Yankees Thoughts: Aaron Boone’s Bullpen Management Can’t Stop Aaron Judge from Winning Games

The Yankees have a six-game winning streak and the best record in baseball

The Yankees opened Yankee Stadium in 2020 by sweeping the Red Sox, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Last season, I wrote the Off Day Dreaming blogs on every off day, but this season there aren’t many off days. There aren’t many games. So instead, I have decided to use the Off Day Dreaming format following each series. Yankees Thoughts will be posted after each series this season.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. I have long wondered what it would be like to get a full season from a healthy Aaron Judge. We almost got it in 2017 when he led the league in home runs, won Rookie of the Year and finished second for MVP, but a nagging second-half shoulder injury kept him from having an even better season that year. This year, Judge would have missed the entire first half of the season with the broken rib/collapsed lung injury that went undiagnosed from last September and we would have once again been deprived of a full season from him. But in this shortened 60-game season, we are seeing what a healthy Judge can do and that’s hit six home runs and drive in 14 runs through eight games, with all six of those home runs coming in the last five games. Judge has been the best player in baseball for the first week-plus of the season and is certainly the heavy favorite to win MVP right now (unless the season gets canceled, which could happen at any second). Judge powered the Yankees to a ninth-inning comeback win on Thursday, gave the Yankees the lead for good on Friday, gave the Yankees an early lead on Saturday and hit two go-ahead home runs on Sunday. Not even James Paxton’s horrible pitching or Aaron Boone’s nonsensical bullpen management can prevent the Yankees from winning when Judge is hitting like this.

2. The Yankees have a starting pitching problem. You might not think they do since they’re 7-1, but having every starter not named Gerrit Cole fail to go at least six innings is a recipe for disaster that will eventually catch up with the team and burn out the elite relievers the way it did in the postseason last year. No one is worried about Cole, and I’m not worried about Masahiro Tanaka, who was limited in his only start this season by a pitch count. After those two, it’s Jordan Montgomery, who looked good in his lone start, but it’s one start, and then it’s James Paxton whose fastball has disappeared and J.A. Happ who hasn’t been good since the moment before he threw his first pitch in Game 1 of the 2018 ALDS. Paxton was given extra days off following his outing in the second game of the season in D.C. when he recorded three outs and was pulled in the second inning with the bases loaded and no outs, and while he lasted longer in his second start (three innings), he was just as bad. Paxton allowed two runs in the first and three more in the third (only one was earned), finishing with this line: 3 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 HR. During his in-game interview ESPN, Aaron Boone told the broadcast Paxton “feels really good” despite the results. I feel really good too and also can’t get out major league hitters. Does that mean I can get a start? Paxton’s next scheduled start would come against the Rays next weekend, and I’m sure he’ll make that start, and I’m sure I’ll be writing something to similar to this about him after it.

3. Here was the Yankees’ starting rotation in January:

Gerrit Cole
Luis Severino
James Paxton
Masahiro Tanaka
J.A. Happ

Here was the Yankees’ starting rotation in February:

Gerrit Cole
Luis Severino: Tommy John surgery
James Paxton: back surgery
Masahiro Tanaka
J.A. Happ

Here is the Yankees’ rotation now:

Gerrit Cole
Masahiro Tanaka
Jordan Montgomery

I put question marks in the fourth and fifth spots because while they technically belong to Paxton and Happ, we are getting closer to both guys losing their spots in the rotation. If those spots were based on performance and not based on money owed they would already be out of the rotation. But the Yankees feel the need to try to find six to seven mph on Paxton’s fastball and try to salvage the sunk cost that Happ is at this point. The expanded postseason field erased any urgency the Yankees might have been managed with this season (though I think they would have been managed the same way if only five teams from the AL were going to the postseason), and it also erased any urgency the Yankees have when it comes to making drastic decisions like taking two veterans out of the rotation.

