The Yankees' Bullpen Is Championship Quality, but Can Aaron Boone Run It Properly?

The Yankees' collection of relievers are the envy of baseball. But after an October littered with miscues by Aaron Boone last year, can he improve his bullpen management this time around?
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As the owner of the most difficult job in baseball directs his team from the dugout rail on the first-base side of the field at Yankee Stadium, he must face 50,000 screaming second-guessers in the stands. Four hundred feet away, in the left-centerfield bullpen, sit another seven or eight: his relief corps.

The game they play is lighthearted: Try to predict Aaron Boone’s moves before he makes them. If the righthanded starter is at 85 pitches entering the seventh with two lefties coming up, will they get a chance at them? If a pitcher has two outs but has just walked the bases loaded, to whom will Boone turn? For the most part, the relievers’ crystal ball is clear. And when their manager’s choice does not match theirs, says Chad Greene, “We probably made the wrong move.” But some of the relievers privately acknowledge that last year, during an ALDS they lost three games to one, a couple of their decisions would have been better: Specifically, they would have pulled Game 3 starter Luis Severino and Game 4 starter CC Sabathia earlier than their manager did.

The man who left them in agrees. “I maybe would’ve gone to the ’pen a little quicker in Game 3, or possibly Game 4,” Boone says now, leaning back in his office chair, nearly a year removed from a lackluster performance that had the New York tabloids workshopping Boo-ne puns.

When the modern manager is hired, he is asked to perform two, nearly opposite, jobs. From February through September, he must inspire his troops. He encourages slumpers and chides slackers. He needs to fill the role, outfielder Clint Frazier says, of “a second dad.”

Then the calendar flips to October. Suddenly it no longer matters if his players like him. All he has to do is make exactly the right move at exactly the right moment, over and over. Boone holds the keys to perhaps the best bullpen in the game but one of the least reliable starting rotations, meaning he has little margin for error. The only evidence we have—his pitching management last October—suggests that he is unable or unwilling to shelve orthodoxy in favor of urgency.

“I think running the bullpen is an acquired trait,” says reliever Zack Britton. “That’s the hardest thing to learn.”

Can Boone learn it? And can he learn it fast enough for the most talented Yankees team in a decade—but perhaps the hardest to skipper—to win it all?

***

Everyone agrees Boone has been a masterful regular-season manager. He has expertly guided New York this far, shuffling through 54 players like a deck of cards, as his aces and jacks keep getting hurt. In August, when third baseman Gio Urshela strained his left groin, the Yankees broke the record for players placed on the injured list, with 29. In September, Boone became the first manager in history to win 100 games in each of his first two seasons. (“Good players,” he says.)

He tries to check in with each player each day. He wants to know whose arm hurts and who recently broke up with his girlfriend. He argues with them about shoes—his fashion sense, his players report, is awful—and teases them in film sessions.

“He’s so youthful,” says Frazier. “Sometimes you kind of forget that he’s the manager because he’s cool, man. He’s one of the guys. He’s swaggy. He’s charismatic. It’s almost like he’s in the dugout playing the game with us.”

Boone spent 12 years in the majors, including 71 games—and one very memorable pennant-winning home run—with the Yankees, in 2003. His time as a player informs the way he treats his personnel. If he suspects a reliever is tired, he will not call upon him, even if that decision costs the Yankees the game, because he needs to consider tomorrow. The organization has an unusual policy against pitching relievers three days in a row, no matter the circumstances. The forced game off does not necessarily keep appearances down—two of the top 20 frequent fliers are Yankees—but it does allow a reliever to show up in the morning knowing he has a rest day, which provides a psychological advantage. Boone tries to extend that to position players as well, letting players know the night before when possible whether they will be in the lineup.

He explodes at umpires—“my guys are f------ savages in that f------ box” became a rallying cry and a basis for countless T-shirts—even when the rants get him ejected, because he needs his players to know he supports them. But he also has a light enough touch to notice that star rightfielder Aaron Judge prefers not to argue balls and strikes—so Boone does not argue them on his behalf, either.

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“I feel like he knows when to address the team and when not to address the team,” says righty James Paxton. “He chooses the right moments to say something and the right moments to let the leaders of the team handle things.”

Each of the six times Frazier has been optioned to the minor leagues in the past two years, it has been Boone delivering the news. But when Frazier returned Sept. 1, it was also Boone dancing down the hallway toward him, yelling, “Look who I found!”

Sometimes he will head to the mound in the late innings and, instead of taking the ball, ask the starter if he wants to finish the frame. Sometimes he will pull a pitcher and, afterward, pull him aside. I’m not sure if that was the right move. It felt right at the time.

You might think this level of candor would diminish his players’ confidence in him. If he doesn’t believe in his decisions, why should they? In fact it has the opposite effect. “He’s a human,” says Paxton. “He’s very real with us.” They trust him.

***

The Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs at 11:35 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9. Boone was back in his office the next morning. He said his goodbyes. He did a few exit interviews. He made sure each player knew his individual offseason focus. One thing he did not do much is stew. He and his wife, Laura, went to the Bahamas for a few days the following week. They watched the ALCS on TV every night.

There Boone saw a manager, the Red Sox’ Alex Cora, who instructed his team daily to “win every pitch.” In Game 1 of the ALDS, up two in the eighth, he burned planned Game 3 starter Rick Porcello rather than turn to a leaky bullpen. (That was “Plan C and a half,” Cora said afterward.) In Game 2 of the ALCS, Cora did the same thing: Up two in the eighth, he summoned Porcello for an inning.

Boone seemed to operate as if it were August against the Tigers. In Game 3, with the series tied at one, Luis Severino allowed three runs in his first three innings, on a string of lasered singles. All night danger seemed inches away: Of those first nine outs, four came on balls that left bats at more than 100 mph.

“I didn't think he was overly sharp from the get-go,” Boone acknowledged after the game.

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Even so, down 3–0, Severino trotted out to the mound to face the bottom of the order in the fourth. Boston hitters turned on his first two pitches for singles. He walked the No. 9 hitter. Finally, as fans loudly expressed their displeasure, Boone pulled him … in favor of, generously, his sixth-best option, a starter who had never entered a game with the bases loaded and no one out. The Red Sox won 16–1.

When it was over, Boone admitted that his decision looked bad in hindsight. But, he said, he would learn from it.

Then came Game 4. Facing elimination and with the game tied at zero, Boone allowed a clearly tiring CC Sabathia to face the heart of the order in the third inning. He allowed one run. With two out and a man on second, David Robertson began warming up. Boone did “not seriously” consider removing Sabathia at that point, he said later. Ian Kinsler smoked a double to drive in a second run and drop the Yankees’ win expectancy to 30%. Eduardo Nuñez shot the next pitch to left to give Boston a 3–0 lead and New York a 22% chance of victory. In the stands, filmmaker and Yankees fan Spike Lee pantomimed a call to the bullpen. Sabathia finished the inning. The Yankees lost 4–3.

Back in his office, Boone is still mulling over the question of remorse. He should have pulled the starters earlier. But he understands why he didn’t. “You also realize when you’re up against it, that puts you up against it again tomorrow,” he says. “So I don’t think I walk away with any regret.”

This may still not be the attitude the New York Yankees want from their manager. Tomorrow? Not in Mr. Steinbrenner’s town. But his players appreciate the candor. Boone may not always make the right decision. But he will always make the one that felt right at the time.