Managing the Rotation
By Andy Singer August 5, 2020
Paxton Delivers – Photo Courtesy of Robert Sabo, NY Post
Life in the Yankee Universe is pretty fantastic right now. While the schedule has been shuffled due the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak and a tropical storm that plowed through the northeast on Tuesday, the Yankees are 8-1. Their primary competition in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays, just got swept by Baltimore, so the Yankees control their own destiny, as strange as it feels to say that this early in the season. Each game is more meaningful in a short season, and the Yankees have built a commanding lead in the division in the early going. The offense is humming even with a couple of noticeable slumping players and the bullpen has been solid. So, what worries could the Yankees have?
If the Yankees have struggled in one area in the early going, it’s in the rotation. The Yankees made a massive investment in the rotation in the off-season when they finally fulfilled the prophecy laid down over a decade ago by signing Gerrit Cole. While Cole hasn’t quite found his most dominant stride yet, the results have been what one would expect from an ace in 3 starts: 17.2 IP, 16 K, 0.792 WHIP, 2.55 ERA. The Yankees have their ace.
Behind Cole though, the Yankees have struggled. If I asked you who has pitched the most innings behind Gerrit Cole, what would you guess? I can’t blame you if you picked another Yankee starter. EJ Fagan asked me this question on the Bronx Beat Podcast on Tuesday night (we’ll have the link up when it posts), and I only knew the answer because I’ve been tracking pitcher usage: behind Cole, Mike King is 2nd on the team with 7 innings pitched, and Jonathan Loaisiga is 3rd with 6 innings pitched. While we’re talking about a minuscule sample size, I’m sure that this is not how the Yankees drew up the innings allocation through a week-and-a-half’s worth of games.
While I doubt that the leaderboard for innings pitched will look like this even 3 weeks from now, I think that the Yankees have to confront a couple of very real truths. For one, while Aaron Boone said on Tuesday that the team doesn’t believe that an injury is contributing to Paxton’s struggles, it is obvious that the Yankees cannot count on Paxton to resemble the pitcher he’s been for the past couple of seasons. Frankly, I think that he has an underlying issue stemming from his back surgery or mechanical adjustment stemming from his recovery such that he will wind up on the IL before long, but even if that doesn’t happen, I don’t see Paxton making up for 4 MPH of lost velocity this year. Yes, it’s really that bad:
Paxton’s 4-seam Fastball Velocty, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Paxton has only lived as a fireballer, and he doesn’t have the command to survive without a fastball in the mid-90s right now. I feel for the guy, as he’s clearly lost up on the hill and I really believe that he’s giving it all he’s got. I was bullish on Paxton to begin the year, but I am now worried about Paxton ever regaining his previous form.
Secondly, I don’t think that the Yankees can expect to depend on Happ in the back of the rotation. Home run rates appear similar to last year across the league, and Happ isn’t really doing much differently than last season. I admit that I tend to be the low-man on Happ here at SSTN, and Happ may be able to limp along as a 5th starter, but I think that the Yankees would be well-served to limit him to facing an opposing lineup no more than twice.
The cold truth of expectations for Happ and Paxton for the rest of 2020 leaves the Yankees with 3 starters that they can trust, at best: Cole, Tanaka, and Montgomery. In order to put the best rotation out on the field, the Yankees need to make the following moves:
Shut Paxton Down. Paxton doesn’t look right, and he needs to be shut down for more thorough examination to ensure that he doesn’t have an underlying injury. Beyond that, he needs some significant work on his mechanics before he steps on a Major League mound again.
Call Up Clarke Schmidt. Schmidt was pretty clearly one of the Yankees’ 5 best pitchers during Spring Training and Summer Training. The Yankees are World Series favorites, so now is not the time to play service time games. Let Schmidt fill Paxton’s slot in the rotation. He can get MLB hitters out now with his electric fastball-curveball combination.
Make Tandem Starters Official. The Yankees have already effectively used Loaisiga, Mike King, and Nick Nelson as tandem starters with solid results thus far. Now that MLB has permanently expanded rosters to 28 men for the remainder of the season, it would be pretty easy for the Yankees to carry 3 or 4 pitchers for two spots in the rotation. Both Tanaka and Monty should have their innings limited due to injury concerns, and Happ just shouldn’t be allowed to face a lineup more than twice. Loaisiga, King, Nelson, and Deivi Garcia are all uniquely suited to this role, and belong on the 28-man roster for this purpose. The Yankees can extract more value from the rotation by using this strategy and maximize each of these pitcher’s unique talents.
So, how would the rotation line up for the remainder of the year under my proposal?
Clarke Schmidt/Long Reliever/Tandem
Paxton to IL (it’s coming…I can feel it)
*As needed, due to Monty’s probable innings limits coming back from Tommy John.
Time will tell how the Yankees plan to handle the rotation for the remainder of the year, but I think my proposal represents the optimal rotation given the question marks throughout the rotation the Yankees expected to have on Opening Day.