4. Thankfully, Montgomery looked as good in his season debut as he did in spring training and summer camp. It seems laughable now that it was Montgomery whose first turn through the rotation was skipped so the Yankees could use an opener and let Paxton and Happ pitch as well. If the playoffs started today, Cole gets Game 1, Tanaka gets Game 2 and Montgomery gets Game 3. I don’t even know that Paxton or Happ should be on the postseason roster if the playoff started today since what purpose would they serve? Let a huge lead dwindle? Let a big deficit grow bigger? In actuality, they would both be on the postseason roster considering Happ was on it last year when he was as bad, if not worse, than the duo has been this season. And how did Happ help out of the bullpen in last year’s postseason? By allowing a walk-off home run in Game 2 of the ALCS.

5. Boone needs to get better at managing the bullpen. In his third season as Yankees manager, he’s somehow gotten worse at deciding which relievers to use and when. Last Sunday in D.C., he was saved by the Yankees’ power after questionable bullpen choices. On Thursday in Baltimore, he let Jonathan Loaisiga pitch an unnecessary third inning with his elite relievers completely healthy and got saved by Judge in the ninth. On Saturday, he let David Hale stay in for a two-inning save because Zack Britton had warmed up too much recently, and Hale allowed the tying run to come to the plate in the ninth before getting saved by Andrew Benintendi being completely lost in the box. And on Sunday, he let Michael King pitch a fourth inning with a fully-rested Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Zack Britton. King allowed a go-ahead home run to Rafael Devers and then Boone removed him from the game for Ottavino. He would rather have Ottavino pitch with the Yankees trailing by a run than in a tie game. Once again, Boone was saved by his offense.

6. The Yankees need two managers the same way some NFL teams have had a kicker for field goals and a kicker for kickoffs. Boone can be the clubhouse manager who keeps the team loose and pals around on road trips and speaks to the media, and then the Yankees can have an in-game manager, who makes every decision from the lineup card until the final out of the game because Boone has proven he can’t handle in-game strategy and he has less than two months to figure it out before his third postseason as manager. This could also go for general manager as well. Brian Cashman can make all the trades since that has been his forte, and another general manager can handle signing free agents, which Cashman has failed at aside from CC Sabathia and Cole, who were the easiest two free agents ever to sign.

7. Aaron Hicks is not a No. 5 hitter. He’s not a leadoff hitter. He’s not a 2-hitter or a 3-hitter or a cleanup hitter. He’s not even a 6-hitter. He’s not a top two-thirds-of-the-lineup hitter. Hicks belongs in the bottom third of the lineup. I don’t care that he’s a switch hitter. I don’t care that he can bat left-handed against right-handed starting pitchers. Hicks is a .241/.341/.432 hitter in a 1,583 plate appearances as a Yankee. He was outstanding for the first three months of 2017 (before getting hurt, of course), and he was very good in the second half of 2018, but that’s been it. He’s been a Yankee since 2016 and has had the equivalent of one full season as someone worthy of being a top two-thirds bat.

8. This is what the Yankees’ lineup should be, no matter which hand the starting pitcher throws with:

DJ LeMahieu, 2B
Aaron Judge, RF
Gleyber Torres, SS
Giancarlo Stanton, DH
Luke Voit, 1B
Gary Sanchez, C
Aaron Hicks, CF
Gio Urshela, 3B
Brett Gardner, LF

The Yankees would never write out that lineup though because they HAVE to separeate the right-handed bats, even if they purposely built a right-handed-heavy lineup, and even if the left-handed bats they would use to separate aren’t that good.

9. With Tommy Kahnle’s season and likely his Yankees tenure over after needing Tommy John surgery, the Yankees have 10 relievers on the roster, and only three “elite” relievers left with Aroldis Chapman still out. The “elite” relievers are Zack Britton, Chad Green and Adam Ottavino, and then there’s everyone else. Here is my bullpen pecking order based on trust and based on one inning:

Zack Britton
Chad Green
Adam Ottavino
Jonathan Loaisiga
Nick Nelson
Michael King
David Hale
Luis Avilan
Jonathan Holder
Brooks Kriske

10. I really like what I saw from Nelson in his major league debut over the weekend. How could you not? Nelson looks like he has the ability to join the elite group at some point and I know it was only one outing and one game, but the stuff and poise are clearly there. He deserves a look in a big spot in the near future, certainly more than Hale or Avilan or Holder.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!