We won’t have to wait long to find out if it really made a difference.
With the Yankees’ 1-0 win over the Astros in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday night, New York will start its bullpen on a full regular-season roster for the first time since July 19.
The lineup changed just one player — though the fourth “starter” had trouble finding a rhythm with less than three outs to go — and the fact that the Yanks hit well enough to win and with an effective set of starters weren’t pressed into service as much will keep manager Aaron Boone from trotting out his pen too early.
Nevertheless, the decision to go with Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino in the first two games rather than taking the opportunity to swap more regular starters in the right-handed lineup for an opening-day righty, two-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, seemed a curious one at first.
Giancarlo Stanton and the other right-handed hitters the Yankees had batting fifth through ninth — Miguel Andujar, Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks — already had the benefit of playing together in the Bronx. It seemed silly to try that in Houston, as its right-handed lineup consisted of two sluggers — George Springer and Yuli Gurriel — both over the age of 30 and a young one, Ozzie Albies, who was the only switch-hitter on the roster. (A switch-hitter could be useful for any spot in the lineup, but as soon as it became clear that the Astros’ primary setup man with left-handed hitters on the roster (one option) was always to intentionally walk and intentionally hit-to-throw the middle of the Yankees’ lineup with a lefty reliever on the mound, logic certainly didn’t fly.)
Even as the Yankees took 3-1 lead, it seemed like they might need to trot out a pen with only one starter in it to complete their five-game series with the Astros, as the thought of using six starters against a team whose normal starters seemed far more vulnerable seemed a bit chancy. Once the advantage swung back to the Astros in Game 2, New York figured they had to at least give it some thought. (We’re not saying it was a good one. But it seemed reasonable.)
They were already at the mercy of where and when a game takes place. A two-time World Series champion in Houston, it’s also generally where big games take place, including the 2018 ALDS, when the Tigers and Astros met there. It’s easy to see how the Yankees would like to have some similar flexibility as well. As ESPN’s Buster Olney pointed out on a conference call in September, the only other time the Yankees have gone back to their bullpen without an opening starter after a start at Yankee Stadium was Game 2 of the 2008 ALCS, when Sabathia retired the first 10 batters he faced. Their next opponent, a 97-win Detroit Tigers squad that won 96 games the season before, have a second baseman named Curtis Granderson who hit 50 home runs the year before. But would New York really rather have a 2-1 lead in the series? No.
The same can be said for New York’s DL situation. The Yankees announced before Game 1 that Gary Sanchez (broken hand) would miss an undetermined amount of time and are likely to use Sanchez as their DH (capped at DH) in the series.
Their backstop did not seem to change much from the regular season, and the team announced before Game 1 that Gleyber Torres would start at second base in Sanchez’s place. Torres hit 23 home runs in the regular season, second only to Judge’s 26, and posted a .354 on-base percentage.
It’s likely that a healthy Sanchez could have found a way to add some offense if the Yankees needed it, but the lineup with Torres at second and rookie Gleyber Torres at second will have some wild swings to it, including a first-inning double by Torres. It’s not a lineup that really presents the kind of left-handed-heavy middle of the order that Texas, for example, is likely to put together against them. And Torres, who turned 22 years old in July, is young enough where he could conceivably find a rhythm and become a postseason force — without really trying very hard at all.