Is There Anything Unsustainable About the Yankees Starting Pitching?
By Chris O’Connor
June 3, 2022
I was seemingly higher than most on the Yankees starting rotation heading into the season, but even I did not see this coming. My thought process was less so the individual pitchers in the rotation (though they clearly had significant talent), but I believed that the Yankees had become a pitching development machine that can spew out good pitchers. If injuries struck, the Yankees would have a bevy of arms to eat innings. They could run out a traditional starter to fill the hole or go a more non-conventional way like more bullpen and piggy-back games. Surprisingly, the injury bug has actually bitten the Yankees bullpen. Chad Green, Zack Britton, and Luis Gil are out long-term (though Britton might return by the end of the season), Domingo German remains on the 60-day IL, and Aroldis Chapman and Johnny Loaisiga are currently on the short-term IL. The starters, however, have stayed remarkably healthy and performed exceedingly well. Yankees starters cumulatively rank first in baseball in both fWAR and walk rate, second in ERA, third in strikeout rate, and fifth in innings pitched. They have combined high volume with excellence in rate statistics, as well as top-tier performance in nearly all underlying numbers that point to continued excellence. On the whole, there is nothing fluky about their performance. Let’s look at each starters’ individual performance to see if there is anything surprising under the good.
Ever since signing the 9-year, $324 million contract in December 2019, the expectation for Cole was not just to be an ace; it was for the 29-year old to be the best starting pitcher in baseball for the foreseeable future. Perhaps that is why, despite an objectively terrific performance over the past 2+ seasons, it feels like he has somehow underperformed in the regular season. While he has not been Houston-level dominant, he has back-to-back top-5 Cy Young finishes with the Yankees and currently is seventh among all starters in fWAR. Through 10 starts this season, he is 4-1 with a 3.12 ERA and has thrown 57.1 innings. While his strikeout rate of 30.8% ranks in the 88th percentile league wide, that is actually the lowest rate it has been for Cole since his last year with the Pirates in 2017. His average exit velocity and hard hit rate also continue to rate worse than the average starter. However, it appears that the de-juiced balls have helped him. He is allowing home runs at his lowest rate since 2018, and the advanced statistics suggest that his run prevention has actually been unlucky: his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA are all in the 2.7-2.8 range. While he has not been the most dominant pitcher in the league, he has been around top-5 status, and his pristine health record is not something that should be taken for granted. Despite some inconsistencies, he has always been around to take the mound every fifth day.
What more could be said about Nestor? In 9 starts, he has thrown 53 innings. He ranks 6th in baseball with 1.6 fWAR, second in ERA at 1.70, and despite an average fastball velocity of 90.8 mph that ranks in the fifth percentile, his strikeout rate of 30.2% ranks in the 88th percentile. Like with Cole, the new balls seem to have helped Nestor. He has the sixth-lowest ground ball rate among qualified starters at just 35.2%. It’s not a bad thing to be allowing more balls in the air in 2022, particularly when you excel at limiting hard contact like Nestor: he ranks in the 63rd percentile in average exit velocity and 80th percentile in hard hit rate. Thus, he has not been hit by the long ball: his HR/FB ratio of 7.4% ranks 13th-lowest among all starters, which seems sustainable given his propensity for inducing soft contact. The amazing thing about Nestor is that there is nothing fluky about his performance, even if that HR/FB ratio does regress. A 1.70 ERA may not be sustainable, but his FIP of 2.56 ranks fifth among qualified starters, his xFIP of 3.01 ranks ninth, and SIERA is sixth at 2.90. Nestor has been a better version of Gerrit Cole so far and, aside from a short track record and potential innings management down the line, there is no reason to expect a significant decline from someone who may be the best starting pitcher in baseball at the moment.
