Revamping the Yankees Rotation and Bullpen for 2024
Late October Thoughts by Cary Greene
October 26, 2023
Today we turn our attention to thoughts regarding the path forward for the Yankees pitching staff. I’m a staunch believer that pitching wins championships and I say this with a caveat that an offense capable of scoring runs against elevated post season pitching staffs is needed as well. Clearly, the Yankees have much work to do this offseason as the franchise is at an all time low in terms of failing to win championships as 14 seasons have now passed without a ticker tape parade in Manhattan.
Let’s frame today’s exploration of the path forward for the Yankees pitching staff with a quick glance at this year’s playoff picture. The teams with Baseball’s top seven offenses all made the playoffs this season and all but one, the Rangers (4th), have been eliminated. Meanwhile, Texas’s new darlings are slated to play the Diamondbacks (17th) for baseball’s ultimate crown. How is a team with such a meager offense like the Diamondback’s, who only registered a 98 OPS+ during the regular season this year, still standing? Considering that since 1903, World Series Champions have averaged a 104.2 OPS+, it’s reasonable to think Arizona is quite an anomaly.
Well actually, in 2021, the Braves won it all with a 96 OPS+ regular season offense with one of their best players out for the postseason. Furthermore, the Royals also took the hill in 2015 despite averaging a 98 OPS+ in the regular season and the Giants won in 2010 with an equivalent offense. In all, 37 past champions won with regular season offenses below a 100 OPS+, which makes each of these past winners below average offensive teams.
Unfortunately, the Yankees weren’t just a below average offensive team this past season – they stunk, posting a putrid 91 OPS+. That got me to thinking, has a team ever won with an offense as bad as the Yankees were this season? The answer is a shocking yes. The crown for having he worst regular season ever while still managing a world series goes to the cross town rivals, the ‘69 Miracle Mets, who posted a dreadful 84 OPS+, but surprisingly, six other teams won titles with offenses as bad, or worse, than this year’s Yankees and they all did it with strong pitching.
Can a Team with Below Average Pitching Win it All?
The short answer is yes, it’s remotely possible. It’s been done eight times in the history of MLB. We can actually weed five of these teams out though, because each of them won in part because their pitching got dramatically better in the World Series - than it was in the regular season.
1. Most recently, 2012 Giants won with an ERA+ 5 points below League Average, but their pitching staff was lights out in the World Series, posting a 1.46 ERA, compared to their 3.68 regular season mark - so I’d have to conclude that in the end, the ‘12 Giants won because of vastly improved postseason pitching.
2. The 2006 Cardinals also won with below average regular season pitching but the Cards pitching heated up during the postseason and was actually a big reason they won on ‘06
3. In 1987, the Twins repeated the dubious feat and proved the theory that below average regular season pitching can actually be overcome, as they won the world series that year despite their pitching staff turning in a 99 ERA+, which was two points below the League Average of 101 that season. The Twins ‘97 postseason ERA of 3.75 was a massive +0.87 points better than the staff’s 4.62 regular season mark though, so again, a team with below average regular season pitching performed significantly better in the World Series - mainly because both Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven ate up most of the World Series Innings for the Twins that year, as they edged the Cardinals four games to three.
4. The 2012 Giants won with an ERA+ that was 5 points below League Average, but their pitching staff was lights out in the World Series, posting a 1.46 ERA, compared to their 3.68 regular season mark - so I’d have to conclude that in the end, the ‘12 Giants won because of vastly improved postseason pitching.
5. I had to go all the way back to 1913 to find another example of a team managing to win the World Series despite having below league average pitching. The 1913 Philadelphia A’s managed to win the World Series despite having the second worst regular season pitching in MLB. That was an amazing stat! Their ERA+ that season was an 87, which was 13 points below the League Average of 100. The A’s offense was led by Home Run Baker and Eddie Collins, and they led the league's number one offense that year - in a season that culminated with Series victory of the New York Giants four games to one. However, the A’s clinched the series by winning game five behind staff ace Eddie Plank, 3-1 so obviously their pitching staff was a big reason they won that series so easily, in fact, they posted a 2.15 staff ERA in the World Series that season.
