There are only a handful of games left in the 2019 regular season, and the Yankees have already punched their ticket into the postseason by soundly winning the American League East. They are currently in a battle with their fellow AL foe, the Houston Astros, for the top seed in the Junior Circuit.
If the season ended today, however, the Yankees would be the second seeded team, facing off against the Minnesota Twins. No one knows for sure who will be the starting pitcher for either team to start it off, but we do know there are a few candidates for the Bombers. Though, the Yanks could be tipping their hand by using extra bullpen games to line James Paxton up for the start. Whoever they choose, they know they have a few options who are all capable of starting game one.
If you were to ask Yankee fans in the first half of the season if they envisioned Paxton to be a candidate to pitch the first game of a playoff series, most would give a resounding no. Some might have even said he wouldn’t make the postseason roster. The southpaw’s first 18 games in a Yankee uniform weren't all that pretty. A near five ERA and allowing four or more runs in six of those 18 starts definitely left a sour taste in the mouths of the fans.
Paxton, however, was able to completely turn his season on its head over the last couple of months. He’s been the victor in each of his last 10 starts while sporting a 2.25 ERA in that span. Paxton without a doubt is the hottest starter on the team right now. Will the Yankees decide to ride out the hot hand, it seems like they very well could with us seeing them line him up. He has no playoff experience, so this would be the biggest game he’s ever pitched.
For the most part, Tanaka has had a solid season. Pitching to a 4.47 ERA (4.30 FIP) and amassing 3.2 fWAR, he’s been quite important to the team. His HR/9 is his lowest since 2016 at 1.41, which is especially impressive being in the year of the juiced ball. The strikeouts haven’t come as easily as they have in the past, though. A 7.39 K/9 is the lowest of his six-year career.
Tanaka has a decent amount of postseason experience, and when he’s gotten the ball, he’s delivered. In five October starts, he has an outstanding 1.50 ERA with 25 strikeouts. If there’s any starter on the Yankees that you want to pitch in a big game, it’s Tanaka. If the Yanks were one of the teams in the Wild Card Game this year, Tanaka could very well have be the guy to throw. He appears to turn it up to another level when the lights get brighter. If Aaron Boone chooses him as the Game One starter, it would be hard to critique that decision.
This is the one option that would be gutsy. He’s only pitched in two games this season after missing the first five months with an injury, but in the nine innings he’s thrown, he’s looked electric. He has not allowed a run and has fanned 13 batters. His velocity still sits in the upper 90s, and should only go up as he goes on. Will the Yankees turn to him in Game One? Most likely not, but he’s not a terrible option. He’s pitched in big games before, including the previous two Wild Card Games. He can get it done, but it will probably be in a Game Two or Three.
The Yankees will have a tough decision to make in the coming days. If they are showing us that Paxton will get the call for Game One, that means they could look at Tanaka as the stopper if they were to drop the series opener. It could also very well mean they are playing the hot hand and trusting Paxton can continue his winning ways. Fortunately for us, we’ll find out the answer soon.