The Yankees Are Built to Bullpen the Wild Card Game

Dellin Betances is just one member of a historically strong bullpen. (Photo: Keith Allison)

The Yankees could do something really interesting in the Wild Card game — and perhaps even really smart.

If ever there were a team ideally suited to bullpen a Wild Card play-in game, it’s this Yankees team. Yankees relievers have combined to post the highest collective strikeout rate of all time among bullpens. The club has five individual relievers who have struck out better than 30% of batters faced: Chad Green (41.9%), Dellin Betances (38.7%), David Robertson (38.4%), Aroldis Chapman (32.3%) and Tommy Kahnle (31.9%). All five also have K-BB% marks of 21 points or better and FIPs of 3.20 or lower. Chasen Shreve represents another high-strikeout arm and a second left-handed option.

The Yankees could piece together much of a game, or perhaps the entirety of a game, with their elite and near-elite bullpen arms. They could miss bats, exploit platoon advantages, and save their ace, Luis Severino — the best pitcher not named Corey Kluber or Chris Sale in the AL — for the ALDS. Should they advance from the play-in game, the Yankees would face the Astros or Indians and get two doses of Kluber or Justin Verlander in a five-game series.

If the Yankees save Severino — or employ him sparingly in the Wild Card game — they could potentially throw him twice in the division series, which would figure to enhance their chances of moving on to the ALCS. In essence, the Yankees might not see their odds decreased at all (in theory) of advancing to the ALDS by pitching a bullpen game. Having a rested for Severino ready for Game 1 of the ALDS, however, would enhance their chances of winning that series.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has invested heavily in bullpen arms, attempting to build the most super of uber-pens prior to the trade deadline by acquiring Kahnle and Robertson from the White Sox. The postseason is a time when the game changes form, when such bullpens can take on greater importance. And there’s no greater opportunity to leverage a strength than in an elimination game.

No fewer than five of the club’s pitchers have recorded an adjusted ERA at least 30% better than average: Robertson (25 ERA-), Green (42), Kahnle (53), Betances (66) and Severino (68). This has been an elite group — and, were the Yankees to bullpen the Wild Card game, there’s no reason to expect a significant drop-off in performance.

Of course, New York also have a legit ace in Severino. I suspect the majority of people inside and outside game would advise employing that arm in the play-in game. Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters he plans to start Severino in the game.

But Girardi was asked if he had considered bullpen-ing the Wild Card game:

“I think that’s pretty risky,” Girardi said before Tuesday night’s game, “because you’re in the one-game playoff and the season’s over if you don’t win that game, that’s the bottom line.

“To me, that’s awful risky.”


“You could do that but that’s not something you’ve done during the course of the season,” Girardi said. “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.”

There is something to simply throwing your ace, especially one who’s been as awesome as Severino.

Perhaps there’s something to the idea of disrupting routines, too, though I have my doubts. For instance, Andrew Miller didn’t melt down when employed in something other than non-save, non-ninth-inning situations last October.

Way back in 2013, Dave proposed that the Pirates bullpen their way through the Wild Card game, going into detail about how that scenario might play out inning by inning.

Wrote Dave of the plan:

It only calls for using seven pitchers, so there’s room for a little more specialization if pinch-hitting or ineffectiveness cuts short a reliever’s appearance, and they’d still have a starter in reserve to handle extra innings should things get beyond 27-30 outs.

This is the kind of pitching staff a team can run in the Wild Card Game, and a side benefit is that no individual pitcher should be taxed to a level that they shouldn’t be ready to contribute in the NLDS should the Pirates advance.

Of course, these sort of strategies aren’t played out in vacuums, and the Yankees’ opponent (the Twins) isn’t as exploitable from a platoon-advantage standpoint as the 2013 Reds were.

The Twins only figure to feature two right-handed hitters in their lineup (Byron Buxton and Brian Dozier) amidst four lefties and three switch-hitters, unless Miguel Sano makes surprising progress and is ready for action.

And the other difference is each club’s starter. While Severino has been dominant, it was Francisco Liriano who started the 2013 Wild Card game for the Pirates. As is the case with most pitchers, Liriano lost effectiveness each time through the lineup in 2013. (And in the NL game you can also reduce pitcher at-bats by bullpen-ing.) But Severino has lost little, if anything, the deeper he has worked into games this season.

Severino Never Loses It
Time Through Order PA OPS tOPS
1st 270 0.624 106
2nd 264 0.554 87
3rd 215 0.636 109
4th 12 0.583 93

In 2013, the Pirates took the traditional path and started their ace, Liriano. He produced a gem, throwing 44 sliders against a Reds lineup whose three best bats — Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce — were each left handed. The Pirates advanced.

A happy ending for the Pirates? A victory for traditional practices? Well… yes and no.

While the Pirates did win the play-in game to advance into the NLDS against the Cardinals, Liriano didn’t pitch in that next series until Game 3 and was limited to that one appearance, tossing a quality start in a victory over the Cardinals. A.J. Burnett started Game 1 and was shelled in a Pirates loss. Then-rookie Gerrit Cole was tabbed for Game 5 after Burnett’s Game 1 disaster, and while he pitched well, he was a hard-luck loser, as the Pirates scored just one run and the bullpen lost control of the game.

So the Pirates qualified for the tournament but were set back by having exhausted their top starter in the Wild Card game. And that’s part of the design: to disadvantage the play-in winner and give the No. 1 seed further advantage for its play over the course of a 162-game season.

When considering Wild Card strategy, perhaps teams ought to consider how their pitching alignment affects their Wild Card odds and LDS chances.

Starting Severino gives the Yankees an excellent chance to beat the Twins. He’s the third-best pitcher in the American League. But the Yankees would also, on paper, be heavy favorites by bullpen-ing and/or using Severino in more limited fashion. The Yankees, meanwhile, would increase their chances of advancing deep into October by having Severino ready for Game 1 of the ALDS and Game 5 (or maybe Game 4) if needed.

By bullpen-ing and remaining patient with Severino, the Yankees would — on paper — be just as well situated to win a Wild Card game and better able to exploit some platoon matchups. They would pass the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which their front office has already done. By waiting and saving Severino, they could perhaps enjoy two Severino appearances in the divisional series.

You could make the case that the Pirates won a battle but lost the war in 2013. While there’s an argument to be made that tomorrow can wait, that today should take the priority at all times in the postseason, the Yankees are uniquely positioned in that — on paper, in theory — they would not lose anything by saving Severino and leaning upon their bullpen in the Wild Card game.

To win the larger fight, sometimes a tactical retreat is necessary. And the Yankees are a franchise, with 27 World Series wins and 40 appearances, that’s concerned about more than just gaining access to a postseason 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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Aaron (UK)
5 years ago

I’m on board with the full bullpen game, but assuming the Yankees aren’t they could at least consider reversing the usual pitcher usage (giving Severino c. 5 innings then turning it over to the pen.)

Starting with the pen and working towards Severino entering in the 5th gives you the additional benefit that if the game is already a blowout you can hand it over to a lesser starter instead.