The 2018 season is well and truly underway, with the Yankees splitting the opening series of the year on the road in Toronto. There were a host of positives to take away from the series, not the least of which includes the fact that the Rogers Centre has been hellish for the Yankees over the past several seasons. Playing .500 ball on the road when your opponent has perfectly set up their rotation and bullpen is exactly what you’d want to see. That doesn’t change the fact that new manager Aaron Boone has some lessons to take away from his first real games in the dugout.
The toughest part of a manager’s job is deciding how to deploy your pitchers. It’s early in the season, and despite the plethora of innings available in spring training, many pitchers are still just getting loose in the opening week of the season. Furthermore, the massive amount of data managers have access to preach conserving the starter’s innings, the third time through philosophy, and the advantages of specialist relievers, especially for a bullpen as deep as the Yankees’.
Still though, I felt Boone made a couple of glaring errors this weekend, and while it’s way too early to be concerned about them repeating, I hope the new Yankees manager has taken the lessons to heart. His first real error was not getting the length from his starters he otherwise could have.
On Opening Day, Luis Severino was masterful, throwing 91 pitches in 5.2 innings of shutout ball, while Masahiro Tanaka echoed that performance on Friday, with 6.0 innings but just 79 pitches thrown. The first two games of the season should be the games you send your two best, and usually longest-lasting, starters to the mound, and yet while MLB starters averaged an even 90 pitches through the first two games of the season, the Yankees’ two best came in well below and virtually at that mark. Keep in mind that’s an MLB-wide average, so dragged down by games played in NL parks, which naturally feature shorter outings from starters.
For context’s sake, Severino had 22 starts last year where he threw more than 91 pitches, including three of his four April 2017 starts. Tanaka, despite his well-documented struggles last season, threw more than the above 79 pitches 26 times in 2017, with three of those starts again coming in April.
Conservative attitudes about starters are nothing new, and indeed seem to be a symptom of new managers, as Gabe Kappler has already run into the same issue with the Phillies. Still, Philadelphia’s young pitchers don’t have the track records nor expectations that either Severino or Tanaka sit on. Those are two of the guys Boone’s going to lean on all season, and he’d do well to start leaning now.
The lack of length from either pitcher compounds, of course. Baseball isn’t played in a vacuum, and asking less of your starters means asking more of your relief corps. The Yankees hover right around the middle of the American League in relief innings through the first series of the year, but none of the teams ahead of them boast the top-of-the-rotation talent New York does.
Pulling Severino and Tanaka early taxed the Yankees bullpen, and we saw the results of that in the following two games, when neither CC Sabathia nor Sonny Gray had quite as much success on the mound. Neither pitcher was bad per se, but threw too many pitches and got into too many jams to give much length.
Relief pitching by nature is the most volatile, unpredictable element of baseball, and because of the leverage involved, one bad inning can doom a game. David Robertson is an unbelievably talented reliever, but even he can have on bad inning, and as we saw Sunday, his bad inning cost the Yankees a win.
Requiring more innings from your relievers increases the chances that they’ll have that one bad inning, and with higher leverage situations it’ll probably cost you more than the “one bad inning” from a starter. It’s far too early to make conclusive judgements about Aaron Boone’s style, but opening the season in Toronto hopefully taught him some valuable lessons about trusting the top of your rotation.