The New York Yankees have a decision to make. Do they pick a starting pitcher to go on the mound for the Wild Card game against the Oakland Athletics? Or do they do what has become baseball’s most recent trend; use an opener? If the past few auditions from Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino are any indication, it could be in the Yankees best interest to use their bullpen. If they did not want to do so, the best choice seems to be J.A Happ, as he has given up just two earned runs in his last 23 innings pitched. Furthermore, Happ pitched well in his latest start against the Athletics. He logged six innings pitched giving up just one earned run on two hits in a no-decision.
Why Not J.A Happ?
The decision to use Happ may not be so obvious, however. In that small sample size of just one game, there are some more telling statistics that explain why Happ may not be the best fit for the Wild Card game. To start, Happ recorded a 1.50 ERA for that game, but also logged a 4.65 FIP. That’s not the number you want to see when you are testing luck. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Athletics are better against right-handed pitchers, as they own a 120 wRC+ against righties to a 106 wRC+ against lefties, they are also adept at hitting the fastball. Happ throws his fastball a whopping 73.2% of the time. Add on the fact that this game will likely be at Yankee Stadium, and it could get ugly. Athletics hitters own a .389 xwOBA against the fastball. Conversely, they own a .292 xwOBA against breaking balls and a .306 xwOBa against offspeed pitches.
It would be interesting to see the Yankees get creative in this all-important game. They used a trusted starter last season in Luis Severino, and he was out in the first inning. Not that it has anything to do with this year’s game, but it is in some ways a lesson. The best course of action might just be to get creative. The Yankees cannot expect to go down 3-0 in the first inning and tie the game again. The Athletics are a great baseball team, so an early lead is paramount. Thanks to their depth, the Yankees can make all nine innings a bullpen game.
Who’s the Opener?
One of the quietest recent trends for the Yankees has been the improved pitching of Zach Britton. He has not given up an earned run in nearly nine innings pitched. Britton is a left-handed pitcher that does not throw a whole lot of straight fastballs. He has thrown his fastball .8% of the time and his sinker 91.6% of the time in 2018. With Britton’s improvement, it is not out of the question that he can open the game. He keeps the ball down in the zone, can limit the possibility of the early home run, and has shown signs of gaining better control. He has walked just two batters in his last 17 appearances. In other words, starting with Britton might give the Yankees a better chance to score the first run or runs of the game.
Other key guys that could come out of the Yankees bullpen are Dellin Betances, David Robertson, and Chapman. Chad Green and Jonathan Holder should likely be avoided in this game if at all possible. It could possibly come down to which starter the Yankees want to have work three or four innings mid-game. Whether that be Happ, Severino, or Tanaka is yet to be determined. Nonetheless, there are ways for the Yankees to get creative in the Wild Card game, especially at home. An early lead will be huge in this game, and the Yankees should think about treating the early inning scenarios as high leverage spots.