Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Aaron Judge called James Paxton "the best left-handed pitcher in the game, in my opinion, just based on the stuff he has and just his bulldog mentality on the mound." So perhaps it figures that the Yankees are trotting out their prized winter acquisition to start Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Twins.
Paxton against Minnesota's José Berríos is the only matchup we know for certain right now. You are so cagey, Rocco Baldelli! The Twins skipper would go no further on his pitching plans during Thursday's official ALDS workout day at Yankee Stadium.
So in this look at the early pitching in the series, we are taking our best guesses for Games 2 and 3 for the Twins. Their pitching is in a weird place right now because Michael Pineda was suspended and Martin Perez has struggled, so it's understandable. We're pegging Jake Odorizzii for Game 2 and cool story Randy Dobnak for Game 3, subject to change for very good reasons, outlined below.
Meanwhile, don't get used to seeing any of these hurlers on the mound. The Yanks and Twins are the biggest homer-hitting teams in history. Bullpen usage figures to pick up and in the Yanks' case, why not? They rested their relievers down the stretch - Aroldis Chapman made five appearances and threw 70 pitches in September; Zack Britton pitched eight times.
The OPS against Yankee starters increased from .721 the first time through the lineup to .766 the second time through and .906 the third time, so they don't figure to get there often.
But this, at least, is how it will all start out.
GAME 1: LHP James Paxton (15-6, 3.82 ERA) v. José Berríos (14-8, 3.68)
The ace Paxton was supposed to be only appeared in flashes during the first half, such as when he overwhelmed the Red Sox with 12 strikeouts and eight shutout innings April 16. But the pitcher the Yankees envisioned getting when they made a winter trade with Seattle appeared in bulk in the second half. Paxton won 10 straight starts from Aug. 2-Sept. 21, fashioning a 2.25 ERA over that span and holding opponents to a paltry .514 OPS (the MLB average OPS was .757 this year).
A glute issue that surfaced in his last start is, he says, "a non-issue" now. He admits to feeling more comfortable in his first year in the Bronx as the season went on and perhaps his performance bears that out. Also, when his cutter started getting hit more, he and the Yankees determined he should use his knuckle-curve more and it's been a benefit. One danger zone - Paxton has a 9.00 ERA in the first inning and opponents had a .948 OPS against him in pitches 1-to-25, according to baseball-reference.com.
He's pitching in the postseason for the first time - will the problem manifest itself again? The Yanks hope they hit on a solution by having Paxton throw 10-12 more pitches during his pre-game warm-ups and having a bullpen catcher stand in the batter's box "so I could get the first few hitters out of the way," Paxton said.
Berríos, a 25-year-old two-time All-Star, struck out 195 and allowed 194 hits in 200.1 innings this season. He limited righties to a .708 OPS, so perhaps he can keep the Yanks' right-handed hitters - think Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres - from depositing souvenirs into the stands. Lefties Brett Gardner (1.145 OPS) and Didi Gregorius (1.375 OPS) have had success against him, though. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli says Berríos is capable of handling any situation.
"He can handle anything," Baldelli said. Berríos was the losing pitcher in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game between the two teams after he allowed three runs in three innings in relief of starter Ervin Santana.
GAME 2: RHP Masahiro Tanaka (11-9, 4.45) v. RHP Jake Odorizzi (15-7, 3.51)
Tanaka has been the Yankees best recent postseason pitcher, which probably has a lot to do with his placement in Game 2. He is 3-2 with a 1.50 ERA in five October starts in his career, including two sharp games against the Astros two years ago in the ALCS.
Tanaka's season stats, as Aaron Boone pointed out Thursday, were badly skewed by two summer clunkers in Boston. He allowed 12 runs in 3.1 innings in one and couldn't get out of the first inning in the other and gave up six runs. Take out those games and his season ERA shrinks to 3.64. Those two games are also culprits in why his home ERA (3.10) is so much lower than his road mark (6.05). Boone says he did not consider home-road splits when forming the rotation.
"The bottom line is, if he's throwing the ball the way he's capable of and on top of his game, we feel like he's a good matchup anywhere," Boone said. Tanaka has felt like the baseball has been more difficult to grip this season, so we'll see if that is another factor. He's also susceptible to the home run - 135 over the past five seasons - and the Twins hit a lot of them.
Unless the Twins pivot to have Odorizzi pitch Game 3 at home, he figures to start Game 2 in the Bronx. At least that's the way you'd line it up if you were going to use your two best starters in the first two games of a series. Historically, Odorizzi, a fly-ball pitcher, has poor numbers at Yankee Stadium - a 5.40 ERA, 12 homers allowed in 46.2 innings pitched. But he threw six shutout innings there earlier this season, allowing just two hits while fanning eight. He was held out of his final start of the season because of a tight left hamstring, but it was deemed minor and he's been dominant most of this All-Star season, allowing 139 hits in 159 innings while striking out 178. Could he suppress the Yanks' homer attack? Odorizzi allowed 0.9 home runs per nine innings this year.
GAME 3: RHP Luis Severino (1-1, 1.50) v. RHP Randy Dobnak (2-1, 1.59)
Severino, 25, oozes talent, but we don't have much data on him this year since he's only made three starts and thrown a total of 12 innings. He's reached 80 pitches once. He looked great against the Angels and Blue Jays, throwing a total of nine scoreless frames, but struggled in his final start, allowing one hit and two runs in three innings against Texas while walking four.
Still, it speaks to Severino's vast potential that Boone said the righty was in the mix along with Paxton and Tanaka for the opener. Severino has had some postseason busts, though, including against the Twins in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game when he started and got only one out, allowing homers to Brian Dozier and Eddie Rosario. Yankee bats bailed him out, though. With the pinstriped bullpen, it's probably no big deal that Severino likely won't offer seven-plus innings of work, but will that have a ripple effect on the back end of the series?
Dobnak might be the perfect opponent for Severino, because we don't have much big-league intel on him, either. The 24-year-old rookie, who the Twins signed out of independent ball two years ago, had a 2.07 ERA in the minors before getting promoted. He appeared in nine games (five starts) in the majors this year and allowed 27 hits and whiffed 23 in 28.1 innings.
Most impressively, he allowed just one homer, to Washington's Trea Turner, and we all know home runs will be a big factor in this series. Obviously, it's been quite a year already for Dobnak, even before the playoffs - he also got married last month, a ceremony scheduled long before he dreamed he'd make the majors. Dobnak could be an opener of sorts for a bullpen that figures to have an impact on this series, too. "I think all of us are ready for whatever needs to be done here this series," said Twins reliever Tyler Duffey.