Only Three Teams Have Ever Won Championships with Below Average Pitching
I did find three examples of truly anomalous teams though. Two were very clear-cut and one barely qualifies as an example. The 2017 Astros, the 2014 Giants won with below average regular season pitching that was even worse in the World Series. The other team that we can group with the ‘17 Astros and the ‘14 Giants is the 2011 Cardinals. Let’s look at each example briefly:
6. The 2017 Houston Astros have to be the most glaring example ever of a team who won that shouldn’t have. History says their overall pitching really wasn’t good enough to win a World Series. The Astros had a regular season ERA+ of 99 that season, which was two-points below the league average of 101. What makes the Astros even more of an outlier though, is that in the World Series that year against the Dodgers, the Astros pitching staff had a 4.64 ERA, which was +.052 worse than their season average of 4.12. Obviously this team cheated and its well documented. The Astros truly did steal the World Series, as if they knew which pitches were being thrown ahead of time, by out slugging the Dodgers that season (and the Yankees prior). The ‘17 Astros won despite pitching that wasn’t very good overall.
7. Ironically, only three-years prior, the 2014 Giants, another anomalous team in history, won a world series on the backs of Madison Bumgarner, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval. Their 99 ERA+ during the regular season was also two-points below League Average (101) and during the Series, their staff pitched to a 3.98 ERA which was a half a run worse than their 3.50 Regular season mark. Of course, Bumgarner ate up 21 innings in the hard-fought seven-game classic, pitching to a virtually unhittable 0.43 ERA. Still, the rest of the rotation was pretty putrid overall, but fortunately for the Giants, they had a decent bullpen anchored by Sergio Romo, who was also instrumental in the series win and of course, their offense was able to carry them.
8. The last anomalous team in history was the 2011 Cardinals. The Cards had a regular season ERA+ a mere two points below average and in the World Series, their team ERA was +0.08 higher than their regular season mark - 3.86 to 3.74 so technically, they are only the third team ever to win with below average regular season pitching and World Series pitching that was even worse.
Why Pitching is so Important
Mathematically speaking, a team with below average regular season pitching has only a 6% chance of winning the World Series. Though it can be done, it would pretty much take a near-miracle for a team with below average pitching to win it all. However, this year’s Yankees actually had what was widely considered as the fifth best overall pitching staff in baseball, as they posted a regular season ERA+ of 110. This means that the pitching staff isn’t that far away from being able to steer a championship run, if only the offense could support such an endeavor.
In Order to Turn the Corner this Offseason
If I’m the Yankees this offseason, I would bolster my bullpen a little bit and make it more balanced while also acting to fortify the starting rotation. The concept is known as top grading. Free agency will provide opportunities for the Yankees to bring in some key reinforcements and if the team also spends to dramatically improve the offense, there is a chance that the Yankees could hop right back into next year’s postseason mix. Believe it or not, the Yankees had better overall pitching than both the Orioles (106 ERA+) and the Rays (108 ERA+) this season.
The Backbone of the Plan
As things presently stand, the Yankees rotation is headed by this season’s leading Cy-Young candidate, Gerrit Cole, who went 15-4 with a 2.63 ERA across 209.0 innings with 222 strikeouts in what may have been his best single season yet in his highlight reel of a career. It would be a cryin’ shame if the Yankees wasted prime Cole and Aaron Judge by failing to fill in the gaps in their roster. This year’s Yankees proved that a few star players can’t buoy a team made up mostly of below league average players. Something’s got to give.
Behind Cole in the Yankees rotation, breakout candidate Mike King may slot in as the team’s number two starter but there are significant question marks regarding durability here, which is why I advocate that the Yankees should deploy a six man rotation. King posted a 1.88 ERA as a starter through a mere 8-games at the end of this past season, holding opponents to a .232 Average while striking out 48 batters in his 28.1 inning stint in which he averaged 77 pitches per outing as he built himself up. All in all, it was a pretty fantastic debut and his success as a starter certainly served to highlight both his potential and the Yankees ineptitude at utilizing their roster to its fullest potential.
Assuming the Yankees leadership is bright enough to anoint King as an official member of the rotation, he’s likely a solid middle of the rotation piece going forward, with an even higher ceiling that could even scream, “he’s an ace” at some point in the not too distant future – so why not surround Cole with a couple of other possible aces this offseason?
Every Yankees fan knows that Brian Cashman doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of left handed pitching. Year in and year out he fails to properly balance the rotation and he’s even traded away the likes of Jordan Montgomery recently to make up for the fact that he’s also simultaneously failed to provide the team with a viable center fielder.
