If You Build It, They Will Definitely Structure Their Roster Differently

The New York Yankees will kick off their 2019 postseason when the Minnesota Twins come to Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday night. Before the team takes the field, Yankees manager Aaron Boone and the front office will have some difficult decisions to make as they assemble a twenty-five man roster for the series.

Some decisions are relatively easy, so it probably makes sense to start by getting those out of the way. First, the position players.

PlayerPosition
Gary SanchezC
Austin RomineC
DJ LeMahieuIF
Gleyber TorresIF
Didi GregoriusIF
Gio UrshelaIF
Aaron JudgeOF
Brett GardnerOF
Giancarlo StantonOF

And the pitching staff.

PlayerPosition
James PaxtonLHP
Masahiro TanakaRHP
Luis SeverinoRHP
J.A. HappLHP
Aroldis ChapmanLHP
Zack BrittonLHP
Adam OttavinoRHP
Tommy KahnleRHP
Chad GreenRHP

With those uncontroversial decisions settled, there seem to be four more to make: (i) whether to carry thirteen position players and twelve pitchers or vice versa; (ii) deciding between Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Ford at first base and designated hitter; (iii) deciding between Cameron Maybin, Tyler Wade, and Clint Frazier as extra outfielders; and (iv) filling out the final three or four pitching staff vacancies.

1. 13 and 12 vs. 12 and 13

The Yankees are likely rolling out this starting rotation in the ALDS.

GameStarting PitcherDate
Game 1James PaxtonFriday, October 4
Game 2Masahiro TanakaSaturday, October 5
Game 3Luis SeverinoMonday, October 7
Game 4Chad Green to J.A. HappTuesday, October 8
Game 5James PaxtonThursday, October 10

In a full five-game series, you need your pitchers to cover at least 45 innings. In a very good world for the Yankees, Paxton probably covers thirteen of those, Masahiro Tanaka covers six, Severino covers five, and Green and Happ combine to cover six in Game 4. In this scenario, you only need fifteen innings from your bullpen over seven days. Before opening Game 4, Green should be available for two innings if needed in Games 1 and 2. Pencil Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, and Kahnle in for three each, and you’re asking your final three pitchers for one inning to round things out. In this case, Boone has hardly used those extra pitchers to get him a nice platoon matchup or eat innings in a possible extra inning game or blowout.

Against an offense like Minnesota’s in ballparks like Yankee Stadium and Target Field, this could easily break down. Maybe you only get ten total from Paxton, four from Tanaka in Game 2, and three from Severino in Game 3. If Green and Happ only get you four innings in a Game 4, all of the sudden, you’re asking your bullpen for twenty-four innings. In a Game 5, it’s obviously all hands on deck. You could have Tanaka ready to back up Paxton in the win-or-go-home scenario for two or three innings. Maybe Green can give you three innings outside of Game 4 in this scenario. Let’s say you ask Ottavino and Kahnle for four each and get three each from Chapman and Britton. In that case, you need four innings from three other pitchers. That doesn’t seem crazy. Even if you up that number to six, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. And, let’s be honest, if things wind up going this way, the Yankees probably aren’t advancing to the ALCS and not having a thirteenth pitcher on the roster won’t be why.

An extra bench piece feels more necessary, especially on a roster that might be carrying pinch running candidates like Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Ford, and even DJ LeMahieu or Giancarlo Stanton off a knee injury. A late game defensive replacement for Stanton in left or one of the first basemen at some point seems like a certainty. Lifting Didi Gregorius in a big at bat against a tough lefty like Taylor Rogers might seem like something that would get Aaron Boone excommunicated by the Yankee faithful, but Didi hasn’t been himself since coming back from Tommy John, and wouldn’t you rather have Edwin Encarnación’s career .374 wOBA and 132 wRC+ or Luke Voit’s .373 and 135 against lefties over Didi’s .295 wOBA and 82 wRC+ in that spot? That means sliding Torres over to short and either LeMahieu moving to second (in the event he starts at first) or Tyler Wade immediately coming in for Encarnación. With only a three-man bench, one of whom is your backup catcher, Aaron Boone seems extremely limited in his ability to make those types of moves.

