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The Yankees should forego a traditional rotation in the postseason

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Flexibility, not strict roles, will allow the pitching staff to shine.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For months, we have been talking about how the Yankees needed to improve their starting pitching, because their current rotation would not be good enough come October. Such a weakness, many have argued, would be too easily exploitable by opposing teams and will prevent the team from making a deep playoff run.

Well, it’s easy (and desirable) to forget, but MLB had a similar situation last year. One of the top contenders was considered to have a weakness that could be easily exploitable in October.

That weakness? The bullpen. That contender? The eventual World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox.

Now, it may seem weird to be using a team that had a good starting rotation but a bad bullpen as an analogue for the Yankees, who have a great bullpen but a middling rotation. However, we’re looking today not at what strings Alex Cora pulled with his pitching staff, but why he pulled those particular strings.

Although ostensibly announcing a planned rotation, Cora did not stick to it. Instead, he turned to future starting pitchers to provide innings in relief, with Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Rick Porcello all being used both as starters and out of the pen throughout the playoffs. Rather than utilizing pitchers in predetermined roles, the Red Sox used their best available pitchers whenever they were available.

The Yankees can do the same by ignoring the concept of a rotation and putting the best pitchers available in the best position to succeed. While that would certainly include putting a significant amount of innings on their regular-season rotation, they can work on limiting the number of innings and situations in which they pitch.

Multi-inning pitchers times through the order

Pitcher TTO ERA K%/B% OPS HR/FB
Pitcher TTO ERA K%/B% OPS HR/FB
Masahiro Tanaka 1st 3.62 19 0.644 11.3
2nd 3.72 12.3 0.744 16.4
3rd 7.59 9.8 0.964 18.9
4th+ 5.4 16.7 0.667 0
James Paxton 1st 4.6 23.9 0.73 20.3
2nd 2.2 18.8 0.659 7.9
3rd 5.93 16.4 0.897 16.1
4th+ - - - -
J.A. Happ 1st 4.79 16.5 0.793 19.2
2nd 3.69 10 0.768 16.7
3rd 8.68 11 0.856 25.9
4th+ - - - -
CC Sabathia 1st 4.26 16.4 0.765 20.8
2nd 5.49 13.6 0.864 26.1
3rd 5.5 10.9 1.016 16.7
4th+ - - - -
Domingo German 1st 2.45 25.5 0.636 17
2nd 4.32 15.7 0.792 21.7
3rd 7.58 12.3 0.876 21.1
4th+ - - - -
Luis Cessa 1st 4.02 12.4 0.785 18.8
2nd 2.13 26.2 0.368 8.3
3rd - - - -
4th+ - - - -
Nestor Cortes Jr. 1st 4.4 15.8 0.726 15.6
2nd 6.39 11.5 0.965 21.4
3rd 18 - - -
4th+ - - - -

As a general rule, the Yankees “bulk” pitchers (including Nestor Cortes Jr. and Luis Cessa here, the two most-likely to be on the postseason roster) pitch better the fewer times through the order they pitch. James Paxton’s first inning struggles and the fact that Luis Cessa only sees the order a second time when he’s on affect the numbers slightly. With the exception of Paxton, who has been dealing of late, the Yankees should not even think about using any of these guys more than twice through the order, and should limit them to once through on occasion when they can.

To see how this might work, let’s think about a three-man ALDS rotation consisting of Paxton, Luis Severino, and Tanaka. Due to the presence of Domingo German, J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia, and Cessa as bulk relievers (likely serving with this pecking order), the Yankees would have the flexibility to pull one of their starters early in a game when they either get into trouble or are about to start to go through the order a third time. The Yankees will be able to utilize their greatest strength, their high-leverage relievers, very early in the game, knowing that they have extra “starters” in the bullpen to keep the ‘pen from getting too taxed.

Going forward, this starter, having been pulled early in his start, can either stay in line for his next start, or can join this group of bulk pitchers. The fact that Happ, German, and Sabathia all served in the rotation this year will allow the team to flip them between the rotation and bullpen as needed.

It’s hard to look at exactly how it would play out, but the Yankees have the pitchers necessary to be flexible in their use during the postseason. What remains to be seen, however, is whether they will use such a strategy.