Yankees buck trend with 3-man playoff rotation

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By relying exclusively on CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte throughout the postseason the Yankees became the first team since the Twins in 1991 to win the World Series while using only three starting pitchers.
Minnesota won that year behind the trio of Jack Morris, Kevin Tapani, and 23-year-old 20-game winner Scott Erickson, and in a cruel twist of fate that happens to be the first postseason that I can remember watching.
I was eight years old, newly obsessed with the Twins, and living in St. Paul at the time, so naturally it seemed to me that they would be making it to the World Series just about every season for the rest of my life. They haven’t been back since. Anyway, enough about the unfortunate timing of my Twins fandom.
Minnesota only needed to use a three-man rotation for two rounds in 1991 and Elias Sports Bureau put together an interesting stat about the history of pitchers starting on short rest since the playoffs expanded to three rounds in 1995. Despite the Yankees’ recent success the numbers aren’t pretty. Short-rest starters have gone 22-35 with a 4.68 ERA in 480.2 innings during that 15-year span, including a 5.24 ERA in four starts this postseason.
Success tends to breed copycats and the Yankees riding three starters to the World Series this season will no doubt increase the likelihood of other teams giving it a try, but short rest simply hasn’t been very kind to pitchers in the playoffs. In fact, only once since 1995 have short-rest starters produced a winning record and an ERA under 4.00.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.