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How Sugano and a 6-Man Rotation Would Favor the 2021 Yankees:

The deadline to sign a deal with RHP Tomoyuki Sugano is this Thursday at 5PM. This is my plea to the Yankees to make an all-out, last minute push to get the star Japanese pitcher, while also explaining how his signing could provide a platform that would help the NPB to MLB transition, help with re-signing a fan favorite pitcher, and best evaluate the many young starters the Yankees have.

 

Tomoyuki Sugano and The NPB Transition:

There are two challenges that are evident for a pitcher coming from the NPB in Japan to play in the MLB in North America. The first challenge h is the difference in talent between opposing offenses. The second is the change from a 6-Man rotation to a 5-Man rotation.

The first challenge is both pretty hard to counter while also attempts to be countered each time a player comes over from the NPB. It is very hard to prepare a player for the higher level of talent they will face in the MLB, as in-person experience is limited during an offseason to small instruction and Spring Training. Beyond this the onus is on the pitcher (and the pitching coaches, etc.) to fix problems and adjust mechanics on the fly during the regular season. MLB teams understand this is an extremely difficult thing to navigate while becoming accustomed to a new culture and environment, which is why only a select few NBP players per year have the option of coming to the MLB. Typically, only the best, star players are scouted by MLB teams and these are the players that scouts can believe on. It should be of no surprise why Sugano and his career 2.34 ERA are a desired talent among MLB teams.

Now, just because a player was good in Japan that does not mean that his stats will transfer based upon some “correcting” equation and/or that they will be good in the MLB. We’ve seen supposed stars have very short MLB tenures before going back to the NPB. With position players this has been especially true- which is why we haven’t seen another great hitter like Ichiro Suzuki or slugger like Hideki Matsui*- and why they are both legends of both Japanese and American baseball. Luckily for Sugano, however, is that pitchers tend to be a much less volatile group and have a higher maturation rate with success in the MLB. There are many more pitching standouts like: Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Hideo Nomo, and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, alongside others who have had very good careers in both leagues.

Unfortunately for Sugano, the recent crop of Japanese pitchers to come to the MLB haven’t been as exciting. This, combined with a down MLB market that is helping the Yomiuri Giants of the NPB stay competitive with an offer, is likely keeping his interest down. While Shohei Ohtani has provided good play with his bat, his injuries have kept him to just 53.1 innings (with 51.2 of those in 2018), Yusei Kikuchi has had an above 5.00 ERA in both of his MLB seasons, and Shun Yamaguchi had an 8.06 ERA over 25.2 innings last season. This effect can be seen with the recent signing of Kohei Arihara by the Texas Rangers for just 2-Years at $6.2 Million.

*Shohei Ohtani will likely break into this group in a few years as the likely best bat of his generation of Japanese hitters attempting to break into the MLB. So far his competition of Yoshi Tsutsugo and Shogo Akiyama didn’t impress in their first MLB years.

 

Overcoming the Second Challenge With The 6-Man Rotation:

The second challenge is much easier to circumvent as the solution of helping a pitcher go from a 6-Man to a 5-Man has a very simple solution: implement a 6-Man rotation. This isn’t a new idea by any means as the Los Angeles Angles (of Anaheim) and the Seattle Mariners both came into the shortened 2020 season with 6-Man rotations in mind. Heck, Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece about the New York Mets and a possible 6-Man rotation back in 2015. The main point is that many teams have tried it in recent years, so this isn’t a “groundbreaking” proposition.

The main question is why and how this would work for the Yankees. There are many factors at play but I would expect two quick retorts to the idea when present to a Yankees fan: “Why limit Gerrit Cole’s starts?” and “They don’t have enough pitchers anyway.” We’ll come back to the first question later.

The 6-Man rotation would entirely depend on the Yankees bringing in Tomoyuki Sugano. Alongside Gerrit Cole, this fills out two rotation spots. Under contract with the Yankees (including arbitration cases) we can see the Yankees have an additional 4-5 starting arms: Jordan Montgomery, Domingo German, Deivi Garica, Clarke Schmidt, and Luis Severino. However, each of these pitchers has their own concerns with injuries/injury history, time away from the mound, development, etc. and with Schmidt/Garcia likely to start the season in Triple-A and Severino recovering from TJS it is apparent that more talent would still need to be brought in.

