The Yankees might not have another starter, but they do have arguably the best bullpen in baseball. No bullpen strikes out more batters, and as of this writing, they have the third-highest fWAR in baseball at 2.4 over 145 innings. The Rays lead the league at 2.6, but their relievers have thrown 188.1 innings. On an WAR per inning basis, the Yankees relievers have been more valuable. There’s an advantage in the bullpen, and the opener plays into that strength.
The Rays started using openers last year, and a similar approach is a viable option for the Yankees. In games with an opener, the Rays have a fairly set pitching structure. It might just look weird. Generally, Ryne Stanek, or another high-leverage reliever, throws first, going one or two innings. Ideally, this reliever faces the other team’s best six hitters and leaves the game. In the Rays’ model, the next reliever gets the team through the fifth or sixth inning. Jalen Beeks and Yonny Chirinos have found success in this role.
The Yankees could find success with a similar approach, trying to get through the first five or six innings with some combination of two or three relievers. Jonathan Holder, Adam Ottavino, and Luis Cessa all have at least seven appearances on the season where they got four outs or more, so they seem to fit the description. Ottavino makes sense as the opener, as Zack Britton or Aroldis Chapman haven’t ever been more than single-inning relievers. If Ottavino doesn’t run into walk problems, getting four or more outs isn’t completely out of the question.
Similarly, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Holder each have plenty of experience going multiple innings. Holder has gone four or more outs in eight of his 15 appearances on the season, and Cessa is the only pitcher in the bullpen with a couple of three-inning performances.
The depletion of the Yankees’ pitching depth might necessitate using an opener, and the Yankees have the personnel to do it, at least in the short term. Ottavino, Holder, and Cessa have the most experience going multiple innings this season, but they aren’t exactly Tampa’s Beeks or Chirinos either. Once James Paxton returns from the IL, things ought to go back to normal, but using an opener to bridge the gap could be in the Yankees’ best interest.