Yankees' Star-Studded Bullpen Has Team on Brink of Collapse

New York's elite, expensive bullpen was supposed to be the reason it beat the Astros. Instead it might be the reason the Yankees' season ends in the ALCS.
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NEW YORK — Houston shortstop Carlos Correa made sure to study the videotape after Yankees reliever Chad Green whiffed him on a high fastball in American League Championship Series Game 2 on Sunday.

“I looked at it and his fastball has 23 inches of hop,” Correa said, referring to a measurement of how Green’s high-spinning fastball does not drop nearly as much as the average fastball. “That’s a lot. I swung right under it.”

Correa remembered his homework as he prepared to hit against Green in the sixth inning of Game 4 Thursday. The Astros held a 3-1 lead and had two runners on. The game was in the hands of both bullpens, a scenario that was supposed to favor the Yankees when this series began. Before he stepped into the box, Correa practiced the swing path that would be required to hit a high-spinning fastball with 23 inches of hop, a pitch that is so difficult to hit because hitters swing under it.

“Swing over it, swing over it,” Correa told himself as he took his practice cuts, making sure he kept his hands over the imaginary pitch while finishing with his hands low to take any loft out of the plane of his swing.

After a first-pitch slider that Correa fouled away, Green came back with his signature pitch.

Now, understand something about Green’s high fastball. It is not just a good pitch. It is an extraordinary pitch because of its velocity and spin. It is a true outlier among fastballs. Since May 20 Green had thrown 402 elevated fastballs and nobody hit a home run off any of them, not even in a record home run season in which the baseball carried like a Titleist. Only 10 of those 402 fastballs resulted in a hit.

What happened next sent the Astros toward an 8-3 win and to the brink of the American League pennant with the ball in the hands of Justin Verlander in Game 5 Friday night. It also punched a huge hole in the Yankees’ 2019 plan to win the pennant through their bullpen.

Officially, it was a three-run homer, as Correa, with a duplicate of his practice swings, got on top of one of Green’s ferocious fastballs to send it into the leftfield seats. A 3-1 lead ballooned to 6-1, and all fight and all defensive focus immediately drained out of New York.

But it also was another shot across the bow of how the Yankees had planned to win this series. Over the past three seasons they have sunk $152 million into free agent relievers Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino, while watching starting pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Patrick Corbin and Marcus Stroman change teams.

The road for the Astros to win this series was supposed to be through their starters. For the Yankees, it was through a 10-man, $68 million bullpen. But now Houston is up three games to one because the New York bullpen simply hasn’t been good enough–not when it has to pick up so much work from a mediocre starting staff. 

“It definitely helped seeing him before,” Correa said of Green. “That’s what can happen when you see the same relievers in a series. I told myself to swing over the ball.”

Ever since Ottavino hung that slider to Springer in Game 2, the Astros have outscored the Yankees, 14-4, including an 8-3 edge in runs against bullpens.

The sad-sack looking Ottavino, whom Yankees manager Aaron Boone keeps overexposing, bore the brunt of frustration from Yankees fan. So did Gary Sanchez, who whiffed with the bases loaded in the first inning when Houston starter Zack Greinke was one pitch away from getting pulled, which would have left manager A.J. Hinch with an exhausted bullpen for Game 5. It was the biggest out of the series because Greinke had been so bad that Brad Peacock was loose in the bullpen and ready to be summoned.

Greinke had started 488 regular season games and never walked the leadoff batter on four pitches. He did it in Game 4.

He had faced 181 batters with the bases loaded in his career and only once issued a four-pitch walk. He did it in Game 4.

He had never issued two four-pitch walks in the first inning of a game. He did it in Game 4.

And yet Sanchez let Greinke and Hinch off the hook by flailing at an 0-2 slider out of the zone.

New York starter Masahiro Tanaka took the loss while getting only five swings and misses out of 85 pitches. Five innings are about the best the Yankees can hope for out of their starters. They just don’t win games on the backs of their starting pitchers. Boone has managed 12 postseason games and never allowed a starter to face more than 22 batters.

Now the Yankees have to survive Verlander in Game 5 and, if they win a bullpen game in Game 6, Cole in Game 7. If they can’t, they will have played their first decade without appearing in the World Series since the 1910s.

Game 5 will be the Yankees’ 50th postseason game of this decade. And their starting pitchers are 14-20 in those previous 49 games. No Yankees starter has thrown 100 pitches in 14 consecutive starts.

James Paxton gets the draw against Verlander. He will be asked to give five innings, and not much more. The Yankees’ path to victory has to be through their many relievers, and that path instead is leading them to ruin.