Bang for the Buck
Factoring in the $17.7 million cost of the Yankees bullpen this season, which accounts for 6.3 percent of the Yankees overall payroll, Cashman is spending 33.2 percent (92.7 million) of the Yankees payroll on pitching. Glancing around the League, the Yankees spend the 5th most on pitching, trailing only the Rangers, Blue Jays, Astros and Padres. On the surface, the spending seems indicative of a GM committed to building an amazing pitching staff, but not so fast. Let’s peel the onion back a little bit on this subject.
Fangraphs rates the Yankees entire pitching staff 24th in the League having only amassed a cumulative 7.9 fWAR, they calculate that Yankee pitching has performed to an overall value of $69.4 million. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Cashman has spent 92.7 million on pitching, which means that Hal Steinbrenner has overpaid by $23.3 million for the results that Yankee pitching has produced on the mound this season.
Out in the Bullpen, Yankee relievers have performed to the tune of $24.7 million f-Dollars, with Cashman “only” spending $17.7 million on his relief corps. Therefore, the bullpen has more than done their job as they’re overperforming to the tune of $7 million. The real problem for the Yankees has been the starting rotation, the results of which are really a culmination of all the bad moves Cashman has made.
He Who is Highly Coveted
Many pitching starved teams in MLB will be all in on Japanese star righty Yoshinabu Yamamoto this offseason and we can presumably count the Yankees as one of his most interested suitors. Yamamoto has the upside of becoming an Ace at the Major League level. Is he a great fit for the Yankees? I do think he his, but if the Yankees boss, Hal Steinbrenner, is only willing to commit to signing one starter this winter, I think it would be a big mistake.
Enough with the Injuries
What’s really hurt the Yankees rotation is of course injuries, but what has also been a nightmare is the lack of left-handedness. It’s difficult to win with a short porch in right field with a predominantly right-handed group of starting pitchers. The Yankees rotation has posted a 112 ERA Minus, which is an ERA stat adjusted for ballparks where 100 is average and lower than 100 is better. According to ERA Minus, the Yankees have the seventh worst rotation in baseball.
The Yankees pitching staff has allowed the fourth most home runs to left-handed batters in MLB this season. Opposing teams are stacking left-handed hitters in their lineups when visiting Yankee stadium, as it’s been a commonly themed game plan that opposing managers use the Yankees home field advantage against them. The Yankees starters have also given up the fifth most home runs in MLB this year (113) and that’s been a really big problem. The 334 earned runs that Yankees starters have given up ranks 17th in the League as well so it’s not possible to give Brian Cashman high marks for creating a championship caliber starting rotation this season.
Cashman often blames some of the Yankees woes on injuries and with the Yankees key left-handers, Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon missing the bulk of the season, there’s no doubt that Brian Cashman’s reliance on pitchers with injury risks has yet again left the Yankees dead in the water.
The Advantage of Six-Man Rotation
Primarily, my reason I’m advocating that the Yankees sign not one, but two starters is because Brian Cashman has failed miserably for some time now at building a dominant rotation. He’s spent heavily on Cole and Rodon of course, but he’s otherwise pretty much lucked out as the Yankees have benefitted from an out of nowhere performance from Nestor Cortes JR who Cashman was flat out lucky to not have lost for nothing.
Cashman has also sandbagged the Yankees bullpen by forfeiting Trevor Stephan and Garett Whitlock for nothing as well, so I have great trepidation regarding Cashman’s ability to understand that he needs to balance his roster. For a team that plays half its games in Yankee Stadium, there is little to no reason why the Yankees wouldn’t want to field at least three solid left handed starters and also augment their bullpen with lefty relievers to boot.
Therefore, the Yankees really should be all in this winter on Blake Snell and or Jordan Montgomery as well and as the Rangers just demonstrated, despite what Michael Fishman believed(s), ol' Monty is actually a valuable member of any postseason roster and in fact, he pretty much led the Rangers to the World Series this year. Yankees fans should be repulsed by Cashman’s willingness to squander a viable lefty starter simply because his analytics team, composed of i-pad wielding non-baseball player types and headed by Fishman - who has actually only ever been a Fantasy Baseball fanatic - didn’t believe in Jordan Montgomery.
