For the third straight year, the New York Yankees gameplan of winning a World Series through a dominant bullpen has fallen apart.
The philosophy — which gained traction when it led the Kansas City Royals to a championship in 2015 — has been the MLB’s recent trend, but it’s on the verge of dissolving in light of the Yankees struggles in the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, who were built around starting pitching.
I understand that this is a team sport and the Yankees offense wasn’t what it needed to be for the better part of the series, but it may have been a direct result of how good the Astros’ pitchers were. October baseball constantly proves to be about which team’s starting pitching can dominate, because balls simply don’t carry like they do in the regular season.
Relying on the bullpen worked for the Yankees in the regular season because of how dangerous and deep they were. They had had four relievers — Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman — who they could alternate without having much drop-off.
It would be easy to blame the bullpen struggles on Ottavino, who struggled throughout the ALCS, but it was more than him. He may have given up the game-tying home run that was the lynch pin in giving the Astros a path to winning Game 2, but Chapman’s the one who threw the pitch that ended up as George Springer’s walk-off.
Regardless, the Yankees should join the Astros in questioning whether investing in relievers rather than starters is a productive plan for the playoffs. I don’t think it is.
The whole concept of stacking the bullpen essentially revolves around limiting the number of times batters face pitchers, which allows pitchers to deploy their arsenal quicker instead of distributing their pitches over more at bats.
But as we saw in the ALCS, over a seven-game series, this is counterproductive. The games are so important that teams have to use their best pitchers almost every night, which gives hitters the opportunity to adapt to the pitchers.
Because of this, by game six, the Astros had adapted to the Yankees relievers, meaning strengths and weaknesses flipped-flopped. All season, New York’s strength had been relief pitching, and the team could nail down wins with its bullpen, and all of the sudden, it wasn’t winning games; it was losing games.
So heading into the offseason, the Yankees — and teams structured similarly — have to consider reconfiguring their pitching staff. That means subtracting some of the game’s best relievers to add a starter, because starting pitching gets you through long playoff series. Relief pitching doesn’t.