Did the Yankees Just Win the Wild Card Game?

There’s a reason some have connected starting pitchers to the Yankees.

According to ERA- and WAR, the Yankees’ rotation ranks behind that of the other AL elites like the Astros, Indians, and Red Sox, which rank 1-2-3 in ERA-. The Yankees rank sixth (95), just better than league average.

Only Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and Fringe Five alumnus Jonathan Loaisiga project to produce ERA and FIP marks below four the rest of the way, according to FanGraphs Depth Charts. While Severino is an ace, playoff contenders typically always want more starting pitching. Even Yu Darvish wasn’t seen as a luxury item to the pitching-rich Dodgers last season.

But on Tuesday, the Yankees continued to do what they’ve done since last deadline season by adding to the game’s best bullpen — according to ERA, WAR and ERA- — with the addition of Zach Britton.

While the Orioles perhaps did OK with their return for a reliever who hasn’t reached 40 innings since 2016 and is a free agent after the season, the Yankees have a crammed 40-man roster and can afford the package that is headlined by Dillon Tate.

The Yankees are rightfully focused on opportunity and the present and have been among the best at riding the game’s trends from focusing on power velocity and power bats, increased breaking-ball usage, and, of course, building an uber pen.

Bullpens absorbed 38.1% of innings in the major leagues last season, which was a record. Relievers tend to account for more and more innings every year, and in the postseason that share ballooned to 46.4% in 2017. This season? Expect bullpens to be at an even greater premium in the playoffs. To date, 39.18% of innings — 10,665.1 of 27,219.0 — have been tossed by relievers. Perhaps bullpens will push to account for half of the workload in the coming postseason, and no team can leverage their bullpen like the Yankees.

Britton, if he’s anything close to himself, gives the Yankees the rare luxury of a third quality left-handed option.

In fact, this contributor argued a year ago that the Yankees should leverage their bullpen from Day 1 of the postseason — the AL Wild Card game — and save their ace to open a potential ALDS. They could face a similar dilemma this season. The Yankees were built to bullpen the Wild Card game a year ago, and they are even more built to bullpen the Wild Card game this season, hope and expect to advance, and save Severino for Game 1 of the ALDS (likely against the Astros). While the Yankees are hardly out of the division race, they have 35.2% division odds.

But the Yankees weren’t willing to bullpen the Wild Card game a year ago. Said then-manager Joe Girardi to reporters when asked about the idea of bullpen-ing the Wild Card game:

“I think that’s pretty risky… You could do that but that’s not something you’ve done during the course of the season. And we have some starters who are pretty qualified to make that start. You want to treat it like a regular game when it starts. There are some things you might do a little different once you get into it, but if you start doing crazy things, things guys aren’t used to, then I’m just not comfortable doing it. You want to keep it as normal as possible.”

And to be fair to their process, they did win the Wild Card game and nearly advanced to the World Series. But exhausting the ace of a starting staff that as presently constructed has not been as strong as other AL contenders to date brings into question the best approach toward optimizing their postseason odds. The Yankees also have a new manager in Aaron Boone. Maybe Boone will be open to bullpen-ing. But even if he isn’t, if the Yankees advance beyond the play-in game, they’ll have a bullpen that can potentially carry them to the World Series.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Last time I checked the rules, Britton cannot be used in the Wild Card game.

5 years ago
Reply to  Otter

Why can’t he be used?

EDIT: I’m assuming this is a Showalter troll

5 years ago
Reply to  Otter

That rule only applies if you are also rostering LHP Brian Duensing.

Joey Butts
5 years ago
Reply to  Otter

I’m going to pretend this means the Yankees are a lock to win the division.

Nathan Lazarus
5 years ago
Reply to  Otter

Ubaldo Jimenez is a free agent? The Yanks should scoop him up!