Strategic change: Yankees’ use of an opener raises questions, curiosity

The New York Yankees employed reliever Jimmy Cordero as an opener on May 15, 2023, against the Blue Jays in Toronto.
John Allen
Tuesday May 16, 2023

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The Yankees experimented on Monday with an opener for the first time since 2021. Reliever Jimmy Cordero took to start in the game against the Blue Jays at  Rogers Center, replacing Jhony Brito, who was originally scheduled to start.

Unless there were any changes to the roster or undisclosed injuries, it was expected that Jhony Brito would handle the majority of the innings in Monday’s game. This is particularly true considering the Yankees’ recent struggles with their bullpen, as they have been dealing with a busy schedule of 17 games in 17 days.

A potential reason for choosing Jimmy Cordero as the opener could be the formidable presence of three strong right-handed hitters, George Springer, Bo Bichette, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., at the top of the Blue Jays lineup.

Jimmy Cordero has performed well this season, limiting right-handed batters to a .171/.256/.257 slash line. On the other hand, Brito has faced difficulties in his recent six appearances, posting an 8.14 ERA over 21 innings, with right-handed hitters particularly capitalizing on him with a .292/.347/.631 slash line. There is a chance that Brito might be demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the coming week, especially considering the impending return of Luis Severino from the injured list.

Jimmy Cordero (3-1) has thrived in his debut season as a reliever for the Yankees, maintaining an impressive 2.81 ERA and recording 17 strikeouts in 16 innings. He has excelled at minimizing hard contact. This year, his performance stands out with an exceptional average exit velocity of 85.5 mph and a remarkable hard-hit percentage of 27.5, placing him in the league’s 92nd percentile and above.

Following a promising start to his Major League career with two solid outings, Brito’s performance has taken a downturn as he has recorded an ERA of 8.14 in his most recent six appearances, covering a total of 21 innings.

There is a possibility that Brito might be sent down to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, as Luis Severino is expected to come off the injured list and join the starting rotation. Severino recently made a rehab start with Double-A Somerset on Tuesday. In order to accommodate Severino’s return, either Brito or right-handed pitcher Clarke Schmidt (1-4, 6.30) will be removed from the starting staff.

The last time the Yankees employed an opener was during the 2021 season on August 11. During that period, left-handed pitchers Wandy Peralta and Lucas Luetge (who was traded to the Braves in the offseason) each started a game in August.

Prior to Monday, the Yankees’ most recent utilization of an opener occurred on August 11, 2021, with Lucas Luetge getting the start against the Royals.

The Yankees’ plan clicked

The Yankees‘ experience with using an opener hasn’t always been successful, but on Monday, it exceeded their expectations.

The Yankees opted for reliever Jimmy Cordero to open the game, with Jhony Brito taking over as the primary reliever-turned-starter. Brito delivered an impressive performance, contributing to the Yankees’ 7-4 victory against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

Jimmy Cordero effectively pitched two flawless innings against the predominantly right-handed hitters at the top of the Blue Jays lineup, while Brito had a mostly smooth outing before encountering difficulties in the eighth inning. However, the tandem of Cordero and Brito proved successful, resulting in a victory for the Yankees.

Jimmy Cordero expressed that it had been a positive experience for him, stating that it was his first time as an opener and that he would definitely be willing to do it again.

The Yankees’ decision to implement this strategy was mainly influenced by Brito’s difficulties in pitching against right-handed hitters and also the growing concerns with the rotation.

Jimmy Cordero has been effective against right-handed hitters this season, limiting them to a slash line of .171/.256/.257. On the other hand, Brito has struggled against righties, who have recorded a slash line of .292/.347/.631 against him.

Following his appearance as a relief pitcher on Monday, Brito showcased his capabilities against the Blue Jays lineup by delivering an impressive performance. He pitched five scoreless innings, allowing only three hits. However, in the eighth inning, he surrendered four runs, although only two of them were earned due to an error committed by Gleyber Torres.

Manager Aaron Boone expressed his satisfaction with Brito’s performance, acknowledging that he provided exactly what the team required. Boone specifically highlighted the effectiveness of Brito’s curveball, which served as a valuable third pitch to complement his sinker and changeup.

The Yankees’ rotation blues

Certainly, deciding to send Brito down to make room for Severino won’t be a straightforward decision, given that Clarke Schmidt’s statistics are even more concerning. Schmidt has recorded a 1-4 record with a 6.30 ERA in nine starts, and his performance in Sunday’s 8-7 loss to the Rays only added to his struggles. Similarly, Brito holds a 1-4 record with a 5.81 ERA in eight starts.

Recently, the Yankees’ starting rotation has posed significant challenges, except for Gerrit Cole when he’s not going up against the Rays and Domingo German on certain occasions.

In addition to Schmidt and Brito struggling in their roles as replacement starters for Severino and Carlos Rodon, another surprising development has been the recent struggles of Nestor Cortes. Despite being an All-Star last year, Cortes has encountered significant difficulties, giving up 15 runs in his past three starts, causing his ERA to spike from 3.49 to 5.53.

While Gerrit Cole boasts an impressive 5-0 record and a 2.22 ERA, the remaining four starters on the Yankees’ roster have struggled, accumulating a combined record of 8-12 and an ERA of 5.34. With a team ERA of 4.52, the Yankees’ rotation currently ranks eighth among American League teams and 16th among all Major League Baseball teams.

In the past 21 games, the Yankees’ starting pitchers have recorded a 3-8 record with a 5.61 ERA. In the Yankees’ previous 11 games, the rotation has only produced one quality start, and in the last 24 games, they have managed just four quality starts.

Boone’s take?

Boone expressed his enthusiasm for Severino’s return and acknowledged the need for improved performance from the entire rotation. He emphasized his belief that Cortes will bounce back from his recent struggles, viewing it as a temporary setback that he will overcome by making necessary adjustments.

Schmidt’s resurgence is crucial for the Yankees as he may be relied upon as a starter until Rodon’s return, which is not expected until at least late June. Additionally, if Rodon experiences further issues with his back, his highly anticipated debut with the Yankees will be delayed even further.

Following another challenging performance on Sunday, where Schmidt surrendered seven runs in 4 2/3 innings, he was questioned about his overall performance. Once again, he emphasized a narrative suggesting that he has been pitching significantly better than what his ERA indicates.

Cashman’s folly

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is seen with manager Aaron Boone at a training session and the duo is to finalize the Yankees shortstop choice.

Prior to last year’s trade deadline, General Manager Brian Cashman made the decision to trade three young pitchers as part of various deals. This included sending Ken Waldichuk and JP Sears to the Athletics as part of the Frankie Montas trade, as well as trading Hayden Wesneski to the Cubs in exchange for Scott Effross.

Both trades have not been successful as expected. Frankie Montas, who was acquired as a rotation upgrade, did not perform well in the latter part of last season, and he is currently recovering from shoulder surgery with an expected return no earlier than August. On the other hand, Scott Effross, who was obtained as a reliever, will be sidelined for the entire season as he undergoes Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees ultimately chose Brito as their starter because they believed there were no better alternatives among their 40-man rotation, including Matt Krook, Randy Vasquez, and Deivi Garcia. They also found no preferable options among their non-roster starters, which included Ryan Weber. Additionally, it appears that GM Brian Cashman either did not find the available options on the trade market appealing or felt that the associated costs, whether in terms of salary or what the team would have to give up, were too high.

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