Taking Stock of the Yankee Starting Rotation

Over the past few days, I’ve taken a look at the state of the Yankee offense and the team’s biggest competitive advantage in its overpowering bullpen. Now it’s finally time to finally look at the most scrutinized component of the team, year in and year out: the starting rotation.

It’s a borderline cliché at this point that the Yankees Need Another Starter, as it is always the go-to talking point for fans and writers. I mean, I did it literally yesterday. Two things about that, though: 1) every team, no matter how good they are, always need another starting pitcher and 2) constantly harping on this point actually obscures what the team is actually doing on the field.

So let’s take a dive into the numbers to see just what the rotation has done for the Yankees so far in 2019.

Effectiveness

No matter what you might hear, the Yanks have featured one of the best rotations in the game since 2017. Including this year, the Yanks’ 36.7 fWAR ranks 6th in baseball and 3rd in the American League. The Bombers have pitched to a 3.99 ERA (4.08 FIP) in just about 2,000 innings over that stretch, striking out over 24% of opposing batters. Make no mistake about it: that’s a huge, huge reason why the team has been so successful over that stretch.

2019 has been largely more of the same. Let’s take a look at how they stack up relative to the rest of baseball:

  • ERA: 3.86 (8th)
  • FIP: 4.52 (17th)
  • K/9: 9.02 (8th)
  • K%: 24.1% (8th)
  • BB%: 7.2% (8th)
  • WHIP: 1.21 (6th)
  • Hard Contact%: 40.1% (25th)
  • Soft Contact%: 18.7% (7th)
  • fWAR: 5.2 (11th )

Quite a bit going on there, but the overall numbers are solid. The starters have been very effective: they have a top 10 strikeout and walk rate, WHIP, and ERA. They even induce a lot of soft contact. That’s all good. Very good, in fact.

But there are some areas to be concerned about, namely the hard contact rate. Yanks starters have surrendered a lot of hard contact. Only 6 teams in baseball surrender more hard contact, in fact. That would be one thing if the Yanks pounded the ball into the ground, but they’re not doing that (their 40% GB rate ranks 22nd) nor are they limiting home runs (their 1.62 HR/9 is 7th highest). That is certainly less than ideal.

Is it enough to be worried about? Yes, and no, I think. Yes, that’s kind of a cop-out answer, but bear with me. On the one hand, it hasn’t really hurt the Yanks but that’s not really sustainable. Continue to give up hard hit balls in the air and you’re going to run into trouble, especially playing in Yankee Stadium. But with that being said, staff ace Luis Severino hasn’t pitched an inning, the excellent James Paxton missed two weeks, and soft-contact extraordinaire CC Sabathia has also missed significant time. Seems a bit too early to really say. Let’s see them (add Keuchel) and also get healthy and re-evaluate. A mixed bag, for now.

Length

I pointed out on Monday that the Yanks are only averaging 5.2 innings and 83 pitches from their starters. That statistic benefits from some context, so here is a roundup of how some of the other competitors stack up:

  • Houston Astros: 5.7 IP/GS (94 pitches)
  • Tampa Bay Rays: 4.5 (69)
  • Minnesota Twins: 5.7 (91)
  • Philadelphia Phillies: 5.6 (92)
  • Milwaukee Brewers: 5.0 (88)
  • Los Angeles Dodgers: 5.9 (89)
  • Chicago Cubs: 5.7 (93)

Of the current division leaders and 1st Wild Card spot teams, only two teams get fewer innings out of their starters than the Yanks. That’s useful context, but it’s also worth remembering that the Yanks have the best bullpen of the bunch by far and are missing Luis Severino (and they’ve also employed the opener, which will deflate this number a bit). Seems like the Yanks should be right about average among the contenders once fully healthy.

It is pretty wild to see these numbers, on another note. I know that the league has really embraced the bullpen, but it’s still wild. Imagine this 20 years ago. Just would never happen.

It’s for good reason, though. I mean, teams hit .220/.279/.389 against the Yanks the first time through the order, .222/.282/.419 the second time, and .309/.364/.565 the third time. That’s a dramatic, dramatic difference between times two and three. Aaron Boone and the Yanks are wise to limit the third time through and turn to the bullpen. It’s just smart utilization.

Conclusions

I think this is about what everyone would have expected, right? The Yanks rotation is a bit underrated in terms of results—they’ve actually been really effective, by and large—but also has a few obvious areas for improvement. Namely, they give up too many home runs and allow too much hard contact. Hopefully, a steadily healthier rotation, plus the return of Luis Severino, correct some of this. Time will tell.

Overall, the Yanks should be fairly pleased with how this has all worked out so far. Despite massive injuries, they’ve had guys step up (like Domingo Germán) and fill the void. We should all expect the Yanks rotation to continue to be good throughout the rest of the season, though they should still go sign Dallas Keuchel.

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1 Comment

  1. macaroni100

    This is excellent stuff Bobby. I would like to see some context in re HR allowed that takes into consideration the home park and the ALE in general.

    I’m not disagreeing with the concern about too many HR’s allowed, the reality is though unless you load the rotation with front line starters like they did in the 90’s, HR’s are to be expected with the small parks in the ALE, live ball and offenses built around the launch angle and barrels paradigm.

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