A night after he was pilloried, both here and elsewhere, for sticking with his starting pitcher for too long, Yankees manager Aaron Boone did it again — this time in an elimination game. It wasn’t quite as egregious, and it didn’t turn the contest into a blowout, but the rookie skipper was short on urgency with his team’s season on the line, and it cost them. The Red Sox beat the Yankees 4-3 in Game Four of the AL Division Series (box), closing out the series on their rivals’ home field and moving on to the ALCS for the first time since 2013.
With the Yankees down two games to one in the Division Series, Boone started CC Sabathia, who at 38 years old is long on experience and guile but short on stamina. Of the 128 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings as a starter this season, the big man’s 5.28 innings per turn ranked 102nd. It didn’t prevent him from turning in a valuable season: over the course of 153 innings, he delivered a 3.65 ERA, 4.16 FIP, and 2.5 WAR, the last mark 0.6 wins higher than last year in a similarly sized body of work (148.2 innings). Some credit for that is due to Boone for limiting Sabathia’s exposure the third time through the order (when his wOBA allowed jumps to .391), and some to the pitcher himself, for accepting his role and his limitations.
On Tuesday night, against a lineup stacked with righties — Ian Kinsler and Eduardo Nunez were back at second and third bases, respectively, in place of Game Three heroes Brock Holt and Rafael Devers, while Steven Pearce subbed again for Mitch Moreland at first base — Sabathia wobbled through the first inning on 20 pitches. After retiring the first two hitters, he loaded the bases with two singles and a walk before escaping via a towering Kinsler fly ball that left fielder Brett Gardner ran down near the foul line. He prolonged his second inning with a two-out walk of Christian Vazquez, the No. 9 hitter and a guy who posted a 42 wRC+ in the regular season. That required him to face leadoff hitter Mookie Betts again. On the 15th pitch of the inning, though, Betts hit a routine fly to right for the third out.
Sabathia was in trouble from the outset of the third, hitting Andrew Benintendi with a pitch and then yielding a single to Pearce that sent Benintendi to third; he soon came home on a J.D. Martinez sacrifice fly, the game’s first run. Sabathia induced Xander Bogaerts to ground out, but by this point had thrown another 16 pitches, running his count to 51. Boone, with a rested set of A-listers (save for Chad Green, who threw 29 pitches on Monday night, at a point well after any of them mattered), had finally gotten David Robertson up in the bullpen — the kind of power arm sorely needed in mid-inning on Monday night, but one who never got the call.
Kinsler smoked a double (exit velocity 106.2 mph) over Gardner’s head in left field, scoring Pearce and putting the Red Sox up by a score of 2-0.
Boone stayed put.
Nunez hit an RBI single to right, pushing the tally to 3-0.
Boone stayed put.
Around the time the dust settled on the third inning, YES Network researcher James Smyth tweeted a play-by-play showing the Yankees’ win expectancy as the inning unfolded, numbers straight from our live scoreboard:
The columns to the right of the play are the Leverage Index, the Run Expectancy and then the home team’s Win Expectancy. Even at that juncture, the difference from the first to the third runs was substantial. The Red Sox added a fourth run at the top of the fourth, when Vazquez hit a Yankee Stadium short-porch special to right field off Zach Britton.
Now, a 4-0 hole is hardly insurmountable for a team that just set the season record for homers, but as Nathan Eovaldi had done on Monday night, Rick Porcello did a great job of neutralizing the Yankees’ lineup on Tuesday. Both pitchers consistently got head in counts, with Eovaldi recording first-pitch strikes against 21 of 26 batters faced over seven innings, and Porcello 15 of 19 over five innings. Neither walked a hitter or gave up a run or allowed anything louder than a double. In fact, the Yankees didn’t hit their first double of the entire series until the fourth inning of Game Four. Take away the walks and doubles, and suddenly that offense isn’t so daunting, right?
Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and Chris Sale (!) each pitched perfect innings in relief of Porcello. Not until the ninth inning, against Craig Kimbrel, with their win expectancy at just 4.4%, did the Yankees’ offense show signs of life. They laid off most of the ace closer’s breaking pitches, swinging at just four out of 14. Walks of Aaron Judge and Voit, sandwiched around a Gregorius single and a Giancarlo Stanton strikeout, loaded the bases with one out. Kimbrel hit Neil Walker in the foot with his first pitch to bring in a run, and Gary Sanchez battled for seven pitches, just missing a grand slam and settling for a sacrifice fly before Gleyber Torres grounded out to third on a play close enough to review. Ultimately, however, the call was confirmed and Boston celebrated.
Last year, Joe Girardi managed the Yankees to 91 wins and the brink of an AL championship, thanks in large part to his use of a bullpen assembled by general manager Brian Cashman. The midseason acquisitions of David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle reinforced an already strong core composed of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Chad Green for an awesomely talented unit. Girardi wasn’t afraid to show a quick hook in the postseason. Three times, in winner-take-all games, he did so, yanking Luis Severino in the first inning of the Wild Card Game and Sabathia in the fifth inning of Game Five of the Division Series and then Game Seven of the ALCS; he allowed a total of three runs in those games because Girardi trusted the next guy up.
Nonetheless, he did not get another contract. The brass felt that Girardi didn’t mesh well enough with some of the team’s young players. A long search then led to the addition of Boone, who, despite a lack of managerial experience, possessed communication skills valued by the front office.
Boone won 100 games as a rookie manager. He won’t win AL Manager of the Year, because another rookie skipper, Alex Cora, piloted the Red Sox to 108 victories, but he deserves high marks for his work. He managed around numerous injuries, including those of Gregorius, Judge, Sanchez, Torres, and Greg Bird — and that’s just among the position players. He also had to survive stretches without Chapman and Masahiro Tanaka, not to mention the loss of Jordan Montgomery to Tommy John surgery. Rookies Torres, Voit, and Miguel Andujar flourished; the offense hit a record 267 homers; the bullpen, with a full season of Robertson and a bounce-back by Betances, turned in a record-setting WAR. For the second year in a row, the team won the AL Wild Card game at home, in part because Boone treated that winner-take-all contest with the urgency it deserved, pulling Severino after four wild but effective innings and relying on his bullpen from there.
Had he acted with similar foresight in the third inning of Game Four, the Yankees’ hill wouldn’t have been as steep to climb, and they may well have sent the series back to Boston for a decisive Game Five. It’s a tough learning experience for a rookie, and one has to wonder why it was a mistake made twice, with Boone trying to nurse a few more outs out of his starter instead of unleashing the full operational power of a bullpen that is among the best in history.
That’s not to take anything from the Red Sox, the better team in the regular season and the better one in these four games. They held the Yankees to just 14 runs and four homers, two apiece by Judge and Sanchez. All but the latter’s 479-foot shot in the seventh inning of Game Two were solo shots. Still, the Yankees had their chances for this to turn out the other way, and they’ll have the winter to ponder what might have been.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.