While we know the Yankees will host the Athletics in the American League wild-card game on Wednesday, it’s not yet clear which pitcher will start for either team. The A’s seem poised to take an unconventional path and roll with their bullpen all night, as Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported Saturday, while the Yankees are likely to take a more traditional path. New York’s brass is currently debating whether to start Luis Severino, J.A. Happ or Masahiro Tanaka, who comprise the top three in the team’s rotation.
No matter who starts for the Yankees, one thing’s obvious: He’s in for an extremely difficult test against Oakland, whose offense ranks fourth in the majors in runs scored. The A’s have been death on both right-handers (112 wRC+) and lefties (106), meaning the Yankees can’t base their pick largely on pitcher handedness, and own the majors’ best road wRC+ (116). They also lead the league in fly ball rate (38.9 percent) and rank third in home runs, which bodes well for a team set to play at HR-friendly Yankee Stadium.
The A’s power could help steer the Yankees away from Tanaka, a homer-prone righty whose HR-to-FB rate (17.7 percent) is the majors’ sixth highest among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings this year. The left-handed Happ’s 30th in that category (13.4 percent), while Severino sits 45th (11.4 percent). On the other hand, the fact that Tanaka tends to shy away from fastballs could work in his favor. Tanaka has thrown his splitter 32 percent of the time this year, and according to Statcast, the A’s have only managed the majors’ second-worst weighted on-base average (.162) against that pitch. The 29-year-old’s main offering is his slider, which he has gone to 33 percent of the time. Oakland does place third in the majors in wOBA versus that pitch, though its .287 mark still doesn’t look that threatening. The A’s have also held their own against four-seam fastballs, evidenced by their .361 wOBA (ninth in the game), and that’s the pitch both Severino (50 percent) and Happ (59 percent) rely on the most.
The above numbers may factor into the Yankees’ decision for Wednesday, though if they make their call largely on upside, Severino will be the choice. The hard-throwing 24-year-old has been one of the sport’s most electrifying starters since last season, after all, and looked like an AL Cy Young front-runner during the first half of the season. Severino has experienced some turbulence since then, as he posted a horrid 5.57 ERA in the second half. At the same time, though, the righty still recorded excellent secondary numbers (10.86 K/9 against 2.00 BB/9, 3.37 FIP/3.06 xFIP), which suggests he deserved much better than his unsightly ERA, and finished the regular season allowing two or fewer earned runs in three straight starts.
Like Severino, Happ has been hot lately. Not only does Happ own a 2.62 ERA in the second half, but the 35-year-old has helped the Yankees to wins in nine of his 11 starts since they acquired him from the Blue Jays on July 26. However, his 4.21 FIP as a Yankee indicates fortune has been on his side. Tanaka, meanwhile, enjoyed a lights-out second half of the season in which he put up a 2.85 ERA/2.98 FIP with 9.41 K/9 and 1.61 BB/9. But it’s worth pointing out he’s fresh off back-to-back rough starts that saw him yield a combined eight earned runs in as many innings.
Based on numbers, selecting a starter against the A’s may not be a slam dunk for the Yankees. But in the end, the club’s choice might not even be on the mound for long. Whether it’s Severino, Tanaka or Happ, New York won’t gives its first-inning pick much rope Wednesday, largely because its bullpen is loaded with appealing choices. That relief corps was put to the test early in the Yankees’ wild-card game win last year, when the Twins teed off on Severino and chased him off the mound after he recorded just one out and allowed three earned runs. The Yankees’ bullpen saved them in a comeback victory in the Bronx that night, and they can only hope they won’t need that kind of help again in this season’s sudden death round.
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