CC Sabathia, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Luis Severino
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images, AP Photo

The playoffs are upon us, and this is how the New York Yankees should set their rotation for the games which matter the most.

Josh Benjamin

The New York Yankees are going to the playoffs and need to prepare their pitching accordingly.

No, this doesn’t mean overwhelming their starting pitchers with data or a detailed breakdown of every single pitch to throw. Nor does it mean locking them in a closet until the playoffs start and isolating them from every potential distraction.

Rather, the Yankees need to approach their upcoming playoff series with the Minnesota Twins a different way. Don’t panic about the three-game set in Minneapolis which taxed the pitching staff to no end. Aaron Hicks’ legendary catch is now just a memory, albeit a wonderful one.

This is a whole new series and the Yankees have made some key adjustments ahead of October baseball. Team pitching still has some question marks, but the team is overall in a good position to succeed.

That is, they will be if the following rotation is used.

Game 1: James Paxton

Here’s the first rule of setting a playoff rotation: put your strongest arm out in Game 1. In the Yankees’ case, this honor goes to none other than Big Maple himself.

Simply put, Paxton has been the best and most consistent Yankees pitcher in the second half. He is 10-0 with a 2.50 ERA since Aug. 2. For added context, he was 5-6 with a 4.72 ERA going into his hot streak.

Paxton exited his last start of the regular season after just one inning on Friday with a glute injury, which has since been diagnosed as “nerve irritation” per several sources including YES Network’s own Meredith Marakovits. Manager Aaron Boone added, per Lindsey Adler of The Athletic, he was “pretty optimistic” Paxton will be ready for the playoffs.

It’s also worth noting Paxton started against Minnesota at Yankee Stadium back on May 3. He allowed an unearned run on two hits in three innings of work before exiting with a knee injury, which cost him almost a month.

Combine his second-half rebirth with owning a 3.35 ERA at home this year, plus being 3-1 with a 2.27 ERA against the Twins for his career, and no other man should really start Game 1.

Game 2: Luis Severino

It’s hard to figure just what to expect from Luis Severino in the postseason. His numbers in October are, if we’re being honest, not good. In six starts, he is 1-2 with a 6.26 ERA.

However, the high numbers can be attributed to rough outings in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game and last year’s ALDS. Ironically, Severino’s subpar Wild Card performance was against, you guessed it, the Minnesota Twins.

But let’s take those two starts out of the equation. In fact, let’s assume they never even happened. Once those two starts go away, Severino is actually 1-0 with a 3.28 ERA in the playoffs.

Now, let’s talk about how to manage Severino’s workload. He only made three starts this season, all this month, because of a shoulder injury. He went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA and, save for Saturday night’s struggles in Texas, is in ace form. Severino can throw at least 80 pitches and has 17 strikeouts in 12 innings.

Thus, better for Severino to throw Game 2 at home where he’s been strong this season rather than in a potential must-win situation on the road.

Game 3: Masahiro Tanaka

This was the hardest prediction to make, and will probably make some Yankees fans more nervous than Chuckie Finster on any given day. Game 3 of this series, regardless of how the first two go, will be at Target Field. Masahiro Tanaka, meanwhile, pitched to a 6.16 ERA in 15 road starts in 2019 compared to a mark of 3.10 at home.

Just the same, Tanaka has a knack for showing up in big games. The Yankees were outplayed by the Red Sox in Game 1 of last year’s ALDS, so Tanaka answered with five innings of one-run ball in a Game 2 win.

Tanaka also recently figured out how to make his splitter work with MLB’s new ball, and we all know he’s at his best when his splitter is in top form.

But the rediscovery of a key pitch and managing Severino are not why Tanaka should draw the start in Game 3. No, he’s getting the nod here because he is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in a pair of career starts at Target Field.

Granted, Tanaka hasn’t pitched in Minnesota since 2016, but he is also 5-0 with a 2.27 ERA against the Twins in his career. Unless the Yankees are (Babe Ruth’s Ghost forbid) facing elimination in Game 3, best to have him take his turn then.

Game 4: Mixed bag starring J.A. Happ

Oh, what a year it’s been for J.A. Happ. Maybe it’s because he’s a year older at 36. Perhaps seeing his average fastball velocity drop from 92 to 91.3, per Fangraphs, is a major difference-maker after all.

One way or another, Happ had some troubles with the longball this year. He allowed a career-worst 34 home runs in 161.1 innings. On top of that, he faced the Twins twice this year and went 0-1 with an ERA of 10.00.

Happ also owns a 5.81 ERA in nine career starts against the Twins, including a mark of 5.23 at Target Field. However, he did find a way to post a 1.65 ERA in five September appearances, including five innings of one-run ball against the Tampa Bay Rays last week.

That said, the Yankees need to break with convention and use an opener in Game 4. Chad Green can throw the first inning or two before handing the ball to Happ, who will then go to work as the bulk arm.

It’s a risk, given Happ’s checkered history against Minnesota, but risks are required in the playoffs. If Happ can keep up his recent hot streak, he can be a boon to the Yankees this postseason.

More importantly, if the Yankees roll with this very rotation in the playoffs, the road to a 28th World Series title may become clearer.

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