Battling Misconception: The 2021 Starting Rotation
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP Photo
Much of the focus this offseason has been on how the Yankees’ front office will reshape the roster coming into next season. There is little question but that there are holes to fill around the diamond, with most fans prioritizing shortstop and centerfield. However, there has also been significant speculation that the Yankees will look to bolster the starting rotation. In fact, it has been reported that the Yankees offered Justin Verlander a contract (reportedly 1 year, $25 million) before he ultimately re-signed with the Astros for a 2-year deal. No one would argue with adding a starter this offseason, but the conversation brings up an interesting dynamic. The perception persists that while the Yankees’ starting pitching in 2021 was serviceable, it wasn’t championship caliber. I wanted to take a look and see whether perception matches reality.
Did The Starting Rotation Eat Innings?
For much of the year, it felt as though the Yankees’ bullpen was overworked. It is true that Boone leaned on a precious few relievers for shutdown innings, leading to some, such as Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Aroldis Chapman to peter out. My perception was certainly that the Yankees were unable to get enough innings from their starting rotation, putting unnecessary strain on the bullpen.
Yankee starters threw 829.1 innings in 2021, which ranked 13th in the league. That ranking alone is basically middle-of-the-pack. However, the World Champion Atlanta Braves were just 5 spots ahead of the Yankees (8th in baseball), with 837 innings tossed by their starting rotation. While the gap in rankings seems large, the reality is that the gap between the World Champions and the Yankees was equivalent to a counting error. Yankee starters ate innings in a similar fashion to the World Champions, even if it wasn’t close to the league lead.
How Good Were Yankee Starters At The Things They Can Control?
One of the most difficult part of evaluating pitcher performance is dissecting the role that factors outside of a pitcher’s control plays in producing bottom-line statistics like ERA and Wins. In fact, it is often said that when looking at a single season’s performance, the most telling indicator of performance is strikeout and walk rate. How did Yankee starters fair by that measure?
Yankee starters ranked 4th in strikeout rate, with 9.7 K/9. For comparison’s sake, the World Champion Atlanta Braves ranked 13th with 9.06 K/9.
The Yankees’ starters also kept walks in check relative to their gaudy strikeout totals, walking just 2.89 batters per 9 innings, good for 10th in baseball. The World Champion Atlanta Braves ranked just 19th, with a 3.05 BB/9.
Yankee starters were excellent at the only things totally in a pitcher’s control: strikeouts and walks.
Where Does Their Total Performance Rank?
The Yankees and A’s tied for 9th in ERA rankings among starters with a 3.89 ERA, with the World Champion Atlanta Braves just ahead in 7th place with a 3.84 ERA. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, a method of measuring ERA but normalizing factors like ballparks and defense) tells us a slightly different story, though. The Yankees’ starters ranked 9th in 2021 with a 4.01 FIP, while the World Champion Atlanta Braves ranked just 13th at 4.09.
Now, let’s look at the big daddy stat: WAR. Fangraphs pegs the Yankees’ starters as the 6th best rotation in 2021 in total value, with 14.8 fWAR. The World Champion Atlanta Braves were well behind in 13th place, with 12.3 fWAR.
You’re probably sick of me using the phrase “World Champion Atlanta Braves” at this point, but I use the phrase with specific purpose. The Braves won the World Series this year, and their pitching staff received a lot of credit, deservedly so, for their win. In most points of comparison, the 2021 New York Yankees had a better starting pitching staff, even as the team as a whole struggled through a maddening season.
The fact of the matter is that almost the entire rotation is set to return this year, and it is likely to feature Luis Severino as a replacement for Corey Kluber, and great depth with prospects like Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Clarke Schmidt, JP Sears, and others waiting in the wings at AAA. The 2022 rotation might shape up to be even better than the 2021 rotation, which was one of the best in baseball and better than the rotation that won the World Series in 2021.
Now, I always say that “pitcher” is actually a Greek term for “breaks often,” so I wouldn’t be opposed to signing a starting pitcher, but the reality is that the current rotation is more than formidable. Our perceptions just don’t match reality when it comes to the 2021 starting rotation.