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How the Yankees will employ their bullpen in a shortened season

Despite all of the changes that may come with the proposed shortened season, the Yankees bullpen strategy will remain familiar.

Baltimore Orioles v. New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

With the prospect of a shortened season becoming a more real possibility with every passing day, the picture of what such a season would look like becomes clearer. Chief among the major changes to the format of baseball are the proposed 82-game regional schedule, a universal DH, an expanded 30-man active roster, a 20-player “taxi squad”, a 14-team postseason beginning in October, and a 50/50 revenue split for owners and players.

These adaptations pose a myriad of changes to the strategies teams may employ and the baseball being played. The regional leagues of division rivals and geographical neighbors vastly cuts back on travel, however a condensed window in which to play games cut truncate the number of off days. The universal DH and expanded rosters reduce the regular season workload for pitchers, but the expanded postseason could mean greater usage.

The Yankees are not immune to the ripples of this proposal. A regional schedule means more games against two of the better teams in the league in the Rays and Red Sox. The expanded rosters gives guys like Clarke Schmidt a chance to shine on the big stage and guys like Rosell Herrera another shot to stick on the big league roster. With a revised playoff format, there is greater opportunity for the variance of the postseason to exert its effect. With all of these alterations, the one area that may remain most constant is the bullpen.

One of the things Aaron Boone referred to repeatedly throughout the year were the “lanes” in which to deploy certain relief pitchers. In its most simple form, this amounted to the “big four” relievers pitching an inning each, Adam Ottavino in the sixth, Tommy Kahnle the seventh, Zack Britton the eighth, and Aroldis Chapman the ninth. Granted, there were mild fluctuations throughout the season, maybe with one pitcher going an inning and a third here, or a different pitcher pitching the fifth there, but overall this remained a fairly rigid structure.

The other dogma that Boone preached were the three days in a row and four in five rules. No reliever would pitch three days in a row, nor in four games out of five. Boone stuck to these doctrines in a far more strict manner than the lanes strategy.

I do not see these two principles being affected much by the shortened season. This arbitrary framework operates at a more micro level, taking into account performance on a game-to-game basis, instead of worrying about the pitcher’s fatigue over the course of the season. 162-game season or 82-game season, the length of the season probably will not impact this decision making.

Another policy that Boone stuck to, much to my chagrin, was the use of Cessa-type bulk inning-eater guys in losing scenarios. Even in one-run games, Boone refused to go to his “high-leverage” arms. This strategy carried over at times in the pressure cooker of the playoffs, a scenario that forces one to be the most fluid and flexible in you decision making, yet Boone remained rather rigid. If he was not willing to adapt his approach in the most pressing of situations, it is hard to see him doing so even in a shortened season, where each game in effect counts for double.

The Yankees may not employ an opener this season, with Chad Green instead returning to his fireman role, but this is more down to the availability of five true starting pitchers and not the shortened season. Additionally, the expanded roster and “taxi squad” players may see a greater variety of relievers in unimportant scenarios, but this is not a real departure from the Yankees’ overarching bullpen strategy.

There is no doubting that a shortened season played within the continuing COVID-19 pandemic poses unique challenges and changes to baseball as we know it. The product we see on the field and the format of the regular and post seasons may be unrecognizable at times. One aspect that I do not expect to change is the Yankees reliever strategy. Boone’s inflexibility, as well as the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will conspire to keep the bullpen as we know it.