Who that talent would be is up to debate and preference. For me, two names come to mind with pitchers that I think would be favorable to the 6-Man rotation in Masahiro Tanaka and Corey Kluber. With Tanaka, while the reports about him being “Yankees or NPB” aren’t necessarily true, I still think he and the Yankees would like a reunion. He could likely hold the #2 rotation spot for another year and would serve as a great mentor to Sugano as another pitcher who understands how to transition from the NPB and still be good. With his injury concerns around the elbow (how he has avoided TJS is a mystery) the move to a longer rotation could also be a bonus. With Kluber, I see him as a high-upside pitcher who teams need to have a back-up option for with his recent injury history. Giving him more time between starts could help keep him on the mound longer, and could help him rebuild value on a 1-year “prove it” deal with a competitive team. I don’t see Kluber signing for multiple years in a down-market and using tactics like this could land the Yankees the dormant gem.

One of the main problems that the 6-Man rotation would address for the Yankee is the recent “injury bug”. By reducing the number of starts and allowing more rest this could help promote pitchers health. (To be fair, there are some who think the 5-Man rotation includes too much rest which promotes injuries and adding more rest would be counter-productive. I believe Trevor Bauer would fall into this category.) However, with the signings of Sugano, Tanaka, and Kluber this problem would be greatly reduced for 2021 and it would give the Yankees up to 9 viable starting pitching arms over the season.

The other positive that comes with the 6-Man rotation is the ability to test the “question marks” in the rotation for 2021. Starting the season, you could place Montgomery and German in the 5 and 6 slots to see what they can do. We already know they can handle Triple-A batters, so the MLB experience is necessary to see. If they aren’t doing well, then the Yankees have the options of Garcia and Schmidt in Triple-A (where each should start the season for more development…and gaining an extra year under contract). In that same idea, if somebody gets hurt, the Yankees still have the depth. It also helps to put less pressure on Severino to return too early and to be given too many innings, by which time a decision would likely be made on whether Montgomery/German/Garcia/Schmidt are viable/ready for an MLB rotation.

 

How to Address Not Losing Gerrit Cole Starts for Weaker Pitching:

As with the solution towards fixing the 6-Man to 5-Man rotation is an easy fix (by making the rotation a 6-Man), this is also an easy solve.

Just because the format of starting pitching would be comprised of 6 arms does not mean that they all have to pitch once every 6 days. When mapping out the Yankees 2021 MLB schedule and having Gerrit Cole pitch once every 5 days (including days off) he would get 37 starts. Meanwhile, the #2-6 pitchers would be on a different schedule that would overlap as the #2 pitcher (Tanaka) would get 27 starts, then the #3 and #4 pitchers would each get 25 starts and the #5 and #6 pitchers would each get 24 starts. (This is the most possible starts for each while keeping the rotation and having Cole pitch every 5 days no matter what.) From calculating days of rest, the #2-6 pitchers often get around 6 or 7 days off between starts.

If you want to see the schedule data and the rotational system that this would set up, here is the Excel spreadsheet where I did this work.

Now obviously, I would not want Cole pitching 37 starts over the regular season. The most he has had in a season in his career is 33 (2017 and 2019) and adding on 4 more starts would be massive. However, this framework does eliminate the big concern of not getting value out of that $36 million per year contract, while allowing for a lot of flexibility for modification when rotation changes need to be made, it would allow for better arms to be made available during quickly-scheduled double-headers, allows less use of “stopgap” pitchers from Triple-A during the season, and more.

 

Final Thoughts:

As much as I am concerned about the Yankees starting pitching going into 2021, and as odd as it seems to desire adding more rotation spots with that concern, I think there is a legitimate logic to this idea. It helps keep pitchers with concerns off the mound and gives more time for evaluations and recovery from starts. It helps to make the transition from the NPB to the MLB easier. It can be flexible to allow for elite pitching to still go on a normal pace.

Now, is this based upon my desires for the Yankees to have a full rotation of pitchers from Japan? Maybe. Although, that being said, a rotation of Darvish, Tanaka, Maeda, Sugano, and Ohtani would be formidable in 2021. (And looking back at it, the Minnesota Twins made a great deal for Maeda.)

What do you think?

 

Article By: Ethan Semendinger

Date Published: January 6th, 2021

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