The New York Yankees were the only team to sweep its division series matchup this postseason, which means the Bronx Bombers will head into the ALCS having been idle since Monday night, giving them four full off days compared to Houston’s one. For the past few-dozen years, baseball circles have debated the value of clinching early—and therefore having a long down period to recover and go into the series with a fully rested pitching staff—versus the potential for gathering rust in that time.
The Yankees have no doubt been doing their best to balance focus and relaxation during their off days, so in addition to, say, catching up on The Good Place, they will have tried to learn from the Houston–Tampa Bay ALDS. The Rays took the Astros to the brink of elimination, so the Yankees, a deeper ballclub with far more top-end star power, ought to be able to knock Houston out by better executing a similar game plan. Here are the key lessons from the ALDS that will help the Yankees get past the heavily favored Astros.
1. Lock Down Your Counterintelligence
The thing that decided the ALDS was not the Rays’ inability to hit Gerrit Cole, or José Altuve’s three home runs, or the combined 5-for-35 run between Rays slugger Austin Meadows and typical Clutch God Travis d’Arnaud. It was the fact that Tyler Glasnow was tipping his pitches in the first inning of Game 5, and the Astros were able to drop a decisive four-run inning on him before Tampa Bay figured it out.
Glasnow, who’d traded zeroes with Verlander for four innings in Game 1 before Altuve touched him up, admitted after the game that it was obvious he’d been tipping his pitches, which numerous ex–big leaguers watching at home picked up on as well. If the results weren’t clear enough, after Alex Bregman scored the fourth run of the game, he went to the on-deck circle for a celebratory high five from Carlos Correa, the next hitter up. This interaction has happened after every run scored in MLB for the past 100 years, and it’s over in half a second almost every time. This time, however, Bregman spent several seconds giving Correa what looked like a seminar on what to look for from the Rays right-hander. Bregman was the last Astro to score until the eighth inning as Glasnow and two relievers set down Correa and the next 12 batters to follow, but by that point the damage was done.
The Astros—ironically the victims of the highest-profile instance of corporate espionage in baseball history—are themselves ruthless when it comes to picking up on tells. It’s how they got to Yu Darvish in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, and last year they ran afoul of the league by sticking a dude in the camera well to film the opposing dugout in the first two rounds of the playoffs. So while it’s not necessarily likely that a Yankee starter is tipping his pitches or that the team’s signs are particularly easy to steal, the Astros have a habit of collecting such information and deploying it at the very moment it can do the most damage, so it would behoove the Yankees to plug any leaks before the series.
2. Limit Exposure to Gerrit Cole
The beefy 29-year-old Californian had about as good a division series as a pitcher can have: Two starts, two wins, 15 2/3 innings pitched, 25 strikeouts, and only one run and nine base runners allowed. Game 2 in particular was one of the best postseason pitching performances of the 21st century: 7 2/3 innings and 15 strikeouts. Cole allowed just five batters out of 27 to reach base, including the last two he faced, and only once faced a batter with a runner in scoring position. His ability to mix 100 mph heat with two breaking balls, a knee-buckling change-up, and near-perfect command of all four pitches is essentially impossible to counteract, and the Astros will almost certainly win any game in which he pitches that well.
There are, however, two ways to try to get around him. The first is to pray for a first-pitch fastball and ambush it. The one run the Rays scored against Cole in the ALDS came on just such a pitch, as Eric Sogard got a first-pitch heater he could pull and yanked it into the seats. The Yankees, who hit 306 home runs in the regular season, have no shortage of power hitters capable of taking Cole deep if he makes a mistake.
But sitting on the fastball and swinging from the heels won’t work very often, and when it doesn’t, the batter who tries it will find himself gifting Cole a free strike or a quick out. That might not pay off in the long run, which means the opposite approach might be the way to go. When he’s on, Cole works the edges of the strike zone extremely well, which leaves him susceptible to getting squeezed by an unfavorable umpire, and to surrendering foul balls on defensive swings. Even if Cole himself seldom gives up hard (or indeed any) contact, this approach would run up his pitch count, forcing Astros manager A.J. Hinch to turn the game over to the bullpen earlier than he’d like.
Dating back to May 27 and including his two ALDS starts, Cole has won his past 18 decisions, but the Astros’ bullpen has lost two of the six starts in which he’s taken a no-decision. Counting the playoffs, the Astros are 18-1 this year when Cole pitches into the seventh inning and 5-0 when he pitches into the eighth. When Cole lasts six innings or less the Astros are just 10-6. The Yankees probably can’t beat Cole, but they can beat whoever comes in after he leaves the game.
