First Half Review: Starting PitchersBy
At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. First up: starting pitching.
The Yankees went into the 2008-2009 off-season focussed on adding a couple of starters. They got their guys in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. After protracted negotiations they also brought back Andy Pettitte to anchor the back end of the rotation. Sabathia, Burnett, Wang, Pettitte, and Chamberlain looked as formidable as any rotation in the AL heading into the season. Plus, Phil Hughes waited in the wings as a viable backup plan. Fans could justifiably expect big things from these guys.
The staff wasn’t quite as dominant as we’d hoped, with each starter hitting a rocky path with varying degrees of severity. It led to some ugly results. The Yankees starters have combined for a 4.76 ERA through 88 games, which ranks 12th in the AL, besting only Baltimore and Cleveland. They’ve averaged under six innings per start, which is bad, and lead the AL in walks, which is really bad. It’s safe to say that the rotation has not lived up to expectations so far.
Part of that rests on the shoulders of Chien-Ming Wang, whose first three starts were so historically bad that they skew the numbers of the staff overall. I won’t remove them here, since they did happen. Still, even if we did remove them, the Yanks would still be at or near the top of the league in walks, and still probably wouldn’t be at six innings per start. Wang’s ineffectiveness is no excuse for the whole staff.
There were some bright spots, of course, so we’ll hand out props and boos to each individual starter.
Signed as the ace, CC has mostly lived up to expectations. He got off to a rocky start, as seems to be his calling card. He did manage one gem among his April starts, but that was against the pathetic Kansas City Royals. He found his mojo in May, though, coinciding with the return of A-Rod. Since then he’s 7-3 with a 3.43 ERA, throwing 65 percent of his pitches for strikes and holding opposing hitters to a .218 batting average. If he keeps that up through the second half — and over his career this seems to be the case — he’ll continue to be the workhorse ace the Yankees signed him as.
A.J. had his peaks and valleys early on, leading many to continue questioning the signing. Fans were especially vocal after he blew a game against the Red Sox in which the Yanks got out to an early lead against Josh Beckett. A.J. fanned the flames again when he couldn’t get out of the third inning in the repeat trip to Fenway. Since then, Burnett has been the best starter on the staff, going 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA in five starts. This is the Burnett the Yankees signed. Like Sabathia, Burnett has historically had slightly better second half numbers than first half. If he sticks to the trend, the Yanks will be set atop the rotation.
It was tough to gauge how effective Chien-Ming Wang would be after suffering a lisfranc injury last June. He seemed fine, but not great, in Spring Training, leaving few worries as the season opened. But then he sputtered in his first start, surrendering seven runs to the Orioles. His next start was so short that the Yankees called on Nick Swisher to pitch an inning when the game was far out of hand. His third start led to the worst drubbing of the year. The Yankees then placed him on the DL, giving him a chance to recover more fully from his injury. Then they rushed him back, and had to put him in the rotation at the expense of Phil Hughes, who had just started to pitch well in that spot.
Wang currently resides on the 15-day DL with a shoulder strain, and the severity of the injury is unclear. He’ll work his way back, but it’s tough for any Yankees fans to have faith in Wanger this year. He’ll have to earn back trust not only from the fans — which is mostly meaningless — but of the front office and coaching staff.
Heading into the season, Pettitte was viewed as the team’s fifth best starter. To this point, he’s mostly pitched like it. He’s had his good starts, and on those days it’s easy to forget his bad starts. But when he’s bad, he takes the team out of the game. Andy likes to blame the new Yankee Stadium for his woes, but his last clunker was on the road. Pettitte is another guy who has historically been better in the second half, but at age 37 one has to wonder whether he can continue that trend this year.
Yet another Yankee with ups and downs. He got lucky in some of his earlier starts, as he kept the team in the game while not throwing enough innings, not throwing enough strikes, and not throwing his pitches with the conviction we’ve seen in the past. He’s had starts that make us remember how he pitched as a starter last year, ramping up his fastball to that familiar 97 range, but for most of his starts he’s sat much slower on the gun. He’s turned himself into essentially a two-pitch pitcher, throwing either a fastball or a slider 87 percent of the time. He’ll need to work in his curveball and changeup more often to find success. Thankfully, even though he was bombed last time out, his fastball was up in the 94 mph range, which is probably where it should be as a starter.
In the second inning of Phil Hughes’s start against Baltimore on May 8, fans hung their heads and groaned, “not this again!” Hughes looked like he did last year, having trouble finding the plate and giving up hit after hit. He struggled through his next few starts before shutting down Texas for eight innings. It looked like he was finding his way, but after a rough subsequent outing against Cleveland the Yankees moved Hughes to the bullpen in favor of Chien-Ming Wang. He’s been lights out since the transition, which is a good sign, but it appears he’ll stay there for now even though the Yankees need another starter. We can only hope Hughes has learned a thing or two out there and that he’ll put it to work when he returns to the rotation next year (though hopefully this year).
Expectations for the second half
With so many pitchers on the staff who have historically pitched better in the second half, it’s tough to not have heightened expectations — especially considering how mediocre they were as a staff in the first half. They might not live up to those expectations, but we’re right to have them. The Yankees rotation has not been as good as advertised, and they’ll absolutely need to be in the second half if the team is to retake the division.