I think that Taillon is the most underlooked part of the Yankees front five. While Cole and Nestor are the co-aces, Luis Severino gets a lot of love in his emotional return to the starting rotation, and Jordan Montgomery is seen as the dependable fourth or fifth guy, Taillon flies under the radar. He was inconsistent in his first season with the Yankees, though that was to be expected for a guy who was recovering from his second Tommy John surgery and pitched in a total of 7 games in 2019-2020. The Yankees tried to turn him into more of a fastball-dominant, strikeout artist, a-la-Gerrit Cole, rather than the pitch-to-contact guy he had been in Pittsburgh. So, while he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career, he allowed the most home runs of his career, his fly ball rate spiked, and his ERA was a middling 4.30. This season (before last night's gem) his ERA is just 2.49 through 9 starts and 50.2 innings, with 1.3 fWAR. He is throwing the fastball less and, while he ditched the sinker from his Pittsburgh days, is throwing a new cutter this year. The result: his strikeout rate of 19.2% is a career-low (aside from his 7-start 2019). However, he has completely regained his control and then some: his walk rate of 2.5% is the best among qualified starters and nearly a third of his 7.3% rate from 2021. His ground ball rate, which sunk to 33.2% in 2021, is back up to 45.2%, more in line with his career average. That said, there are reasons to believe that his ERA will not stay at 2.50-levels for the rest of the season. He does not necessarily excel at limiting hard contact, with his average exit velocity in the 45th percentile and hard hit rate in the 61st percentile, and his HR/FB ratio is a miniscule 7.0%. Taillon can combat potential regression in homer luck by continuing to induce plenty of ground balls and maintain a low walk rate, which would mean that plenty of the homers would be solo shots, anyway. And, even if he does fall a little bit, his xFIP and SIERA are in the 3.6 range, so he may still be well above average. I am happy to see Taillon back to the pitcher that he is seemingly more comfortable being, and I think that should bode well for the future.
Monty is known as the classic four or five starter on the Yankees, the dependable back end of the rotation piece to eat innings. While true to an extent, and I do not think that he is underrated in the same way Taillon is, I think that undersells him. He would be the best or second-best starting pitcher on plenty of big league teams. Monty is 1-1 with a 3.04 ERA in 10 starts and 53.1 innings. The 3.04 ERA is easily a career-best, but most of Monty’s other numbers are the same as ever. His ground ball and fly ball rates are mostly unchanged, with both around league average. His strikeout rate is down to 19.2% from ~24% across 2020-2021, but his walk rate is a miniscule 4.2%. He has done a good job of limiting hard contact, ranking in the 65th percentile in average exit velocity and 78th percentile in hard hit rate, but those are not significant deviations from his career norms. It appears that he has gotten lucky on balls in play: his BABIP is just .255, far lower than his career average of .291. That suggests that regression may be coming, but it should not be anything significant. His FIP, xFIP, and SIERA are eerily similar in the 3.7-3.8 range, which would make Monty as reliable as ever.
After about three years in the wilderness, Sevy is finally a full-time member of the starting rotation. Through 9 starts and 48 innings in 2022, Severino is 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA. For one, his average fastball velocity is 96.3 mph which, while down slightly from the 97.5 mph that it was in 2017-2018, is still an excellent number. His strikeout rate of 25.6% is down slightly from the 2017-2018 range of ~29%, but his walk rate of 6.5% is virtually unchanged from those two seasons. It is actually pretty startling how little else in his statistical profile is unchanged from 2017-2018: groundball rate, average exit velocity and hard hit rate, HR/FB ratio. He is throwing his changeup now more than his slider, and he has added a cutter to his repertoire, but this is still pretty much the same Sevy. Like Monty, he has gotten a tad lucky with a BABIP of just .266. That, combined with the drop in strikeouts, are probably why his advanced numbers look worse than both his current output and his past advanced numbers. His FIP is 3.97, xFIP is 3.61, and SIERA is 3.42. Still, for a guy who entered the season having thrown 18 regular-season innings since 2019, this has been a pretty fantastic start.