I think we're all pretty familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the current Yankee roster at the moment. The biggest strength is clearly in the bullpen, where the Yankees may have 3 of the 4 best relief pitchers in the American League, plus some interesting depth underneath them. The biggest weakness is clearly the starting rotation. CC Sabathia led Yankee starting pitchers with 167 innings last season, and only Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino were above-average by ERA+.
Given this, the Yankees should borrow a strategy from the 2015 Tampa Bay Rays: pull their starting pitchers much more quickly in close games when they reach the third time through the order. The third time through the order penalty is well documented. The balance of power between hitters and pitchers shifts substantially when a batter has seen that pitcher more than twice. Pitchers on their third time through the order on average prevent .35 runs per 9 innings worse than they do overall. Pitchers having very good days can overcome the penalty, but all pitchers are affected by it in equal proportions, no matter how good they are.
Here is the 2015 Yankee rotation, broken down by times through the order:
- First: Opposing batters hit .265/.315/.426, 105 tOPS+, 1448 PAs
- Second: Opposing batters hit .258/.311/.392, 95 tOPS+, 1405 PAs
- Third: Opposing batters hit .276/.325/.468, 118 tOPS+, 1004 PAs
I don't think that Yankee pitchers gave up a lot of early runs last season is news to many readers of this site, but that is likely to revert back to normal this season. Most MLB pitchers are best the first time they encounter a batter, with the batter gaining an advantage each subsequent time. The first and second times through the order average almost exactly to 100 tOPS+, meaning that Yankee pitchers were 18% worse the third time through the order, Â which is worse than the league average. Theoretically pulling every 2015 Yankee pitcher after the third time through the order would have lowered their collective ERA from 4.25 to 3.49.
Obviously, the Yankees shouldn't just straight pull their starters every time they reach the third time through the order. Starting pitchers eat innings so that the bullpen does not have to. However, in close games, they should consider it much more often then they do. Last season, Yankee starting pitchers threw 26% of their plate appearances to batters who had seen them for the third time.
Unfortunately, the Yankees are unlikely to be replacing most of these plate appearances with pitches from Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Dellin Betances. They will all likely be used as much as Joe Girardi can safely use them regardless of how aggressive the Yankees try and be with starting pitcher usage. Instead, they will be using more of Chasen Shreve, Ivan Nova, Brandon Pinder, Jacob Lindgren, Nick Goody, etc. I'm not going to pretend to be able to predict how good those guys can be. However, the bar is pretty low for them to be an improvement on Yankee run prevention. Yankee starting pitchers had an ERA over 4.50 after the third time through the order. Shreve, Pinder, Rumbelow, Goody and Lindgren could do that if matchups are exploited.
The strategy has the ancillary benefit of reducing the workload on Yankee starting pitching. Tanaka, Pineda, Eovaldi and Severino all have workload concerns going into this season. The Yankees can leave them in for longer games if they are pitching exceptionally well, the Yankees have a big lead or deficit, or the bullpen is exhausted, but overall the Yankees could shave 20-30 innings off each of their workloads.