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Preparing for the ALDS: The Yankees rotation

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Looking at the four starters slated for this series

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Today’s the day. The ALDS starts up at 7:32 PM ET tonight, and that means we have fewer than 12 hours to sit around wondering what’s about to happen. As we continue to psych ourselves out (I know I’m not the only one doing that), let’s continue to look at the Yankees roster. Yesterday, I looked at the lineup. Now, I’ll take a look at the four pitchers they have lined up to appear in the ALDS.

Game One: J.A. Happ (LHP)

There has been some speculation that part of the reasoning behind Aaron Boone going with Luis Severino in the Wildcard game over Happ — the latter of whom has easily been New York’s best starter in the second half — was to save Happ for the ALDS against the Red Sox. If you’ve followed this team in recent years, you probably know that Happ has a tendency to just own the Red Sox. Over his entire career, he’s pitched against Boston 21 times with 117 23 innings and has pitched to a 2.98 ERA. For reference, his overall career ERA just about a full run higher than that. The Red Sox have just never seemed to be able to figure Happ out, though they may be on their way this year. The southpaw did have two utterly dominant starts against Boston this year, going a combined 13 innings and allowing just two runs (one earned) in those outings. However, the Red Sox combined for nine runs in their other two games against the lefty this year, and while five of those were unearned it wasn’t quite that simple. That game with the five unearned runs was the one with the incredible Mookie Betts grand slam. They also scored four runs off him in a September 28 game. Happ certainly has the skillset to shut down this Red Sox team, but they’ve gotten to him a couple times already this year.

Expanding the scope a little bit, Happ has been really good since coming to the Yankees, though the extent and sustainability of his success depends on which metrics you prefer. By ERA, he improved greatly after being traded from Toronto, pitching to a 2.69 mark in New York compared to a 4.18 ERA with the Blue Jays. However, both his FIP and his DRA got slightly worse after the trade, largely due to a lack of strikeouts. Does that mean he’s due for definite regression? Of course not. We’re now dealing entirely in small samples for the rest of the year, and it’s just impossible to predict. That said, it does mean it’s possible that he’s been pitching over his head a bit.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As far as the Red Sox approach against Happ, expect them to stack righties. That means Steve Pearce will definitely start at first, Ian Kinsler will start at second, and maybe even Eduardo Núñez at third (though I’m less confident in that happening). Happ has been fine against righties, allowing a .722 OPS, but he’s dominated lefties to the tune of a .487 OPS. In terms of repertoire, Happ is going to lean heavily on a four-seam fastball that sits in the 91-94 range, and he’ll sprinkle in a sinker, a slider and a changeup.

Game Two: Masahiro Tanaka (RHP)

Whereas Happ has had tremendous success against the Red Sox in his career, Boston has been able to get to Tanaka. Over 18 starts with Boston on the other side in Tanaka’s career, the righty has pitched to a 4.35 ERA, about 80 points higher than his career average. Those trends have continued this year as well. He has faced the Red Sox four times in 2018, and in his best start he allowed just one run but also only lasted 4 23 innings. He allowed 15 runs in the other three starts combined, however, and the Red Sox managed to hit six homers against the Yankees righty in his four starts. If he has the splitter working, which we’ll get to in a minute, he can shut down any lineup. That said, the Red Sox have managed to figure him out in most of their matchups.

Looking at the full season, this has been a somewhat underratedly solid year for Tanaka, at least when he’s been on the mound. He did have to miss some time in 2018 and he ended up with only 156 innings, but he pitched to a solid 3.75 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning and exactly two walks per nine innings. Those are solid numbers, though his propensity for homers brought his FIP just barely above 4.00. Still, by just about every metric he was safely above-average and a solid if unspectacular pitcher.

He’s going to throw a lot of pitches with movement, too. According to Brooks Baseball, he throws his four-seamer only 21 percent of the time, leaning more heavily on his slider and splitter. The latter is his best pitch when it’s on. If Tanaka has that working, it’s almost impossible to lay off. That said, if teams can stay disciplined against his junk and force him to fall behind and lean more on the fastbal, that’s when he gets in trouble. Look for patience from Boston’s hitters in this game.

Game Three: Luis Severino (RHP)

Wild Card Game - Oakland Athletics v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Severino is the biggest wildcard in this Yankees rotation, and that has proven true against the Red Sox this year. They have seen both versions of the potential ace, both getting to him and getting dominated by him in five starts this season. In two of those starts, the Red Sox hitters managed to score at least four runs off Severino and the righty didn’t make it out of the sixth in either of those outings. In the other three, however, Severino tossed at least six full innings in all of them and Boston scored two, one and zero runs, respectively. Severino has, at different times this year, looked like a guy who belongs in the “Best Pitcher in Baseball” conversation as well as like someone who might need a week or two in the minors. The Red Sox have seen both versions.

As far as what to expect moving forward, well, as I said above it’s impossible to predict anything this time of year. That said, he did start to look better at the end of September and then he pitched well in four innings in the Wildcard Game. Severino did show off some control issues in that matchup against Oakland, so the Red Sox may want to make him come to them before getting overly aggressive, but that’s easier said than done. If he’s at his best and you fall behind in counts, you’re pretty much done. What I’m saying is there’s plenty of reason to be nervous here, but Severino is also no sure thing.

In terms of repertoire, Severino is a three-pitch guy. His number one offering is the number one offering, as his fastball is among the hardest for any starter in baseball at 98 mph on average. He also has a nasty slider to pair with that and a changeup that sits in the high 80s.

Game Four: CC Sabathia (LHP)

The Red Sox have seen Sabathia three times this year, and they’ve had great success in two of them. In one, they scored only two runs but they chased him out of the game after just three innings after getting on base seven times in those three innings. In the other he allowed four runs in four innings with nine hits. However, Sabathia did allow just one run over seven innings in a June start, so it hasn’t been all good news for the Red Sox. Of course, Sabathia was also utterly dominant against Boston in 2017, though I’m not sure that matters much at all at this point.

I think the most important point to make here is that, by the time we get to this game, the starters will matter less and less. At this point in the series, if it gets this far, one team will be down 2-1 and have their backs against the wall. There will also be a day off on the horizon before a potential Game Five. All of that is to say, both Sabathia and Nathan Eovaldi — who is slated for Game Four for Boston — are going to be on short leashes.