Some here supported Monty being traded away for the often injured Harrison Bader and the point of this article is not to further crucify Cashman and his overreliance on analytics while ignoring the viewpoints of actual baseball people. What’s done is done, but one thing is clear, the Yankees ought to go all in on both Monty and Snell, while at the same time, they should also sign Yamamoto as well.
Assuming two of the three can be landed, which is a herculean ask of Cashman, the Yankees could then roll with a six man rotation which could limit some usage on Cole’s right arm while also protecting the unproven King and likewise providing insurance on the regressing and often injured Rodon and Cortes.
Snell, Monty or Both?
One glance at Snell’s StatCast sheet is all I need to justify this opinion, but StatCast aside, there are a lot of other reasons to prefer the 31-year-old Snell and his well balanced 4-pitch mix (4-seam fastball, curve, change up, slider). Personally I think Snell is a better fit for the Yankees than Monty is, even though his walk rate of 13.3 percent places him in the bottom fourth percentile in the game. His Strikeout rate of 31.5 percent, which is in the top 8 percent in Baseball, more than makes up for his lack of control anomaly in his otherwise eye popping stats. In fact, I think Snell is simply a pitcher who doesn’t give in - he’s willing to walk a few extra batters here and there and it’s not like opposing lineups have shown the slightest ability to make him pay for his penchant of not giving in.
Snell’s .266 wOBA against was also in the top nine percent of the League, though he’s due for a little regression there as is xwOBA was a still very acceptable .300 which is a number that I’m pretty certain the Yankees could happily accept. Snell is a nasty lefty strikeout artist and he’s a true top of the rotation starter, one who any team would happily hand the ball to for multiple, high leverage postseason starts. He’s also pretty darn durable these days, after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow back in 2019.
With my opining for Snell now complete, I could happily live with the Yankees fishing nets hauling in both Monty and Yamamoto this offseason as I’ve been a fan of Monty’s since he came up. He’s kind of the opposite of Snell, he doesn’t walk a lot of batters (6.2 percent Walk Rate) and also doesn’t strike out many either (21.4 percent Strikeout Rate). Ultimately, Monty keeps the ball down with his pitch mix (sinker, change up, curve, 4-seam fastball and cutter) and I actually think he’s shown more confidence in his fastball this postseason, the results of which speak for themself.
Snell is probably the nastier of the two pitchers but neither is a comfortable lefty for opposing hitters to deal with and both would be welcome additions to the Yankees rotation. In fact, if Yamamoto winds up signing elsewhere for some unthinkable reason, the Yankees should look to secure both Snell and Monty and doing so would be an easy sell for the fan base.
Let’s therefore imagine a starting rotation with Cole, two of Yamamoto, Snell or Monty, King, Cortes and Rodon. That’s a rotation Yankees fans could get behind and if the Yankees could wrap this up this winter, the Yankees are very likely a few hitters and few rookie breakouts away from a potential championship.
Without a sure-fire closer, the Yankees bullpen doesn’t seem like one that could deliver a World Series title. However, the side benefit to signing some key free agent starts is that doing this would provide the Yankees with some marketable trade chips – think of doing this as addition through subtraction actually.
Clarke Schmidt and his 5-years of remaining team control would likely net the Yankees a good closer via a trade. Baseball Trade Values pegs Schmidty as possessing an $18.4 MTV and the Pirates happen to be starved for controllable starting pitchers. Perhaps the Yankees line up in a trade for their lights-out closer David Bednar ($27.5 MTV), who’s trade value would necessitate the Yankees kicking in more than just Schmidt if any deal were to happen.
Perhaps the Yankees would also agree to kick in Oswald Peraze, whose trade value has plummeted since last offseason and is currently listed at $9.6 million. A classic two-for-one trade like this might actually make sense for the Pirates.
With Bednar secured as a legitimate closer, the Yankees could focus on getting more left-handed through free agency and a number of other relievers are out there who make sense. If Cashman were permitted to do so by his fiscally cautious boss who absolutely ought to mandate that he increase bullpen spending this season to at least match the bullpen spending of other 2023 contenders, the Yankees could bring in several quality relievers, starting with lefty closer Josh Hader. Re-upping with Wandy Peralta also makes sense and targeting Mat Moore, Brent Suter or even reuniting with high leverage righty David Robertson might help make the bullpen more World Series worthy.
Upgrading the bullpen gives the Yankees a number of other potential trade chips of course and the addition through subtraction effect might really move the needle for the bottom feeding Yankees.