Yankees Attempt To Get Tricky With Deivi Garcia Was Defensible

The Yankees gave rookie righthander Deivi Garcia the ball to start Game 2 of their American League Division Series against the Rays. After just one inning, in which Garcia gave up a solo home run to Randy Arozarena, the Yankees pulled Garcia and replaced him with lefthander J.A. Happ.

Many Yankees fans and many traditionalists bristled. The starter-reliever switch, going from a righthander to a lefty, seemed gimmicky and stat driven. It didn’t help the Yankees case that Happ proceeded to give up four runs in 2.2 innings as he allowed five hits, three walks and two home runs.

It’s easy to get fixated on results. But results are a lagging indicator. You do what you think is best and see where it takes you. And while Yankees fans (and many others) may have hated the decision, it was defensible in many ways.

The Rays are a team that plays matchups—they had 59 different lineups in 60 games during the regular season, although those matchups are more complicated than simple lefty/righty platoons. But by starting Garcia, the Yankees were giving themselves a chance to get Happ against more lefthanded hitters. In 2020, Happ held lefties to a .204/.250/.327 slash line compared to a .209/.292/.403 slash line against righties. In 2019, Happ’s split was even more significant. Righties posted an .830 OPS against him while lefties had a .652 OPS.

By starting Garcia, the Yankees put Happ into a game where the Rays had five lefties in the lineup. It may not have worked, but the Yankees got the matchup they were looking for.

Looking at some of the arguments against swapping in Happ for Garcia, each of them has a logical response.

1. The Nerds Are Ruining It, Real Baseball People Wouldn’t Do This.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to pull the lefty/righty switch in a key playoff game. And this wasn’t invented by a cadre of analysts working in stereotypical cubicles.

Pirates manager Jim Leyland, a storied, old-school manager, took a similar approach in the deciding game of the 1990 NLCS.

The Reds won three of the first four games in the series against the Pirates, including roughing up Zane Smith to a degree in Game 3. After Doug Drabek won Game 5 to keep Pittsburgh alive, it was Smith’s turn in the rotation again for Game 6.

But instead of starting the lefthanded Smith, Leyland opted to start righthander Ted Power. Power was one of the Pirates better relievers (he’d gotten the save in Game 1 of the series), but he hadn’t made a start in 42 appearances that season.

Smith was listed as the starter until just a few hours before the game. Leyland hoped it would entice Reds manager Lou Piniella to stack the lineup with lefties, which Smith would then quickly attack.

Power worked more than two innings only once all season, so it was unlikely he would go deep in the game, and Piniella didn’t bite—Paul O’Neill was the only lefty in the Reds starting lineup.

The switch didn’t hurt the Pirates, though. The combination of Power (who threw 2.1 innings) and Smith (who threw four innings) allowed only two runs, but Cincinnati finished off the Pirates as Danny Jackson and the Reds’ “Nasty Boys” bullpen held Pittsburgh to one run.

2. You Can’t Ask A Starter To Relieve Like That

By starting Garcia before going to Happ to begin the second inning, the Yankees asked Happ to make his first relief appearance of the year, which may have upset his normal routine.

Maybe that affected Happ, normally a starter, being asked to handle an unusual role.

But that logic quickly falls apart because this isn’t a new role for Happ, who’s often worked out of the pen during the playoffs.

His three appearances for the Yankees in the 2019 playoffs all came as a reliever. He also worked as a reliever in six of his seven appearances for the Phillies during their 2009 World Series run and in a lone appearance in the playoffs for the 2008 Phillies World Series champions.

We also have examples of starters being asked to make relief appearances in the playoffs regularly over the years. Just two years ago, Astros righthander Charlie Morton was given the ball in the sixth inning of the deciding Game 7 of the World Series against the Dodgers.

Unlike Happ, this was a very unusual role for Morton. Morton started in his previous five postseason appearances. He also started 186 of his 187 appearances over the 10 years of his MLB career to that point. Morton’s only previous relief appearance was an outing as a rookie with the Braves in 2008.

No problem. He allowed one run in four innings, shutting down the Dodgers and remaining on the mound for the Astros winning dogpile.

Madison Bumgarner‘s five innings of relief work to win Game 7 of the 2014 World Series was only his second relief appearance in five years—the other was another postseason appearance.

3. You Pitch Your Best Starters First

Yes, this was an untraditional decision for the Yankees to choose Garcia or Happ in Game 2 of the Division Series. Gerrit Cole is the Yankees’ undisputed ace. He pitched Game 1 (as expected). Masahiro Tanaka is the Yankees’ No. 2 starter, so logically he would start Game 2. After them, Happ and Garcia are their best options, as Happ had a 3.47 ERA and a 4.57 FIP this year while Garcia had a 4.98 ERA and 4.15 FIP.

Other than those four, lefty Jordan Montgomery (5.11 ERA, 3.87 FIP) is the Yankees other starting pitching option.

But there are many logical reasons for the Yankees to split Cole and Tanaka. They are the two pitchers the Yankees can feel most comfortable to give them solid innings in their starts. In a series with no off days, splitting them in Games 1 and 3 means that the bullpen will most likely be most taxed in Games 2 and 4 (and possibly 5), providing some respites instead of asking many relievers to pitch an inning or more on back to back days.

The fact that the Yankees won Game 1 makes the decision even easier. If the Garcia/Happ combo steals a win, the Yankees can finish it off with one of their two best starters on the mound for Game 3. If the Rays win with Tyler Glasnow pitching Game 2, then the Yankees know they are still dead-even with Tanaka taking the mound in the crucial Game 3.

And none of this affects the rest of the series. Theoretically, pitching Garcia and Happ makes it harder to use one of them as the Game 5 starter (although Garcia could do so after throwing just one inning).

But realistically that wasn’t going to happen anyway. If it gets to a do-or-die one-game-to-advance situation, it’s hard to envision any situation where Cole on short rest defers for a start by Montgomery, Garcia or Happ.

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