‘Just be smart’: Yankees look to manage workloads
By Gary Phillips
In a season in which nearly everything has gone right for the New York Yankees, their rotation was leading the American League in ERA and wins above replacement through Tuesday. Keeping it that way, as the season grinds along, will involve careful workload management for two of the team’s brightest stars: Néstor Cortés and Luis Severino.
Cortés, 27, has never reached 100 innings in a major league season (though he has multiple times in the minors). The lefty is already at 79 this season, establishing himself as an unlikely ace and All-Star candidate despite a recent skid that has seen his ERA rise to 2.51, a full run higher than it was on June 2.
Severino, meanwhile, was scheduled to start Thursday night when the Yankees were to make a one-game stop in Houston. He is at 72 innings this season after tossing a total of 29 2/3 between the majors and minors over the previous three years, the result of Tommy John surgery and setbacks during rehab. A 28-year-old right-hander, he has pitched as many as 193 1/3 innings in a single season, but has not enjoyed a full campaign since 2018.
He has a 3.38 ERA over his first 13 starts this season.
No innings limits or guidelines have been revealed for Cortes or Severino — thus avoiding the public countdown that accompanied Joba Chamberlain and his so-called Joba Rules — but the Yankees are thinking ahead when it comes to how they can keep their starters safe as their workload reaches unfamiliar territory.
“Eye test stuff, listening to them, and then the things you’re able to measure,” manager Aaron Boone said when asked how he screens for fatigue as his pitchers brace for the long season. Boone added that strength and conditioning are factors, as is feedback from his pitchers. “Kind of a little bit of everything,” he continued. “Being a little proactive, but also very much listening to where they’re at physically by measurables and by listening to them, too.”
Occasionally mixing in a sixth starter is one of the ways to give the other five starters some extra rest. The Yankees did that to great effect Tuesday when left-hander J.P. Sears was called up to start against Oakland. He threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings, earning the win as the Yankees beat the Athletics, 2-1.
Sears, a 26-year-old rookie, has been incredible thus far. He has yet to allow a run in 12 2/3 innings of work and Tuesday’s outing gave the Yankees cover amid this stretch of 20 games in 20 days. Boone also said that using an extra starter corresponded with the club’s “trying to think a little bit big picture.”
It was Jameson Taillon’s turn to start on Wednesday, with an extra day of rest provided by Sears, and while he wasn’t at his best, he pitched well enough to win (with some help from homers by Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton). He allowed three runs over five innings, raising his ERA slightly to 3.32, as the Yankees beat the A’s, 5-3, to complete a three-game sweep.
After this 20-day stretch, some days off will make it easier for the Yankees to give their best five starters extra rest, which should require less use of Sears, who was optioned back to Class AAA after Tuesday’s game. Boone noted that Severino has already received as many as eight days between starts.
The Yankees should also be able to realign their rotation after next month’s All-Star break, though their second-half schedule begins with a doubleheader in Houston on July 21. There is also a chance that Cortés will have pitched in the All-Star Game, though such appearances are typically brief.
Yet another way to mitigate workload concerns for Cortés and Severino is to lean on other members of the rotation. Gerrit Cole is the staff’s workhorse — he led the Yankees in innings pitched in 2020 and 2021, and is doing so again this season — and Jordan Montgomery and Taillon are past major injuries that put the Yankees in a similar situation last year.
Taillon did not pitch in 2020 and tallied only 37 1/3 big league innings in 2019 after undergoing his second Tommy John operation. Montgomery totaled 75 1/3 big league innings from 2018 to 2020 because of his own Tommy John surgery and the shortened 2020 season. This season, however, both pitchers are more than halfway toward their 2021 innings totals.
“I think I’m far enough removed from TJ now where there’s really no limit anymore. I threw 160 last year, so I really can handle almost anything,” the left-handed Montgomery said before offering ways he and others can help Cortés and Severino. “They might arrange the rotation to where me, Gerrit and Jameson go on five days more often, and they get an extra day. Or maybe kind of let us go a little longer and kind of use the bullpen more strategically for them.”
Taillon, in particular, provided Boone with a blueprint after he came back in 2021 from missing the entire 2020 season. The right-hander did not want to place a cap on what he could do in his first year back. He missed a few weeks with an ankle tendon injury, but Taillon ultimately threw 144 1/3 innings.
Now Boone is comfortable with a similar approach.
“Just be smart about it,” Boone said when told Cortés wanted to exceed 150 innings. “It will kind of declare itself as we move.”
Then, referring to Taillon, he said: “I keep going back to Jamo last year. He was a guy that we were aware of, paying attention to, and he did great and responded and probably went further than we would have expected.
“So I don’t want to put any limitation on that, but also being very aware and watching.”