Verdict: Thirteen position players and twelve pitchers.

2. Luke Voit vs. Edwin Encarnacion vs. Mike Ford

When the Yankees added Edwin Encarnación in June, it seemed like an exercise in excess. A team stacked with power and Luke Voit putting together a solid follow-up to his 2018 Yankees debut didn’t seem to need another slugger at 1B/DH. With Encarnación attempting to return from an oblique injury without seeing live pitching and Voit mired in a 1-for-32 slump since September 15th and slashing .200/.319/.338 since returning from the injured list on August 30th, first base depth has unexpectedly become an issue.

The Princeton University product Mike Ford stepped up in a big way in the second half. In thirty-nine games since August 4th, Ford has slashed .274/.333/.619 with eleven homers. In addition to his MLB breakout, Ford put together a phenomenal season at AAA. He hit for a .419 wOBA and a 151 wRC+, which ranked him ninth in that category among all AAA hitters with at least 250 plate appearances in 2019. Here’s how Ford’s 2019 stacks up against Voit’s and Encarnación’s.

MetricLuke VoitEdwin EncarnaciónMike Ford
PA510486163
wOBA.360.362.372
wRC+126129134
DRC+118132125
xwOBA.365.359.359
Exit Velocity89.7 mph90.0 mph91.9 mph
Exit Velocity FB/LD95.4 mph94.4 mph92.4 mph
Launch Angle12.8 degrees22.5 degrees15.6 degrees

These numbers are all extremely close, although Voit and Eddie have obviously done it over a much larger number of plate appearances. Let’s look at some fielding numbers from 2019.

MetricLuke VoitEdwin EncarnaciónMike Ford
Innings706.1489.0217.0
DRS-6-1-1
UZR-3.9-0.9-1.5
UZR/150-11.9-1.8-11.6

It might surprise you to see that Encarnación is the clear favorite in fielding metrics, but he’s actually rated around average at first base since the start of 2015. Against the Twins probable Game 3 starter Martín Pérez, if Encarnación is healthy enough to make the roster, that allows the Yankees to sit Gregorius, play Torres at short, LeMahieu at second, and stack the lineup with righties against the lefty without losing much in terms of defense at first base. Perez’s 2019 and career splits against righties and lefties are below.

Date Range2019Career
wOBA Allowed vs. R.353.352
wOBA Allowed vs. L.260.283
FIP vs. R5.134.81
FIP vs. L3.023.34

You get the feeling that, if Encarnación is 100% after simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday (and he apparently is), the established slugger is going to have a spot on this playoff roster. Despite not playing against Texas over the weekend, the New York Post reported that Eddie was showing plenty of power in batting practice last week. This decision is likely between Voit and Ford.

Let’s take a closer look at Voit’s slump. Since August 30th, he’s hit for a .295 wOBA. In that same time span, Ford has hit for a .448 wOBA. But those numbers aren’t telling the whole story. When looking at xwOBA (expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls), things get closer: Voit’s xwOBA is .342 since his return from the IL, and Ford sits at .380.

Voit’s slump has been at its deepest since September 15th. His 1-for-32 mark translates to an absolutely abysmal .133 wOBA. Ford’s wOBA over that span: .520. But let’s account for some batted ball luck and take another look at xwOBA to assess quality of contact: Voit’s xwOBA still isn’t pretty, but it’s an improvement at .256. Ford clearly saw some good luck over the last two weeks of the season as his xwOBA was just .327.

