The Yankees’ wins in Games One and Two of the Wild Card Round represented opposite sides of the same coin. Game One delivered a near-flawless performance in all phases of the game, while Game Two was a scruffy, stressful affair full of lead changes, miscues, and high drama. And it was in that series-clinching game that an often-employed strategy for the Yankees came to a head.
For most of the regular season, and particular in the period that Luke Voit has been dealing with his “foot stuff,” the Yankees have gone to Tyler Wade as a late-inning defensive replacement, shifting DJ LeMahieu to first and giving Voit the last couple innings off. The logic behind such a decision during the regular season is sound: Wade is a plus-defender up the middle (+2 outs above average), Voit is a liability fielding his position (-4 OAA), and LeMahieu is more than capable of manning first base.
However, I would contend that continuing to use this strategy in the playoffs will have its drawbacks. Obviously, the Yankees are removing Voit’s potent bat from the lineup. Also, specifically subbing Voit out was always done with an eye toward the future, preserving his health as long as possible. Now that we are in the playoffs, the Yankees do not need to be so future-oriented. They are not promised games beyond the series they are currently playing.
The Yankees very nearly got burned by this tactic. In Game Two against Cleveland, Wade pinch-ran for Voit in the seventh, with the ultimate goal being to replace Voit’s glove. Simply put, it was a premature decision to sub Wade into the seventh inning of a two-run playoff game. Hindsight of course is 20-20, but that substitution had ripple effects for the Yankees in subsequent innings.
The Yankees ended up pinch-hitting for Wade in the very next inning because his bat is a net-negative for the team, especially in high-leverage situations. They then had to sub Mike Ford on because they were short an infielder, returning the infield to a defensively compromised state. By the end of this flurry of moves, the Yankees had exhausted their options on the bench while not qualitatively upgrading the infield defense and also costing Voit an at-bat, rendering the ultimate reason for subbing Wade (defensive security) completely pointless.
While I’m not the biggest supporter of Wade as a defensive substitution, defensive subs can have their merits. In fact, it brings me a suggestion of my own for a defensive sub that could prove to be an X-factor for the Bombers as they make their playoff push. I propose that the Yankees substitute Kyle Higashioka in for Gary Sánchez to catch Aroldis Chapman.
As bizarre as this sounds to my own ears, I must say that Alex Rodriguez made a pertinent observation on the broadcast of Game Two. Normally I find myself either yelling at the TV or shaking my head in disbelief whenever A-Rod opens his mouth on the ESPN broadcast, especially at his infatuation with deriding Gary Sánchez’s one-knee-down stance. But I have to concede that in this particular instance - a ninth-inning passed ball strikeout allowing Oscar Mercado to reach first - Rodriguez was spot on.
Now let’s be clear, I am completely on board with Gary’s new catching stance that he has been working on with catching coordinator Tanner Swanson. It has significantly improved his framing abilities. Yet catching Aroldis Chapman to close out a win is not exactly a scenario in which Sánchez should be worrying about pitch-framing. After all, Chapman’s goal is not to steal strikes on the fringes of the zone. He’s either trying to throw his fastball as hard as possible right down the middle, or induce a whiff on an offspeed pitch out of the zone.
Chapman already hardly knows where his pitches are going. Now add to the mix a newly-acquired splitter that is a coin flip which direction it will break. You can see how ball-blocking becomes the number one priority for the man catching Chapman. And it is because of this that I recommend using Higgy as a closer-catcher of sorts, just for that added layer of security he brings blocking pitches in the dirt.
By no means do I mean this to be an indictment of Gary Sánchez. His bat can be a game-changer like few others in the Yankees lineup. Without his offensive contributions in Game Two, the Yankees would not have come out victorious. That being said, his pitch blocking can be lacking at times, and that is not a risk the Yankees can afford to take with a slim lead in the final innings. The Bombers need to pull all the right strings to put themselves in the best possible position to win each and every game, and I truly believe one of those moves should be using Higashioka as a late inning-defensive substitution in games that Sánchez starts.