Coming into the season, the Yankees pitching staff could have been described as Gerrit Cole and four question marks. Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo Germán, after all, combined for example one inning of work last season, while Jordan Montgomery was uneven in his first season back after Tommy John surgery. Up until June 2, however, the pitching staff defied expectations, accumulating 9.6 fWAR (second-most in baseball) thanks to a 3.16 ERA (also second-best in baseball) that allowed the Yankees to float above water at 31-25 despite a well-below-average offense.
That early-season pitching staff has crumbled in recent weeks. Since June 2, they have a 5.30 ERA (sixth-worst in the league), albeit with a 4.28 FIP (14th-ranked) that suggests some positive regression is due. This pitching cold snap, however, has been a major contributor in keeping the Yankees out of the divisional race, as in that stretch, the offense has heated up: they have a 113 wRC+ in that span (fifth in the league), and their 44 home runs over that interval are fourth-most in the AL.
If the Yankees want to make the playoffs this year, something has to change — quickly, and at a far greater level than even a trade deadline acquisition or Luis Severino’s return from the IL could provide. Fortunately, there is a readily-apparent model for the Yankees to follow: the 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Rays and their liberal use of the opener.
For those that don’t remember, going into the 2018 season, the Tampa Bay Rays were...short on starting pitching beyond Chris Archer and Blake Snell, to say the least. To help cover for their pitching depth, manager Kevin Cash opted to start the season with a four-man rotation (something he could do for the first six weeks due to convenient placement of off-days), then introducing what were then called “bullpen days” to fill the fifth spot. The experiment proved a resounding success.
Over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, use of the opener spread throughout baseball, although the Rays remained its most common employers. In time, they began to develop a stock formula, one that we saw the Yankees use on 15 occasions during the 2019 season: a late-inning reliever such as Chad Green would handle the first inning (and, if pitch count allowed, the second), who would then hand the ball off to a long reliever who would serve as the bulk guy. If all went well, they would combine to get through the fifth or sixth inning without having to face a batter more than twice — and as we all know, it’s the third time through the order that most batters do their damage.
The Yankees’ pitching staff has many similarities to those 2018 and 2019 Rays squads. Besides Cole and Montgomery, the team has an army of backend starters.
Not a pretty sight. When we break down their performance by time through the order, however, we can see some encouraging trends.
For the most part, all five have been better the first time through the order, although first-inning struggles by Germán (1.010 OPS allowed with 6 HR in the first) and King (1.385 OPS allowed with three of his six homers given up in the first — and it would be worse if not for the triple play on June 17) skew the data just a bit. Fortunately, this is exactly the sort of situation that an opener helps to mitigate, by using a high-leverage arm in the one inning in which the top three hitters are guaranteed to come to the plate.
Additionally, the Yankees have multiple tools they can employ to reduce how often these pitchers will see the top of the order. By using Green or Jonathan Loasigia as openers, two relievers who have regularly been asked to go multiple innings, the Yankees could potentially bring these guys into the game in the third inning to start with the bottom of the order. Moreover, with five pitchers capable of starting but only three spots in the rotation needed to be filled, they can plan to piggyback starters on a regular basis.
Of course, this plan is not without its flaws. To begin, such a model necessitates liberal use of the Scranton shuttle in order to cover the large number of innings required by the bullpen. At the moment, Green, King, Loaisiga, Cortes, and Wandy Peralta are the only relievers on the active roster with an option year to burn — and since Green and Loaisiga would not be optioned any time soon, that leaves the Yankees with little roster maneuverability. Additionally, although a stronger part of the staff than the rotation, the bullpen hasn’t exactly been lockdown lately either: Aroldis Chapman, Justin Wilson, and Lucas Luetge have just been plain bad of late, while Darren O’Day and Peralta have recently recovered from injuries and are still rusty. The members of the Scranton shuttle currently in Triple-A (Nick Nelson, Brooks Kriske, and Albert Abreu) haven’t exactly inspired a ton of confidence, either.
These weaknesses might prevent the Yankees from fully embracing bullpen days to the extent that the 2018 and 2019 Rays did. Nonetheless, by employing some of the strategies used by those teams, most notably the opener, the Yankees might just be able to avoid the full-on pitching staff collapse that has been plaguing the team in recent weeks, a collapse that has dug the Yankees into an even deeper hole than their struggling offense did at the start of the season.