Starting pitching was by far the Yankees’ biggest area of concern in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. But after Brian Cashman acquired J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn prior to 4 p.m. on July 31, Aaron Boone now has a bag of six potential starting pitchers. Along with Happ and Lynn are Sonny Gray, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and CC Sabathia. The latter three figure to be locks for the postseason rotation. While Severino has struggled recently, he is still one of the league’s best pitchers when he is on. Tanaka has pitched big games all the way back to his days in Japan, and we saw how he can step up and dominate on the big stage last postseason. Sabathia is similar to Andy Pettitte in the sense that he is the lefty veteran who you generally feel comfortable with pitching in a big game.
With postseason rotation typically set at four starters, that leaves Happ, Lynn, and possibly even Gray as candidates for the final spot. Many would exclude Gray from receiving this position at the moment, especially since both trade deadline acquisitions have looked solid in pinstripes thus far. If you take away his rough first inning in his most recent start against the Blue Jays, Lynn has only allowed two earned runs in 19.2 innings pitched (0.92 ERA), striking out 25. Looking at the whole picture, Happ has been even better, providing a much-needed consistent arm who has pitched to a 2.22 ERA in 24.1 innings as a Yankee with a 0.90 WHIP. Throw in the fact that he’s a lefty, and he appears to be the most sensible option. And for Gray – he’s been fairly solid as a reliever, with a 2.89 ERA over 9.1 innings pitched. So let’s look at the case for each for Happ and Lynn to grab the last rotation spot come October.
Happ has postseason experience, having pitched in 10 games (3 starts) with a 3.72 ERA over his time with the Phillies and Blue Jays. He pitched more out of the bullpen in the 2009 playoffs, but he has given solid performances in his two most recent starts in 2016 as a member of the Blue Jays. He strikes out almost a batter per inning in the postseason with a K/9 of 8.84. Of course, it’s not just his playoff stats that should matter. With the bullpen the Yankees have, a starter can just go five solid innings and give the team a good chance to win. His 11 quality starts rank second on the team behind Severino. He also has induced more soft contact (22 percent) than the league average (18 percent), which can be very beneficial, and walks batters at a lower rate than the league average (7 percent vs. 8 percent).
Lynn also has even more postseason experience than Happ from his days with the Cardinals. He has amassed 52.0 innings pitched over 24 games (7 starts). His ERA in the postseason sits at 4.50 and has a similar K/9 to Happ at 8.7. This year has definitely been a down year for him, but prior to 2018, he has been an above-average pitcher, having had an ERA+ of 100 or more every year except one. He has also induced soft contact (20 percent) more than the MLB average, but slightly below Happ. And for sake of comparison, his walk rate this season is at 12 percent but has been steadily decreasing. Lynn has 9 quality starts on the year.
My gut prediction is that it will be Happ who would be the fourth starter, as he has simply been more consistent this year and is a very poised pitcher who doesn’t seem to get rattled too easily. This would place both Lynn and Gray in the bullpen, which could give Boone a pair of solid options should he need someone to eat some innings. Additionally, those two could make spot starts in the playoffs, with Lynn likely being the first one to go to.
A playoff rotation of Severino, Sabathia, Tanaka, and Happ could be very solid and could definitely lead the Yankees to number 28. However, there are two things that need to occur: health and these pitchers pitching to their capabilities.