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How the Yankees’ pitching strategy changes in a short season

The Yankees will benefit from expanded rosters that provide more options for pitcher deployment.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Yankees have a history of excellent bullpen performance. Relievers are notoriously volatile, but in most cases, the Yankees have done well in evaluating relief pitching, with a keen eye for so-called “failed starters.” They also know when to give someone a chance, as well as just the right time to cut ties.

This also applies to their bullpen management, which has evolved from strict seventh, eighth, and ninth-inning guys into more of an arrangement where the team just has pitchers. During a “bullpen game,” arms can be used at any time, a concept the Yankees thrived on in 2019. Chad Green could open a game, unload the bases in the sixth, or even close it out if Aroldis Chapman is unavailable. Through extensive use of the Scranton Shuttle, the Yankees have also been able to keep their arms rested, with Aaron Boone almost never using a pitcher three days in a row.

The shortened potential 2020 season might impact how the Yankees deploy this strategy. The Yankees used bullpen games last year when they either didn’t have a full five-man rotation, or an unexpected instance like a doubleheader or heavy stretch of games where an older pitcher might benefit from an extra day of rest. The Yankees used openers 20 times last season, and they went 13-7 in those games.

Now, the Yankees should have a full rotation on paper. Even with Luis Severino out for the year, the team still has Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, a now-healthy James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery and Jonathan Loaisiga. That’s six starters for five spots, and Loaisiga in particular has the versatility to contribute as a starter or a reliever, which could come in handy in this unique season.

Baseball seasons are normally 162 games over roughly 27 weeks, which is an average of six games per week. This potential season could be about 82 games over 14 weeks, which keeps to the six-games-per-week pace. However, talks of a longer season with semi-regular doubleheaders are still ongoing, which could lead to a situation where ballplayers are playing more games in less time than they are usually accustomed to.

To combat this (as well as factoring in the possible cancelation of minor league seasons), expanded rosters seem to be a guarantee if we are going to play ball this season. A regular 26-man roster features 13 position players and 13 pitchers, but a 30-man expanded roster could allow for two more position players and two more bullpen arms. A team like the Yankees that has had numerous injury issues would be wise to use these expanded rosters to their advantage, particularly in regards to resting pitchers.

This could come in a few ways, namely the return of bullpen games. Doubleheaders could be rampant in this shortened season, especially to make up rained-out games. Using the bullpen in these games can help keep the starters on their regular rest schedule. The Yankees had already gotten into a groove where they would constantly cycle through the last two bullpen spots with minor league transactions, and they’d still be able to do that in effect with the expanded rosters. Aaron Boone is excellent at ensuring his relievers aren't overused, and an expanded roster gives him even more options.

One other solution for an overworked bullpen that could work as long as the Yankees’ starters are healthy? Potential “piggyback games,” which could feature long appearances from Montgomery and Loaisiga. It’s essentially the same concept as a bullpen game, but using just two long relievers instead of four short relievers. If each pitcher could go three or four innings, that eats up most of the game. Of course, a bad day on the mound defeats the purpose, but when done right, piggybacking could be an effective way to buy an extra day off for most of the bullpen and provide Montgomery and Loaisiga with the innings they need while still preserving their arms coming off of injuries. This approach could also be used to ease Paxton back into a full workload.

Injuries will throw a wrench into these plans, and the Yankees will have to respond by dipping deeper into their pitching depth. With capable minor league starters hard to find, an increased use of the bullpen is inevitable. Potentially playing more games in less time presents an interesting challenge for a manager who thrives on bullpen management like Boone. Whether it comes in the form of bullpen games or piggyback appearances, he and pitching coach Matt Blake will have to develop a plan to keep each of their hurlers fresh in this unique season.