In Game 2, Cole recorded his first 23 outs in just 25 plate appearances and an even 110 pitches, for an average of 4.4 pitches per plate appearance. If the Rays had seen 3.8 pitches per plate appearance (in line with the lowest teamwide averages this year) and Cole had continued to retire 92 percent of the batters he faced, he could have recorded all 27 outs in about 112 pitches, enough to deny Tampa Bay a shot at the Astros’ bullpen.
And as well as Cole pitched on Saturday, the Rays nearly made the most of that shot. The Rays had the go-ahead run on base against Cole just once in 27 plate appearances—with two outs in the first inning. After the Astros took the lead in the fourth, Cole faced 14 more batters, in which the Rays had the tying run on base for a total of two plate appearances, both with two outs. After Cole left the game, the Rays sent eight men to the plate. Four of them batted with the tying run on base, and two of those batted with the go-ahead run also on base.
The Yankees are perhaps uniquely well-suited to undertake this approach, because the two things they’re most known for are hitting home runs and taking a ton of pitches. The Yankees saw the second-most pitches per plate appearance in baseball this year, and four of their projected lineup regulars—Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Gardner, and Gary Sánchez—saw at least 4.2 pitches per plate appearance this year, as did Aaron Hicks, who is reportedly also going to be on the ALCS roster.
It’s also important to note that in a five-game series with two off days, Cole was able to start twice and account for 36 percent of Houston’s total innings pitched. That won’t be the case in the ALCS. Unless Hinch decides to throw his top three starters on short rest—and given Justin Verlander’s abysmal performance on three days’ rest in Game 4 of the ALDS, that’s unlikely—Cole won’t start until Game 3, in Yankee Stadium, and then not again until Game 7, if the series goes that long. The Rays not only showed the Yankees a way to get around Cole, they might have rendered him unable to dominate the ALCS.
3. Don’t be Shy About Pulling Starters Early
Glasnow’s pitch-tipping escapade notwithstanding, the Rays’ starters actually held their own against Cole, Verlander, and Zack Greinke. Rays starters were charged with eight earned runs in the ALDS, six of them against Glasnow. Of those, four came in the first six batters of Game 5. The other four runs came off home runs, one each against Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Charlie Morton.
But when both teams were operating under optimal circumstances, Astros starters threw far more innings than their Rays counterparts. In all three Astros wins, the starter went at least seven innings, while no Rays starter—not even a fully-rested Morton pitching with a seven-run lead—went more than five. That’s by design, as every Rays starter except Morton was either limited by virtue of being an opener (Game 4’s Diego Castillo) or by recent return from injury (Snell and Glasnow). Rays manager Kevin Cash had the luxury of managing that way because of the depth of his bullpen, and the number of quality pitchers he could bring out of the pen to deliver a variety of different looks, from the hard-throwing Castillo to the finesse lefty Ryan Yarbrough.
Cash brought 12 pitchers to the ALDS, and not only did all of them see action, eight of them—all except Morton, Glasnow, Oliver Drake, and Yonny Chirinos—got into at least three games. Cash couldn’t ride dominant starters the way Hinch did, but he could keep Astros hitters guessing inning to inning.
If there’s any team left in the playoffs set up to win using that blueprint, it’s the Yankees, who are short on quality starters anyway but have a phenomenal back end of the bullpen. In addition to closer Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees have two middle relievers who posted an ERA below 2.00 this season: Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton, who used the layoff to recover from a minor ankle injury and is expected to pitch in the ALCS. That’s in addition to hard-throwing righties Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone might have been inclined to lean on his bullpen anyway, particularly because his nominal ace, Luis Severino, returned from the IL even more recently than did Snell and Glasnow, and lasted just four innings and 83 pitches in his start in Game 3 of the ALDS.
To ask Severino, James Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka to match Verlander and Cole pitch-for-pitch is to set them up to fail, but the whole idea behind assembling a bullpen as good as New York’s (or Tampa Bay’s for that matter) is to take pressure off the starters. Severino and Paxton in particular are power arms capable of working harder if they know from the start they’re only going to throw 70 or 80 pitches instead of 110, and establishing that as the game plan from the outset would allow Boone to minimize the weaknesses of his pitching staff.
Bookmakers have the Yankees as nearly 2-to-1 underdogs, which is an odd thing to say about a team that won 103 regular-season games, swept its first playoff series, and is, after all, the Yankees. But the Rays nearly pulled off a first-round upset using this particular formula, and the Yankees will maximize their chances of doing the same by learning from Tampa Bay’s experience.