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Will The Yankees Pitchers Take Them Deep Into October?

Aside from the unusual amount of injuries that the Yankees have faced in 2019, questions about the starting rotation have taken a stronghold on the season’s narrative. Yankee starters have posted a 4.71 ERA this season which places them 18th in the Majors. The 2019 staff has also posted a FIP of 4.98 which is an abysmal 24th. Heading into the home stretch of the season, let’s look at what has happened to the Yankee staff so far.

To start, ace Luis Severino hasn’t thrown a pitch this season. Domingo German has found life, and is a potential twenty game-winner, but don’t be fooled by the win column: German has won those 17 games with a 4.01 ERA and a 4.78 FIP. Masahiro Tanaka has been brilliant in some games and hard to watch in others. James Paxton has pitched better as of late, but struggles in the first inning and is not pitching the way that the Yankees hoped he would. J.A. Happ is having one of the worst years of his career, and of course, CC Sabathia has struggled with knee pain all season and may not throw another Major League pitch before his retirement. To add insult to injury, Brian Cashman was unable to bring in another starter before the July 31st trade deadline.

How could such an embattled rotation possibly carry the Yankees to a pennant and eventually a World Series victory? Does the rotation need to perform better than they have this season in order make a deep playoff run?

To answer this question, we must first examine how this year’s Yankee pitching stacks up against previous World Series winners. Let’s start in 2009 with the last time the Yankees won the World Series.

In that year, with a pitching staff anchored by then 29-year-old CC Sabathia, the Yankee starter ERA and FIP were 4.06 and 4.34 respectively. In terms of WAR, the 2009 Yankees posted a team pitching WAR of 14.4 which placed them ninth among all Major League teams. This year, for comparison, the Yankee rotation has merely earned a WAR of 8.6. For fans, this should certainly set off some red flags. However, baseball has changed significantly over the past ten years.

Starting pitchers are simply losing their share of innings. For example, Joe Girardi’s 2009 Yankee starting rotation took up 64% of the inning share. This season, Aaron Boone’s Yankee starting rotation is down 8% from that 2009 mark to 56%. That’s an average of about 117 fewer innings pitched per year over the course of ten years. If you go back twenty years to Joe Torre’s 1999 World Series champion Yankees, the starters pitched a whopping 70% of the team’s innings that season. So, over the course of twenty years, starting pitchers have lost about 102 innings pitched per year or about a 7% decrease per year.

As those trends have taken shape across Major League Baseball over the previous two decades, bullpen WAR for most teams has gone up and starter WAR has gone down. Thus, overall team pitching WAR has remained relatively constant over that time period.

In fact, the Yankees have a higher pitching WAR this season than they did at the end of 2009. That is, in large part, due to the likes of Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman. The Yankee bullpen leads the Majors in WAR this season with a mark of 6.9. Overall, the entire staff has posted a 15.4 WAR which is good for ninth in the MLB.

Back in 2009, the Yankee staff was ranked 5th with a 14.4 overall pitching WAR. Since then, only two World Series-winning teams–the 2010 Giants and the 2016 Cubs–have ranked better in team pitching WAR. Five of the nine World Series champions after 2009 have been ranked 14th or worse in team pitching WAR, with four of nine also posting a worse team pitching WAR than the 2009 Yankees. In fact, the 2014 Giants were 26th in the Majors in WAR with an abysmal mark of 9.4.

How important is pitching when making a World Series run? The data from the previous ten years is unclear. Digging deeper into history doesn’t remedy the issue because, as previously noted, pitching has changed so much over the previous ten seasons. WAR is also an imperfect statistic and becomes less reliable as one back-tracks through the annals of baseball history.

If anything, the course of recent history in Major League Baseball proves that Yankee pitching is good enough to win it all. The question remains, though, at what point will the bullpen be too overworked to be as effective as it has been? Aaron Boone is blessed with a deep bullpen that allows him to give all of his stars sufficient rest on a consistent basis. The return of Dellin Betances will take even more pressure off of Ottavino, Britton, Kahnle, and Chapman, while the return of Severino may take the weight off the shoulders of the back end of the starting rotation that has struggled. In all, the Yankees are good enough to win their 28th World Series this fall, they just need to rise to the occasion come October.

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