It wasn’t always like this. Earlier in the year it appeared that the Yankees had their strongest rotation in years, even with Javy Vazquez’s troubled start. But then things started falling apart. A.J. Burnett pitched five times in June and allowed more runs, 29, than innings pitched, 23. The league got a grip on Phil Hughes’s fastball. The situation got better as Javy Vazquez started pitching well, but then they got worse when he fell apart. Andy Pettitte getting hurt was just the last act in a complete rotation downturn.
The situation has improved lately, but the Yankees still have questions about all of their starters after CC Sabathia. Andy Pettitte helped ease some of those issues with a solid start on Sunday, and Phil Hughes continues to battle through starts even when his stuff or his command isn’t the sharpest. A.J. Burnett, too, has shown improvement of late. He might have shown even more improvement, too, if not for rain delays that shortened a couple of his recent starts. But as of now it appears that Sabathia and Pettitte are the clear choices to start Games 1 and 2.
Except that’s not what the Yankees are thinking. During interviews yesterday Girardi expressed a desire to repeat the 2009 playoff rotation, with Sabathia at the head and Burnett following him. The idea, I assume, is to break up the lefties. But given the composition of the rotation, that doesn’t seem like a great idea. If the Yankees want their best pitchers making the most appearances, they’ll ditch the idea of separating pitchers by handedness and just go with their best pitchers.
Sabathia and Pettitte, though they throw with the same hand, are not similar pitchers. This should make enough of a difference that their handedness should not matter. Put another way, what is more important: a theoretical advantage in splitting up starters, or a real advantage in having your best two pitchers not only throw the first two games, but also potential key games later in the series? With the way the ALDS is laid out, the Yankees could start Sabathia on short rest in Game 4 and go back to Pettitte on normal rest in a potential Game 5.
The second strange aspect of Girardi’s and Eiland’s desire to have Burnett start Game 2 is his potential for a blow-up. Moshe covered this topic earlier in the week. Why would the Yankees put themselves in a position where they might lose a game because their starter gives up five runs in the first? If the Yankees cannot be talked out of splitting up their lefties, it should be Hughes, and not Burnett, who gets the ball in Game 2. Hughes has had his struggles, but he has also shown the ability to battle through a lineup and keep his team in the game for five or six innings.
Starting with Sabathia and Pettitte also helps the Yankees remain flexible. If they head into Game 4 up two games to one, they can use either Hughes or Burnett, whoever didn’t start Game 3, and hold Sabathia for a potential Game 5. If they’re down two games to one they can throw Sabathia on short rest and still have Pettitte for Game 5. If they use Burnett in Game 2 then they’re basically committing to stick with Sabathia in a potential Game 5. Using Sabathia on three days’ rest might not seem ideal, but it might be a necessary tactic if the Yankees face elimination. Having him backed up by Pettitte in the final game makes the decision a bit easier.
I’m not aware of a study that examines the effects of starting back-to-back left-handers, but intuitively it doesn’t seem like a bad idea. It doesn’t sound right that hitters would somehow fare better against the second lefty just because they faced a pitcher of the same handedness in the previous game. I hope the Yankees don’t fall victim to the traditional thinking. They have two pitchers who have stood out for them. They should get the ball to start each series. It gives the team the best chance to win.