Yankees’ AL Wild-Card Game Starter Is an Impossible Decision

Whether the Yankees pick Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka or J.A. Happ to start the wild-card game, it has to lead to a win

Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman

Last season, the decision of who would start the wild-card game was easy: Luis Severino. He was the best pitcher on the team (and one of the best in the entire league, finishing third in the Cy Young voting), and it wasn’t even close. Had the offense not been able to overcome his disastrous one-third of an inning performance, it would have been a disappointing end to the season, but no one could have faulted the team for going with their ace in the game. He was the unanimous choice among the organization and Yankees fans, and if the Yankees were eliminated in that game, it could have easily been excused as the textbook example of how anything can happen in a single baseball game.

This season is much different. The Yankees have three options to start the wild-card game, but no true option. There’s no consensus pick on who should start on Wednesday, Oct. 3 against the A’s and that’s a problem.

It won’t be a problem if the offense goes out and scores eight runs the way they did a year ago. But it will be a problem if the starting pitcher lays an egg the way Severino did in last year’s game and the offense goes into one of its familiar funks and the season ends at home after triple-digits wins in the regular season.

The Yankees have to be right their in their decision because if the season ends with a home loss in the wild-card game a year after they came within one win of the World Series, the season is a complete failure. That’s not some Steinbrenner mentality either, that’s fact. It doesn’t matter how many games the team won in a season in which six AL teams lost at least 88 games and a team in the Yankees’ division is one of the worst teams in the history of baseball. The Yankees have to at least reach the ALDS for this season to be anything but a wasted one in their current window of opportunity. If the Yankees are wrong with their decision and the starting pitcher is the reason for a loss in the game, it will be second-guessed forever.

If it’s Severino and they lose, it should have been Masahiro Tanaka or J.A. Happ. If it’s Tanaka and they lose, it should have been Severino or Happ. If it’s Happ and they lose, it should have been Severino or Tanaka. They’re all good options, but none of them are great options.

Severino was the best pitcher in the American League for the first half of the season and after shutting out the Red Sox 6 2/3 innings on July 1, he was 13-2 with a 1.98 ERA. But over his next 11 starts, he allowed 89 baserunners in 55 2/3 innings and 13 home runs, pitching to a 6.83 ERA as opposing hitters batted .323/.360/.574 against him. He has returned to form of late though, pitching to a 2.04 ERA and a 1.019 WHIP in his last three starts spanning 17 2/3 innings.

Tanaka had a 4.54 ERA at the All-Star break, but after the break he pitched to a 2.09 ERA and 1.036 WHIP over 10 starts from July 24 to Sept. 14. His second-half performance had made him the front-runner to start the wild-card game. But then, on Sept. 20, he was knocked around by the Red Sox (4 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 HR), and then knocked around by the Rays in his next start on Sept. 26 (4 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 1 HR).

Happ has been exceptional since coming to the Yankees at the trade deadline, going 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA and 1.052 WHIP in 11 starts and 63 2/3 innings. He’s only had one bad start as a Yankee and that came on Aug. 30 against the White Sox (4.1 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 3 HR). Aside from that, he’s been outstanding, including his Sept. 4 win over the A’s (6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR).

The Yankees have said recently they don’t know who they are going to pitch in the game and that they would have those discussions over the weekend, but barring injury, we all know that’s not true. They have known for a while who they want to start the game. At this point, they’re just waiting to announce it.

If their decision is based on who’s the best pitcher, it’s Severino, who is still the ace and future of the rotation and when on, he’s one of, if not, the best pitcher in the majors. If they’re going with with the best postseason pitcher, it’s Tanaka, who pitched well in the wild-card game in 2015 and then was dominant in three starts in last year’s postseason against the Indians and Astros, allowing two earned runs in 25 innings. If they’re going off recent performance, it’s Happ, who has done nothing but win and pitch well since putting on the pinstripes aside from that one game over a month ago

There’s this idea that the Yankees are only going to allow the starter, no matter who it is, to go through the lineup once, and then turn it over to the bullpen. But that’s hard to believe because if any of the three are pitching a three-hit shutout through four innings, are they really going to be relieved? And while the Yankees do boast Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, David Robertson and Chad Green, the goal shouldn’t be to use all of them, the goal should be to use as few of them as possible. The more relievers used in the game, the better the chance one of the pitchers entering for the Yankees might not have it that night and the game could be lost in the middle or late innings because of it. It’s nice to have a plan and strategy going into the game, but baseball very rarely lets you plan ahead.

I honestly don’t know who I would pick. When I lean toward Severino because he’s the best pitcher on the team, I get worried that he might try to do too much and make up for last year’s first-inning debacle. When I lean toward Tanaka because of his postseason resume, I start to envision the home run-hitting A’s against the home run-prone right-hander and the game getting out of hand. When I lean toward Happ because of his Yankees tenure, I worry that if his location and command are off, he doesn’t have the stuff to get through the game.

I don’t know who should start the game. All I know is I’m happy I don’t have to make the decision. But whatever the decision is, it better be right.


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