The overarching theme of 2020 is the differences compared to years past. That is never more evident than in the MLB postseason. Specifically, with no off days during the Division Series and Championship Series, the strategy was expected to be different than in previous postseasons. As Game Two of the ALDS between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays got under way Tuesday night, manager Aaron Boone was doing just that.
Utilizing an opener as a decoy was a creative, interesting move by Boone, but it ultimately fell flat and backfired. The two pitchers combining for five earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. In hindsight, the move was unnecessary, and trying to unpack it leaves more questions than answers.
The conversations that led to this decision took place in the days leading up the start of the series. Boone spoke with coaches and front office members to concoct this strategy. The logic was to keep the right-handed Garcia in for a short outing before bringing in the left-handed Happ to manipulate the Rays’ roster.
“I felt like I was going to go to [Happ] pretty early and aggressively as long as they went with the heavy lefty lineup, and that was the reason,” Boone said.
Also, the Yankees staff felt that they wanted to split up Gerrit Cole and Tanaka, the two guys they know will give them length.
Out of the Bullpen
Happ only lasted 2 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on two home runs. Overall, he generated some weak contact against the left-handed hitters, but his fastball lacked life. That coupled with some instances of missed location, led to his outing going how it did.
The performance was a stark difference from both his career in Petco Park and how he ended this season. In three previous starts, Happ had a 1.40 ERA in Petco Park. Historically, that is the fifth-lowest of any pitcher with at least three starts there. Additionally, his 2.34 ERA since August 16th is the best on the Yankees and ninth-best in MLB in that span.
Happ declined to comment on if he was put in a position to succeed. He admitted that he could not get into a groove, and he made it known that his preference was to start the game. Either way, he clarified that he always gives his best, regardless of circumstances.
“When I’m in there, you’ve got 100% of me so I gave it what I had,” Happ said. “I wasn’t worried about when I was coming in at the time. I was worried about trying to execute and trying to pitch.”
Although Happ is not using the circumstances as an excuse, altering the routine of a 14-year veteran is questionable. His recent success and numbers in San Diego only add to the skepticism.
Tuesday was also the first time Happ had pitched since September 25th although neither he nor Boone consider that a major factor. Boone referenced Happ’s success after a variety of lengthy layoffs this season.
Not Sticking With Garcia
Even with an advantage from manipulating the Rays’ roster, Garcia has had success against left-handed hitters in his limited time in MLB. His K/BB ratio is significantly lower against lefties, but he has held them to a .226/.273/.306 slash line. For reference, righties are slashing .276/.304/.513 in a similar number of plate appearances, 79 against righties and 67 against lefties.
That compares well with Happ’s numbers against lefties this year. Left-handed hitters slashed .204/.240/.327 in a smaller sample of 53 plate appearances against Happ in 2020.
In Garcia’s lone inning, he allowed a home run to Randy Arozarena, throwing 27 pitches. The rookie knew what was going to be happening although he was not sure how long he would be in the game. Regardless, he trusts Boone’s decision.
“At the end, I believe in my manager, and I believe that he is gong to put us in the best position possible to succeed,” Garcia said.
Another aspect to Boone’s logic is the belief that Garcia can pitch again later in the series. Garcia, himself thinks he could be available for Game Three or Game Four.
Still, it feels as though the Yankees have now wasted outings by both a promising rookie and one of their most-reliable starters over the past six weeks.
The opener strategy was developed by the Rays in 2018 to counteract thin rotation depth after Blake Snell, who won the Cy Young award that year. The strategy helps a team get important outs even if the available starting rotation does not bode confidence from management.
However, that is not the case for Aaron Boone. When asked if he has enough starting pitching to get through this series, he responded with an unflinching “absolutely.”
He doubled down on the belief he has in his starting rotation.
“I feel like we have a lot of confidence in our guys that are able to get high-quality outs,” Boone said.
Ultimately, in the most unique postseason in MLB history, differing strategies are expected. However, the decision to deploy an opener in Game Two has left those who watched it scratching their heads. A potential loss in Game Three puts the Yankees on the brink of elimination. Therefore, the significance of the game is only heightened as Aaron Boone sends Tanaka to the mound, resorting back to a traditional utilization of his pitchers.
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