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Predicting the playoff rotation

The postseason is drawing near. As of this writing, the Yankees have just 11 games remaining in the regular season, and there are less than 3 weeks before Game 1 of the ALDS. The Yankees are surely looking at which pitchers will start when, so we figured it would be a good idea to look at some of the numbers which could influence these decisions.

To plan the optimal postseason rotation, I’m going to make a few assumptions.

First, the Yankees will start the ALDS at home. That means they need to finish with one of the two best records in the AL. Right now, the Yankees are tied with Houston for the best record and have a 5.5 game lead over the Twins.

Second, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka are the only two locks to start postseason games. Paxton has been by far the best pitcher lately. In the past month, batters are hitting .137/.226/.202 against him with a 31.8% K rate. That is the dominance we expected from Big Maple when the Yankees traded for him. As for Tanaka, although he is not having a great year, he is tried and tested in the playoffs. I will always remember his Game 3 start in the 2017 ALDS when Tanaka threw 7 innings of 3 hit ball to help the Yankees to a 1-0 win in an elimination game.

Third, some combination of Luis Severino, Domingo German, J.A. Happ, and CC Sabathia will make up the other starting tandems. Severino returns tonight, and we are all excited for what he can do. He should be good for about 75 pitches tonight and can get built up to about 90 pitches in time for the playoffs. German recently came out of the bullpen, and I get the sense that may be his role moving forward to account for an innings limit as well as overall fatigue as the season went on. Happ has pitched better of late, and I believe the Yankees will want him on the playoff roster. Finally, CC is the veteran who has been there before, won it all, and how fitting would it be for him to have a moment in the playoffs as he rides off into the sunset?

Fourth, the Yankees are gonna do some crazy stuff. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote a great article about how the Yankees will not utilize a typical rotation in the playoffs. The money quote from Aaron Boone is here: “We’re going to be a little untraditional,” manager Aaron Boone said. “The only one we might use as a traditional starter is [James] Paxton.” What that means is the Yankees are likely going to be creative in how they approach who pitches when, and we get to have some fun thinking through the process.

First, some stats

Before getting into the predictions, I want to explain a few stats I used to make these guesses. First is a stat called tOPS+, which tells us how a pitcher compares to himself in different situations. For example, James Paxton’s tOPS+ for starts at home is 84 and for starts on the road is 115. That means Paxton is significantly better at home than on the road. For pitchers, a lower tOPS+ is better. This stat can help us determine who is better at home vs. on the road. The second stat is sOPS+, which is the same as tOPS+ but instead compares the pitcher to the league. This stat can tell us how much better or worse a pitcher is the third time through the order than other pitchers.

Let’s get to the games!

Game 1

Starter: James Paxton

Boone said Paxton is likely the only conventional starter for them, and he gets the Game 1 start for a few reasons. He has been the best pitcher on the team lately, finally coming into his own. He also pitches much better at home than on the road, as mentioned above. Paxton can also get through an order 3 times and often gets better as the game goes on. In fact, his sOPS+ on pitches 21-50 is 37 and on pitches 50-75 is 78. Those are great numbers, and hopefully Paxton can get through 5-6 innings before turning the game over to the bullpen.

Game 2

Starter: Masahiro Tanaka, followed by Chad Green

Tanaka gets the ball in Game 2 because he is great in the playoffs, and like Paxton, pitches better at home. His tOPS+ at home is 79 and on the road is 123. That huge disparity definitely means you want to start Tanaka at home. The reason I have Green following Tanaka is because Tanaka has struggled in the middle innings of games. He is great through his first 50 pitches, but after that his sOPS+ is over 120. The numbers also show the 5th and 6th innings are where Tanaka struggles the most, with sOPS+ of 125 and 164. Therefore, my plan would be to use Tanaka for 4 innings, then go to Chad Green for the 5th and 6th before turning it over to the big guys in the bullpen.

Game 3

Starter: Luis Severino, followed by CC Sabathia

Here is where we get to Sevy. In his career, he has exactly a 100 tOPS+ at home and on the road, which is why I have him pitching on the road. Having him go in Game 3 also allows him to make 3 starts before the regular season ends and be rested for Game 3. I hope Sevy can go 90 pitches and get into the 6th inning, but if not, you know the bullpen will be rested with an off-day between Games 2 and 3. I put CC to follow Sevy because of how different they are. Sevy will come out blowing 98 past guys, and CC can follow that up with 89 from the left side. That disparity can mess with hitters’ timing which will help make CC more effective.

Game 4

Starter: J.A. Happ, followed by Domingo German

I know, I know. Happ is the least exciting choice, but I really believe the Yankees will use German out of the pen rather than giving him a start. Happ is also better on the road with an 86 tOPS+ on the road compared to 113 at home. German is not better on the road, but I like the contrast of his curveball heavy approach to follow Happ. I’d like to get 3 innings out of each of these guys before turning it over to the bullpen.

Game 5

Starter: James Paxton

And we come full circle. If the series goes 5 games, Paxton is the guy I want on the mound in that scenario. What a season it has been!

Final Thoughts

The Yankees do not have a traditional starting pitching triad like they did in ’09 with CC, Burnett, and Andy Pettitte. But, as the Verducci piece notes, the game has trended away from that in the postseason. The Yankees have not had a pitcher go through a lineup 3 times in the playoffs since Hiroki Kuroda in 2012, which was SEVEN years ago. And last year, Boston didn’t have a pitcher do that either, which was the first time in history a World Series winner didn’t have a starter give that level of depth.

The game has clearly changed, and the Yankees are equipped to take advantage of it with tandem starters and a dominant bullpen. The Yankees bullpen will likely feature the following pitchers:

  1. Aroldis Chapman
  2. Zack Britton
  3. Adam Ottavino
  4. Tommy Kahnle
  5. Dellin Betances
  6. Chad Green

The Yankees really only need their starters to get through 3-4 innings before letting these guys feast. At the end of the day, it’s about getting 27 outs, it doesn’t matter how you get them.

You can contact Rohan on Twitter @rohanarcot20