One of the most exhausted and overused tropes in sports analysis is the idea that some teams and players are built to win in the playoffs and others aren’t. And at this point, it’s almost as common to assert the contrary: that research has proven that “clutch” isn’t a real thing, and if you’re good in the regular season, you’re likely to be good in the playoffs as well. But there are always those outlying cases. Jordan’s Bulls never lost a Finals (though they lost in the playoffs plenty earlier in MJ’s career). Try telling a Dodgers fan that there’s no difference between the regular season and postseason success.
The Yankees broke back into baseball relevance with a surprising run to Game 7 of the ALCS in 2017. It’s pretty shocking that three full seasons later, that’s still the closest this core has gotten to the World Series. Four difficult playoff eliminations in a row will inevitably set the take artists aflame, and that’s exactly what has happened, particularly this season. The Yankees “can’t win the big game.” The Yankees are “home run or nothing, and that approach doesn’t work in October.” The Yankees “fade in the spotlight.” The Yankees (insert any stock phrase you might hear on WFAN here).
Of course, this is all nonsense – to a point. While the collection of absurdities above is just that, there is undeniably an element of truth to the accusation that the Yankees aren’t built to win in the postseason. It’s not because this team doesn’t have the “clutch gene.” It’s not because of the delusion that hitting a lot of home runs is somehow undesirable. It’s because they simply don’t have the pitching depth to get it done.
While good players are good no matter what month it is, it’s also true that a long playoff run taxes even the best pitching staff. High leverage innings place greater pressure on each pitch. The margin for error is small, meaning more pitching changes and higher bullpen workloads. If you’re trying to win a playoff series and you have a horse like Gerrit Cole – a guy whom you know is going to give you six innings and eight strikeouts every single time out – your task becomes easier. And can you imagine how the ALDS would have gone for New York without Gerrit Cole? That’s the difference between a coin-flip Game 5 loss and very possibly a three-game sweep.
Beyond Cole, though, things get shaky. Masahiro Tanaka isn’t the pitcher he once was without his dominant splitter, James Paxton got hurt, and as solid as JA Happ was late in the season, he’s not the guy you want out there for your most important starts. It was the lack of faith in either Happ or a 21-year-old rookie that caused the Yankees to overthink, and ultimately botch, their plan for Game 2. And while Cole represented a huge improvement over the 2019 staff, the bullpen’s regression between last year and this year was a regression of almost the same caliber. Tommy Kahnle and 2019 Adam Ottavino is a big upgrade over no Kahnle and 2020 Ottavino. Not to mention, the super ‘pen looked gassed at the end of last year’s postseason, too.
So where does this team go from here? The Yankees outscored the Rays in the ALDS and lost a winner-take-all game by a single run. They underachieved by a significant margin during the regular season, but we should hesitate before making any sweeping statements about the club’s makeup after a sample of 60 games during an unconventional season. But it would also be foolhardy to suggest that they should just run it back, because this pitching staff was not going to get it done, COVID or no COVID.
Some might like to see the brass make a move for Trevor Bauer. That’d be nice, but with Hal Steinbrenner’s comments on the revenue losses sustained this season, it’s highly unlikely. We’ll have Luis Severino for half the 2021 season – in what condition, nobody really knows – and possibly a full season of Domingo Germán. Wearing the rosiest of glasses, these additions represent the kind of marginal upgrades that might have pushed the 2019 or 2020 Yankees over the top, but it’s equally likely that they bring the franchise no closer to its ultimate goal. Maybe Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt break out as true rotation options, maybe Tanaka is re-signed and finds the feel for the split again. It’s a whole lot of what-ifs, with Cole as the only sure thing. Hal’s got to open the checkbook, or one of these question marks has got to be a difference-maker. Otherwise, a year from now we’re going to be mired in these same silly debates about postseason performance and winning when it matters.