New York Yankees
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The New York Yankees have a good problem, which one of their three top pitchers should start the AL Wild Card Game?

The New York Yankees are going to the AL Wild Card Game, and have a tough question to answer. Which pitcher should start the game that gives the Yankees the best path to the ALDS?

As of now, it’s looking like the Yankees will hand the ball to one of three pitchers: Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, or J.A. Happ. Each hurler has their respective merits and reasons to start against the likely opponent, the Oakland Athletics, but manager Aaron Boone is at a true crossroads.

Whichever decision he makes affects his team’s playoff future. If his chosen starter stumbles out of the gate and the Yankees lose, the first-year skipper’s choice will be questioned over and over again. Why did this guy start when the other two were just as qualified? What was Boone thinking?

It’s the toughest decision of Boone’s young managerial career, one that probably has him wracking his brain nonstop. That said, let’s take a look at the aforementioned trifecta of pitchers. Of those three, who should get the call in the AL Wild Card?

Luis Severino

Despite his slow second half, Luis Severino is the unquestioned ace of the staff. He’s 24-years-old and still hasn’t tapped his full potential. Before his second-half slump, his name was heavily dropped in AL Cy Young conversations. Since July 1, however, he is 6-6 with a 5.33 ERA. For context, entering July 1, he was 12-2 with a 2.10 ERA. Go figure!

Severino also started last year’s AL Wild Card against the Minnesota Twins, though he only recorded one out and gave up three runs before being lifted. He fared much better in his next playoff start. In a must-win Game 4 against the Cleveland Indians, Severino struck out nine hitters in seven innings as the Yankees won 7-3.

His rough start in the Wild Card ballooned his postseason ERA to 5.63, but he still held his own. He was 0-1 with a 4.15 ERA against the Astros in the ALCS, but the Yankees were outscored 9-2 in his pair of starts. That isn’t his fault.

That brings the conversation to Severino’s history versus Oakland and, brace for impact, it’s not the best. He is 1-1 with a 5.23 ERA in four starts against the A’s, two of which were at Oakland Coliseum. In those two, he is 0-1 with a 9.35 ERA. Not exactly encouraging numbers.

Granted, Severino allowed a run on six hits in his recent start against the Boston Red  Sox, but the numbers don’t support his case. He has not pitched well enough as of late to earn the honor of starting the AL Wild Card, so he’s out.

Masahiro Tanaka

Remember that nursery rhyme with the little curl with the curl? It perfectly defines Tanaka’s performance from 2017 up until today. When he’s good, he’s very very good. When he’s bad, you’ll hear Yankees fans calling for him being traded instantaneously.

This year, Tanaka has largely fallen into the latter camp. He is 12-5 with a 3.67 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, compared to 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 2017. Moreover, he is 3-0 with a 2.16 ERA in four starts this month. He has a 2.84 ERA since returning from a hamstring injury on July 10.

Tanaka also earned a reputation as a playoff stopper last season. He has a 1.44 career postseason ERA and shut down the Indians in the ever-important Game 3 of last year’s ALDS. Not only that, in Game 5 of the ALCS, he threw seven shutout innings against the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros. On the whole, he posted a 0.90 ERA in the playoffs.

Tanaka has also held his own against Oakland, having gone 3-2 with a 2.53 ERA in five starts against the A’s. Like Severino, he too has made a pair of starts at the Coliseum and has gone 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA. He has not faced the team once in 2018.

Now, let’s talk about how Tanaka approaches hitters. His turnaround last year has been attributed to him developing a biting sinker that induces lots of groundballs. Given how Oakland ranks fourth in MLB in runs scored this year and third in home runs, Tanaka’s groundball rate (GB%) of 47.7% suddenly looks prettier than Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

Make no mistake, Tanaka needs to be strongly considered by Boone as Oct. 3 draws closer.

J.A. Happ

Happ is a hired gun in every sense of the word. The Yankees acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline and the results speak for themselves. Since putting on the pinstripes, the tall lefty is 6-0 with a 2.39 ERA in nine starts.

There’s no doubt Happ has been great as Yankee, but his postseason numbers are a bit modest. He is 1-1 with a 3.72 ERA in 10 appearances, three of which are starts. Last time around, with the Blue Jays in 2016, he went 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA, albeit with a 1.50 WHIP thanks to hitters jumping on his pitches.

Happ is also no slouch against the A’s, having gone 4-1 with a 3.47 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in eleven appearances (nine starts) against them. Back on September 4, he pitched six innings of one-run ball and grabbed a no-decision in the Yankees’ 5-1 victory.

However, Happ is not an automatic yes for starting against Oakland in the AL Wild Card for one reason: the Boston Red Sox. Happ is 7-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 19 career starts against Boston, who the Yankees would face in the ALDS if they win the Wild Card game.

Now, consider that the ALDS begins on Oct. 5, two days after a potential game against Oakland. If Happ starts the play-in game, he won’t be able to start Game 1 at Fenway Park unless he’s on a strict innings limit against the A’s. Does Boone ride Happ’s hot hand against Oakland, or take a risk and save him for potentially establishing momentum against the best team in MLB?

Happ is 0-1 in three starts against Boston this year but, holds a stellar 0.54 ERA versus the Sox. This is a great problem for Boone to have, but a decision has to be made knowing it will be second-guessed from all angles.

Verdict: It's Tanaka time!

Happ is 1-1 with a 4.35 ERA in five career starts in Oakland, but he’s too valuable in a potential matchup against Boston. That means if the Yankees want their best chance at winning, Masahiro Tanaka will take the mound for the AL Wild Card game at either Yankee Stadium or Oakland Coliseum. The A’s are a hot-hitting team, so Boone and pitching coach Larry Rothschild will want someone who can induce groundballs as well as strikeouts.

Not only that, but Tanaka proved last year that he shows extra focus in the playoffs. He shut down the best team in baseball in a critical must-win Game 3, and then shut out the eventual World Series champs in the ALCS. Just like the legendary Andy Pettitte, he is earning a reputation as a big game picture.

We’re at the point of the season where teams that already have or on the verge of clinching playoff berths have to put the best team available on the field. That is no exception in the actual playoff games.

In the case of the New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka gives them the best chance to win the AL Wild Card against a red-hot Oakland team. If the team really wants to go by the numbers and make another deep run, he will get the call.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.