Exit velocity can often be an indicator of a hitter’s health. The concern may be that Voit is still suffering from the abdominal strain that landed him on the IL. His average exit velocity on batted balls since August 30th is 91.1 mph, higher than his season average and equal to Ford’s over that time frame. Since September 15th, Voit’s average exit velocity is 91.8 mph. Below is a graph from Baseball Savant showing his rolling exit velocity, which has been rising steadily since his return (the point almost directly between the 225 and 250 marks on the x-axis).

There are a few things to conclude from the discussion above. First of all, Voit’s slump has appeared worse than it actually has been. While he’s definitely struggled, he appears to have also hit into some bad batted ball luck along the way. Secondly, Voit appears to be healthy: his exit velocity is in line with past performance and actually looks to be on the rise.

Mike Ford has had a lot of success in fifty games for the Yankees and at AAA this season. In addition to the numbers above, Ford has an above average walk rate at 10.4% (8.5% is average in 2019) and a strikeout rate much lower than the major league average (23.0% in 2019) at 17.2%. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris recently pointed out that teams that put the ball in play more often tend to fare better in the postseason. That fact certainly makes Ford slightly more attractive, especially compared to a 27.8% strikeout rate from Voit in 2019. But Ford’s success has still only come in fifty major league games. The Yankees have now witnessed 157 games and 658 plate appearances by Luke Voit against major league pitching. Here are Voit’s MLB ranks among the 318 hitters with at least 500 plate appearances since the start of 2018.

MetricLuke Voit (2018-2019)MLB Rank (min. 500 PA)
wOBA.38118th
xwOBA.38314th
wRC+14115th
ISO.23845th
BB%13.1%26th

Ford has been a big part of what has enabled the Yankees to withstand so many injuries and still win over 100 games, and he’s definitely an easy guy to root for. It hurts more than a little bit to leave him off the playoff roster, but expect the Yankees to bet on the larger sample size of dominant offense over the smaller one.

Verdict: Voit and Encarnación over Ford.

3. Maybin vs. Wade vs. Frazier

This one should be quick and dirty.

MetricCameron MaybinTyler WadeClint Frazier
PA269108246
wOBA.362.303.333
xwOBA.339.288.309
wRC+12788108
DRC+1067399
DRS0-3-8
UZR-0.2-1.2-5.2
UZR/150-0.2-16.0-16.7

Fortunately for Maybin, he’s the only legitimate fourth outfielder option here, so he walks right onto the postseason roster. His fielding metrics rate him as an average defensive outfielder this season, which neither Wade nor Frazier can say.

Frazier is a talented young hitter, but he hasn’t really shown much in 2019, and he certainly hasn’t fielded the position. According to Baseball Savant, Red Thunder has converted -13 outs above average in the Yankees outfield this season. He’s had particular trouble coming in on balls, where he’s rated ten outs below average. With a history of concussions, you might think that Frazier is playing deeper in the outfield to mitigate the danger of going back on balls at full speed, preventing him from getting to balls in front of him, but that hasn’t been the case. Below are Frazier’s starting depths in left and right field in 2017, 2018, and 2019 according to Baseball Savant.

SeasonAvg. Depth in LFAvg. Depth in RF
2017299295
2018304N/A
2019293296

It looks like Frazier did play deeper in left in 2018, but he’s played shallower in left in 2019 than ever before and about even with his past depth in right. Frazier’s sprint speed might be to blame for his poor fielding. After posting marks of 28.8 ft/s in 2017 (89th percentile) and 28.2 ft/s in 2018 (78th percentile), Frazier’s sprint speed has decreased to 27.4 ft/s in 2019 (61st percentile). According to Statcast, his fielding has deteriorated each year, but it’s reached a nadir in 2019. His -13% catch percentage added (the percentage of catches an outfielder makes above or below what an average outfielder would be expected to make based on the exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls hit to that fielder) ranks him last of 183 outfielders with at least fifty fielding opportunities. The next closest outfielder has recorded a -7% catch percentage added. If he’s not going to make an impact with the bat, the Yankees just can’t afford to roster Frazier in the playoffs.

