Past mistakes inform Boone's bullpen decisions

October 11th, 2019

NEW YORK -- It was the fifth inning of the deciding Game 3 of the American League Division Series, and Yankees manager Aaron Boone sprang from the steps of the visitors' dugout at Target Field, tapping his right arm to call upon . One batter later he repeated that journey to the mound, summoning from the bullpen.

Boone has not been shy about mixing and matching through his first three postseason games of the year, his 15 pitching changes having yielded a sweep of the Twins in the ALDS. As the Yanks prepare to take on the Astros in the AL Championship Series, that confidence in the bullpen can be viewed as a reflection of how the second-year skipper has grown on the job.

“I try and have a blueprint or a plan in place that obviously is always fluid, and you've got to make adjustments on the fly,” Boone said on Thursday. “I’m trying to do whatever is going to give us the best chance to win. I don't know if it's in response to anything, or just trying to be as prepared as I can be to make sound decisions. That's ongoing.”

One year ago, Boone had accumulated a mostly positive reception throughout his rookie season, guiding the Yankees to 100 regular-season wins and past the Athletics in the AL Wild Card Game. Spirits were high as they returned to New York for with the ALDS tied, prompting to pump Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York” on his stereo as they left Fenway Park.

That ALDS Game 3 ended with catcher Austin Romine mopping up a 16-1 loss, and Boone acknowledged that he “probably got a little greedy” by asking starting pitcher for a fourth inning.

Even managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner weighed in at the time, telling Michael Kay in an ESPN Radio interview that "there were too many signs" that it was time to lift Severino.

"I'm not a baseball guy, but I can tell when a guy is getting hit hard, right? Even if they're outs," Steinbrenner said. "It just seemed like he didn't have his stuff, and it might have been time at that point to make a change."

The next evening there was activity in the bullpen but no assistance forthcoming for starter in a three-run Boston third inning that dimmed the lights on the Yanks’ season. Asked to reflect upon those decisions a year later, Boone said that he believes “in baseball, a lot of decisions are gray.”

“Sometimes you make a decision and it works out, but it's not necessarily the right one,” he said. “Usually decisions made -- certainly in the postseason -- are always up for debate, and that's part of it. All you can do is be as prepared and as focused as you can be to try and make sound decisions to help us win.”

The Red Sox have scattered for the winter, but the sting of watching them celebrate on the Yankee Stadium turf still fuels the Bombers’ postseason. This October, recognizing that a strong relief crew could be a key factor in securing the World Series trophy, Boone has added the quick trigger to his playbook.

Starting pitchers , and Severino combined to record 41 outs in the sweep of the Twins, with none pushing past the fifth-inning mark. The bullpen logged the other 40 outs, paced by (eight), (seven) and (seven).

“Our responsibility is to be ready at any given moment,” said Chapman, who logged a five-out save in the Game 3 clincher. “They’ve been going to the bullpen in an aggressive way, and for us, we have to be ready for whatever comes our way.”

According to Britton, Boone met with the relievers prior to the postseason and told them that he envisioned several different "lanes" in which they might be used. Ottavino, for example, was twice used solely in the ALDS to face slugger Nelson Cruz (who walked both times) and no other batters.

Chapman threw only 70 pitches across five appearances in September, an extreme example of how the Yankees prioritized having their relievers rested and ready for the playoffs. Boone was the only Major League manager not to use a reliever on three consecutive days during the regular season.

“That was for the postseason where, ideally, they'd like to throw us every single game with the days off,” Britton said. “We’re ready for it. … It’s not sometimes the physical recovery that you need, but just kind of taking a mental break through the course of a long season. We've had a lot of opportunity to do that.”

That usage pattern may not carry over into the ALCS. In fact, Boone sees scenarios in which he will attempt to ask for more length from his starters in the best-of-seven series. Yet the results of the Minnesota series should offer confidence that Boone can continue to push the right buttons in the biggest games of the year.

“You’re always trying to grow on the job,” Boone said. “You learn from the successes and the failures that you have along the way. Just being a year further along and understanding personnel, my players, my staff, hopefully that puts me in a better position to make quality decisions. Ultimately, that's one of my biggest jobs: not only trying to foster a great culture, but making really good decisions.”