With the stretch run fast approaching, the Yankees have some things to consider. For example, when forecasting a potential rotation for October, you have to believe Domingo German, James Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka have their spots locked, with Luis Severino being the missing link. If Severino makes it back from the injured list, however, CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ will both need to fill new roles.
With the use of Chad Green and others as openers, “bulk” relievers like Nestor Cortes Jr., Luis Cessa, and David Hale have been just as important in securing victories. Considering Severino will not be completely stretched out with the ability to go deep into games, the Yankees will need multi-inning relievers for his starts. With Sabathia and Happ potentially not fitting into the Yankees’ starting rotation, one figures their use will most likely come following an opener, whether it’s Green or Severino.
A combination of Severino, Sabathia or Happ, then Green would be particularly frustrating for hitters. That would amount to facing a hard throwing right-handed pitcher, then a veteran left-handed pitcher with lower velocity, and back to another right-handed pitcher with high velocity who can go out for two innings if needed.
The dynamic of different pitching styles does present an intriguing option to keeping hitters off balance. With Sabathia and Happ struggling as much as they have this season, however, one must wonder whether they can actually perform as effective relievers before deploying this strategy.
One-inning closers mainly possess a two-pitch arsenal like Aroldis Chapman utilizing his fastballs and slider. Starting pitchers who plan on pitching more than five innings typically have four pitches in their repertoire. For multi-inning relievers, the amount of pitches needed in an arsenal is somewhere in between. Sabathia and Happ both have four pitches, so they would be good candidates in this regard.
The advantages of an opener are clear. It essentially allows the bulk reliever the opportunity to avoid the toughest part of the lineup, or at least see those batters with less frequency. In other words, if Severino is facing the Houston Astros, he would be expected to face 13 hitters, pitching against the heart of the order twice. Therefore, when the middle reliever is brought in, he only has to face the best hitters of the opposing team once as they pitch to the following 14 hitters. Pitchers face a time through the order penalty, so it makes sense to avoid that for the bulk relievers.
How would this strategy work for Sabathia and Happ? According to Baseball Reference, both pitchers have above-average tOPS+ marks versus the first two hitters in a lineup and the bottom third as well. Their problems begin with the numbers three though six hitters.
Sabathia carries a 124 tOPS+ mark against the three through hitters, while Happ has a 117 tOPS+. That means Sabathia is 24% less effective against that part of a lineup compared to the rest of the pitchers in the league, while Happ is 17% less effective.
Overall Sabathia and Happ have similar pitching arsenals. They both use a slider, sinker, and changeup to complement their primary pitch. Sabathia throws his cut fastball 43.1% of the time, while Happ throws a four-seam fastball at a 46.2% clip. They might not have above-average pitches like Zack Britton’s sinker, Adam Ottavino’s slider, or Tommy Kahnle’s changeup, so Sabathia and Happ would need to start relying on their most successful offerings to take advantage of a relief appearance.
Beginning with Sabathia, he has okay numbers during the first time through the order, especially in batting average against. He starts to look worrisome, however, when looking at the slugging percentage against. Both his cut fastball and sinking fastball have generated slugging percentages over .500. The most productive pitch Sabathia has the first time through the order is his slider, producing a .233 batting average and .372 slugging percentage against.
During Sabathia’s second time through the lineup, hitters begin to adjust to his slider and hit it for a slugging percentage of .612. Whats interesting about Sabathia the second time through is his increased usage of changeups. He uses them about five percent more compared to the first time through the lineup for a total of about 15%. With that pitch, he has held right-handed hitters to a .346 slugging percentage against and 33.7% whiff rate.
Happ, on the other hand, has success the first time through the order with his sinking fastball—.150 batting average and .175 slugging percentage against. His downfall the first time through the lineup has been the slider and the fourseam fastball. Considering Happ is a fastball pitcher, it would be hard to lower his fastball usage, but switching his fourseamer for the sinker early during games has worked for him.
Like Sabathia, Happ’s most productive pitch the first time though the order is no longer as effective the second time around. In contrast to Sabathia, Happ’s best pitch the second time through the order is his slider, producing a .139 batting average and .194 slugging percentage against. He uses his changeup more the second time through the order too, producing a .395 slugging percentage against with a 31.3 whiff rate.
Asking Sabathia and Happ to become middle relievers during the stretch run or playoffs may be a tall task, but both have the ability to succeed in this role if given the advantage of facing weaker hitters more often. When facing batters only once per game, they have the tools to succeed. Since middle relievers don’t need to rely on as many pitches, both Sabathia and Happ could find a way to adopt this role come October.