Wade’s defensive numbers above are based on 98.0 innings in the major league outfield in 2019. Obviously, Wade has much more experience playing infield and rates about average at second, short, and third. He may not play even average outfield defense (Baseball Savant has him at -1 OAA and -4% catch percentage added), but his versatility in the field make him an asset, especially for a team that has toyed with the idea of using five infielders when Zack Britton’s on the mound. If you’re thinking about pinch running, Wade’s average sprint speed of 29.1 ft/s makes him the fastest Yankee and ranks him in the ninety-third percentile in the league. Actually, Terrance Gore is faster at 29.9 ft/s, but even Wade is a better option to take an emergency playoff at bat than Gore. Wade’s defensive versatility and speed give him the edge over Frazier.

Verdict: Maybin and Wade over Frazier.

4. The Bullpen

The Yankees have five studs in their bullpen that they feel comfortable with against both lefties and righties late in games: Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, Kahnle, and Green (who will likely open in Game 4). Right now, the field for the remaining three vacancies seems to include the following pitchers: Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley, Cory Gearrin, Ben Heller, and David Hale. According to Meredith Marakovits, CC Sabathia won’t be on the ALDS roster. Green could handle a slightly longer role in Games 1 or 2 if needed, but without Sabathia, the Yankees seem like they will need at least one long man out of this group.

David Hale only pitched in one uninspiring outing in the final weekend of regular season, and his success earlier in the year was mostly predicated on a low walk rate, unsustainably high infield fly ball rate, and unsustainably low home run per fly ball rate. Despite a 50.0% ground ball rate, all of that combined with a very below average 14.7% strikeout rate make it more likely than not that Hale’s results were more a house of cards than anything else.

Ben Heller had a nice run with an increase in slider usage in 7.1 innings pitched this September, but he wasn’t nearly dominant enough to earn himself a roster spot in such a short stint. His 1.23 ERA belies his 3.76 FIP and 5.06 DRA.

One strategy would be to use two of the last three roster spots on matchup guys. Tarpley and Gearrin are the Yankees most severe platoon options, and together, they might make up one very solid reliever.

MetricStephen TarpleyCory Gearrin
FIP vs. L (Career)2.284.90
K% vs. L (Career)41.3%15.8%
BB% vs. L (Career)12.7%12.9%
xwOBA vs. L (since 2015).247.342
FIP vs. R7.123.24
K% vs. R21.7%25.4%
BB% vs. R13.4%8.5%
xwOBA vs. R (since 2015).417.285

This idea is really attractive in theory, but it feels like a difficult one to pull the trigger on. Tarpley has only faced 63 lefty hitters at the major league level in his career, though the numbers are impressive at AAA since 2018 as well (0.99 ERA, thirty-five strikeouts, and nineteen combined walks and hits allowed in 27.2 innings pitched). His slider, which he’s thrown 47.4% of the time this season, is his only weapon (.270 xwOBA against); his sinker (.497) and four-seamer (.427), which sit between 92 and 93 mph, get absolutely hammered. Without CC on the roster, however, there could be a need for another lefty in the pen.

Since joining the Yankees on August 24th, Gearrin’s tenure has been unimpressive: a 4.79 FIP, 5.77 xFIP, 5.25 SIERA, 5.43 DRA, 111 DRA-, and 13.1% strikeout rate don’t scream playoff roster material. In 2019, his splits against righties have slipped a bit compared to his career numbers, as Gearrin’s seen a decrease in FIP (3.60), strikeout rate (21.4%), and ground ball rate (48.9% to 42.7%) and an increase in xwOBA against (.313) versus righties. A decrease in horizontal slider movement every year since 2017 (3.3 inches above average in 2017 to 1.1 below average in 2018 to 2.5 below in 2019) is probably a large part of what’s behind his declining effectiveness against righties.

When you look at his results compared to his stuff, Jonathan Loaisiga has certainly been a disappointment.

SeasonFIPSIERADRAxwOBAK%BB%
20194.954.345.33.32426.6%11.5%

Loaisiga throws a four-seam fastball 47.7% of the time with an average velocity of approximately 97 mph and 1.2 inches more rise than the average four-seamer at similar velocities, good for 100th among 432 qualified pitchers according to Baseball Savant. His curveball, which typically sits around 84 mph, apparently has below average drop but about an inch above average glove-side break (ninety-eighth of 275 pitchers). Despite a seemingly average movement profile, the curve has completely devastated hitters.

SeasonwOBAxwOBAWhiff%SwStr%
2018.291.21740.5%18.1%
2019.127.12145.8%20.3%

According to numbers available at Baseball Prospectus, Loaisiga’s four-seamer and curveball tunnel well together to both lefties and righties, which helps explain the effectiveness in the absence of elite movement. Let’s go to the tape.

The shape of Jonny Lasagna’s curve certainly looks like a high fastball out of the hand and buckles hitters as it starts to break sharply down and towards the left-handed batter’s box.

Remember when Lance McCullers threw twenty-four consecutive curveballs to close out ALCS Game 7 in 2017? This is a weapon you want in the playoffs. Loaisiga only threw his curveball 30.8% of the time in the regular season. Even though it has elite velocity and above average rise, his four-seam fastball consistently gives up loud contact (.423 xwOBA in 2018; .450 in 2019). Loaisiga is fairly predictable with the four-seamer. He uses it around sixty percent of the time on the first pitch and about half the time when even or with the batter ahead to both lefties and righties. With a four-seamer that doesn’t see great results and with a lethal curveball in his pocket, Loaisiga may want to consider pitching backwards more often and getting his curveball usage at least up over forty percent if not to around fifty. One final note on Loaisiga: since August 20th, he has started using a two-seam fastball around 18% of the time with decent results (xwOBA against of .329), which could be something to could an eye on. Control and command are certainly issues for Loaisiga, but his hammer is a powerful threat that the Yankees have to hope to harness in the postseason.

Without Sabathia, you likely need one more long man. In that case, Luis Cessa feels like the obvious choice. Cessa has eaten 81 innings for the Yankees in 2019 and has been fairly reliable if not unremarkable: a 4.87 FIP, 4.30 SIERA, 4.82 DRA, and a 21.9% strikeout rate. Cessa doesn’t really possess favorable splits with career FIPs of 4.52 and 5.30 against lefties and righties, respectively. His slider is his most effective pitch (.306 xwOBA in 2017, .218 in 2018, .245 in 2019), but he’s already throwing it 49.9% of the time in 2019. This version of Cessa appears to be his ceiling. The hope is that the Yankees only need the right-hander in mop-up duty in a blowout in their favor, but he will be useful to have in a deep extra inning game.

Give me Tarpley against a tough lefty in a spot where Boone isn’t quite ready to go to Kahnle, Britton, or Chapman or those options have already been exhausted, Loaisiga throwing curveball after curveball, and Cessa for length if and when the Yankees need it.

Verdict: Tarpley, Loaisiga, and Cessa in the bullpen.

The New York Yankees American League Division Series Roster

Position Players

PlayerPosition
Gary SanchezC
Austin RomineC
Edwin EncarnaciónIF
Luke VoitIF
DJ LeMahieuIF
Gleyber TorresIF
Didi GregoriusIF
Gio UrshelaIF
Aaron JudgeOF
Brett GardnerOF
Giancarlo StantonOF
Cameron MaybinOF
Tyler WadeUT

Pitchers

PlayerPosition
James PaxtonLHP
Luis SeverinoRHP
Masahiro TanakaRHP
J.A. HappLHP
Aroldis ChapmanLHP
Zack BrittonLHP
Adam OttavinoRHP
Tommy KahnleRHP
Chad GreenRHP
Jonathan LoaisigaRHP
Stephen TarpleyLHP
Luis CessaRHP

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