With Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, and Luis Severino atop the rotation and a pair of starters in Jameson Taillon and Domingo Germán working out of the bullpen in the ALDS, the 2022 Yankees have placed a lot of emphasis on their starting pitching this October. The way this season has gone, this perhaps isn’t too surprising. Last night’s win notwithstanding, the bullpen has been beset by injuries and ineffectiveness of late, while the rotation has ranked among the league’s best this season (its 13.7 fWAR ranks 10th in baseball, and its 2.8 fWAR since September 1st ranks 7th). And yet, it seems out of character to anyone who has watched the Yankees in recent years.
Since the days of No-Runs DMC back in the dark days of 2016, the Yankees have consistently built their pitching staff around a strong bullpen, particularly during the playoffs. In 2017, the Yankees overhauled their bullpen at the deadline, adding David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the Chicago White Sox to a group of relievers that already included Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and Adam Warren — this group was most known for their dominant 8.2 innings during the AL Wild Card Game that season. To this group Zack Britton was added in 2018, and when Robertson walked in free agency prior to the 2019 season, Adam Ottavino was brought in to replace him.
Injuries and ineffectiveness caused this core to begin to fall apart in 2020, and in response the Yankees added Justin Wilson and Darren O’Day over the winter. Although this attempt at rebuilding the bullpen failed, Jonathan Loáisiga and Lucas Luetge stepped up, and to this group Brian Cashman added Wandy Peralta, Clay Holmes, and Joely Rodríguez. Finally in 2022, Michael King, Ron Marinaccio, and Clarke Schmidt became bullpen pieces, while the team brought in Lou Trivino and Scott Effross at the deadline.
Everything the Yankees have done, both headed into the season and over the course of the year, suggests that the team would have preferred to continue with this strategy even with a trio of potential aces. If the entire team were healthy and effective, they would have a pair of former closers who, in their prime, were two of the best closers of their generation (Chapman and Britton), one of the most consistent stoppers over the last few years (Green), the best groundball pitcher in the game today (Holmes), arguably the best relief pitcher this season (King), an elite righty specialist (Trivino), a breakout rookie (Effross), and last year’s standouts (Loáisiga and Peralta). While obviously not all these guys would be Yankees if some of these players weren’t injured to begin with, with even a fraction of a group such as this, Aaron Boone would be able to call on the bullpen as soon as the starter got into trouble.
Unfortunately, that bullpen has not materialized. Britton struggled upon his return from Tommy John surgery, and found himself back on the shelf. Chapman’s season was a disaster that saw him lose the closer’s job, hit the IL, lose the strike zone, hit the IL again because of an infected tattoo, struggle once again upon his return, and ultimately found himself left off the ALDS roster after refusing to show up to a mandatory workout because his postseason roster spot was not guaranteed. King, Green, and Effross are all out with elbow injuries. Holmes has been iffy at best and downright bad at worst since the All-Star break.
The Yankees have some good arms in the bullpen, for sure. Loáisiga, Peralta, Luetge, and Holmes have all showcased an ability to get high-leverage outs in big spots, while Taillon, Germán, and Schmidt should be able to provide multiple innings if needed. Indeed, three of those first four arms contributed to the ALDS Game 1 win. But it’s clear that the rotation will be carrying the bulk of the weight. Boone has mentioned that he plans on using just three starters in the ALDS if he can, which tells us that Cole will go in Game 4 on full rest and, if needed and so long as the weather works out, Cortes will go on short rest in Game 5. This allows Taillon to work out of the ‘pen, preventing the team from needing to add, say, Greg Weissert or Albert Abreu.
Using the starting rotation to cover up a less-than-stellar bullpen isn’t all that unusual; numerous championship teams, such as the 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Nationals, have done just that, while the Astros and Dodgers have regularly used starters in relief in recent years. The Yankees are more than capable of riding this strategy deep into October. Still, it reflects a change in philosophy from recent years — one that makes this postseason run seem much different than previous ones.