Gerrit Cole endured to win Game 3 of the American League Championship Series for the Astros, who have relied on an overwhelming starting rotation while the Yankees lean heavily on their bullpen.
By Tyler Kepner Oct. 15, 2019
Jose Altuve swung at the first pitch he saw from Luis Severino on Tuesday, a belt-high slider he blasted into the Houston Astros’ bullpen in the top of the first inning. Appearances aside, Altuve insisted the Astros were glad Severino’s start did not last long.
“He was pretty good,” Altuve said after the Astros’ 4-1 victory in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, “but the fact that we could get him out of the game early was big for us.”
Actually, at four and one-third innings, Severino worked more than the typical Yankees starter in the postseason under Manager Aaron Boone. This series matches two data-savvy organizations that have opposite beliefs about how to pitch to a title, and their differences were on display in Game 3.
Consider Gerrit Cole, who started for Houston on Tuesday. In his previous playoff start, a division series clincher against Tampa Bay, Cole worked eight innings. The Yankees have played 29 postseason games since one of their starters went that deep.
The last to do it was C.C. Sabathia, who pitched a complete game to eliminate the Baltimore Orioles — yes, they were once a playoff team — in the 2012 division series. In two years and 11 postseason games under Boone, Yankees pitchers have averaged less than four innings per start.
To be precise, they have collected only 130 outs, or 11.8 per game, and only once lasted more than five innings. That was in Game 1 of this series, when Masahiro Tanaka worked six and left after 68 pitches.
“One of the strengths of our club is the depth of our bullpen,” Boone said. “And we probably rely on the 12, 13 pitchers that we have more so than most teams that tend to be a little more top-heavy.”
With Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, the Astros are clearly top-heavy. So are the Washington Nationals, who have flourished in the National League playoffs behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez.
There is no one way to win in October, but the wealthiest teams have choices. The Astros traded 12 players to get Verlander, Cole and Greinke, who combined to earn more than $73 million this season. The Nationals committed $369 million in free agency for Scherzer, Corbin and Sanchez, and another $175 million in a contract extension for Strasburg.
The Yankees made heavy investments in their bullpen: The contracts for Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino all rank among the 10 most lucrative deals for pitchers who were relievers at the time they signed. Those three earn an average of $39.2 million per season, and the Yankees supported them with two other top relievers in Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle.
It was hard to argue with the strategy. The best way to stifle opponents is with strikeouts, and the Yankees were the only team in the majors to have four relievers with at least 11 strikeouts per nine innings (minimum 55 innings pitched) — Chapman, Green, Kahnle and Ottavino. The exception was Britton, whose power sinker is all but impossible for hitters to lift.
“To go to the bullpen early is definitely one of our strengths on the team, and I think Boone has done a great job of utilizing that,” Kahnle said. “He’s just trying any way to get the end goal, which is the W at the end of the day, and being able to use us early in games, it’s not going to really affect us. We’ve been doing it almost all year.”
The risk for the Yankees is that, eventually, the seasoned Houston hitters could benefit from repeated looks at the same relievers. Ottavino, especially, has struggled this postseason: Nine of the 18 hitters he has faced have reached base.
In the seventh inning Tuesday, George Springer walked against Ottavino and bolted for second on a stolen base attempt. As he did, Altuve rolled a single through the right side, leading to a two-run inning helped by familiarity: Ottavino has pitched in all three games of this series, and allowed three singles to Altuve.
“I wouldn’t say it gets easier — it never gets easier — but at least you know how their pitches look and everything,” Altuve said. “To be honest with you, I don’t really like facing Ottavino. I just try to put the ball in play every time I’m facing him.”
Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow praised the Yankees for having a bullpen so deep in strong arms, adding that the frequent changes can flummox hitters.
“That being said, as the series rolls on, you get deeper and you’ve seen the guys three or four times,” Luhnow added. “Like in Game 5 against Tampa, for most of the pitchers that came in, it was either their third or fourth appearance, and the pendulum starts to swing back to the hitters, I think.”
Barring a rainout, the Yankees and the Astros could both be forced to use an array of pitchers in Game 4 on Wednesday. The Astros’ fourth starter in the regular season, Wade Miley, struggled late in the season and was left off the A.L.C.S. roster. Their fifth starter, Aaron Sanchez, had a shoulder operation in September. So the bulk of Game 4 could fall to the rookie Jose Urquidy, who had never pitched above Class A before this season.
The Yankees are more used to a bullpen game, with Green their usual opener. But if the game is rained out, the teams would have to play four in a row, with no days off, if the series goes a full seven games. That could mean an even more demanding workload.
“At this time of the year, you just do it,” Green said. “You try not to overthink it and think, ‘I’ve never done this before.’”
The strategy can be challenging, Astros Manager A.J. Hinch explained, because the more pitchers a team uses, the greater the chance that someone will falter.
“Once you start that, you can’t stop,” Hinch said. “Once you start the matchup-friendly approach, you run into a bad matchup eventually. If you have a right-handed specialist, there’s going to be lefties in the lineup. If you have a lefty that you don’t want to face a righty, you’re going to run into a righty, and you start rifling through your pitching a little bit.
“It is hard to get everybody perfectly lined up and perfectly matched up. The game often changes. It’s way easier to do it on paper than it is in practice.”
Hinch added: “But I think the mental grind that it takes on the hitters to always give them different looks, it takes great discipline to just stay with it. What do you do when guys get hot from a pitching standpoint and they look like they’ve got their best stuff?”
For Hinch, it was a rhetorical question. The Astros’ bullpen had a better earned run average than the Yankees’ this season (3.75 to 4.51), but elite starters remain the most valuable commodity in the game, and when they are rolling, let them roll.
Cole matched a career high with five walks on Tuesday, but he was sturdy enough to last through seven. As sharp as some Houston relievers have been lately, a pitcher like Cole is almost always a better option.
“You look at what Washington’s doing right now,” Luhnow said. “They’ve got some good offense going, but it’s on the backs of those incredible pitchers. If you have a good rotation, you’re going to be in great shape in the playoffs. But the model continues to change, and teams evolve with what they have.”
Tyler Kepner has been national baseball writer since 2010. He joined The Times in 2000 and covered the Mets for two seasons, then covered the Yankees from 2002 to 2009. @TylerKepner
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 16, 2019, Section B, Page 13 of the New York edition with the headline: Investing in Diversified Bullpen Was Shrewd Move for Yankees. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe