Mailbag: Can the 2011 starting rotation be better than 2010′s?By
Tarik asks: Assuming Pettitte returns, and doing nothing else, couldn’t the Yankees rotation be better than it was last year? I mean, AJ couldn’t possibly be as bad as he was and Nova could very likely turn in a performance better than Vazquez.
I think it’s a long shot that Pettitte will return, probably something like 75-25 in favor of retirement, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that he will in fact return for the 2011 season. That would make the Opening Day rotation CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova. Order isn’t important in this exercise.
Sabathia will again be the ace and there’s very little reason to expect him to not be awesome. Sure, he had minor knee surgery, but he’s also losing weight to alleviate some of the negative impact. Last season’s peripheral stats (7.46 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 0.76 HR/9) were actually his worst since 2005, when he posted a 3.69 FIP (3.54 in 2010). He did make up for it with a 50.7% ground ball rate, and hopefully new pitching coach Larry Rothschild will help bump his strikeout rate up a notch. CC was a 5.1 fWAR pitcher in 2010, and I would expect him to be a five win guy again next year.
Unlike Sabathia, Hughes is (theoretically) on the upswing of his career and it’s reasonable to expect improvement. The two parts of his game he needs to improve the most are his homer rate and overall efficiency. As Joe explained last month, the vast majority of the homer issues came during an eight game stretch in the middle of the season; 48% of the homers he allowed came in just 27% of his starts. Furthermore, 80% of them came at home. That’s not to say Hughes will all of a sudden stop surrendering homers, but there’s reason to expect some improvement.
As for the efficiency thing, his 4.12 pitchers per batter faced in 2010 was tied for the most in baseball with Max Scherzer. It’s impossible to say what becoming more pitch efficient will do for a Hughes’ overall performance, but it could just as easily be bad as it could be good. For our purposes, let’s assume it does nothing. After a 2.4 fWAR season in 2010, Hughes should be able to best that by even a small margin going forward. The one thing that could derail him is injury after a career high workload, so let’s be conservative and call Phil a two win pitcher next year.
Burnett’s a complete enigma, but he was so bad last year (1.3 fWAR) that he almost can’t help get better. His 4.83 FIP was a career worst by a considerable margin, but I would be shocked if he pitches to his 3.93 career FIP next year. Let’s split the difference and call it a 4.38 FIP in 2011, which is still worse than his 2009 effort. That FIP spread across 180 innings will give you 2.4 fWAR according to Sky Kalkman’s WAR calculator, but again let’s be conservative and call it an even two wins.
Things get tricky with Pettitte because he’s older and therefore injury prone, as we saw in 2010. Although he was pretty awesome most of the year, his 3.85 FIP was right in line with what he did in both 2007 and 2008, so it wasn’t an out-of-this-world good performance. Let’s say he tails off a bit and pitches to a 4.15 FIP like he did in 2009, and makes it to the hill for 120 innings. That works out to 1.9 fWAR, but let’s give him the benefit of doubt and again call it an even two wins. Someone will have to fill while Pettitte is on the theoretical disabled list, but let’s just say that whoever takes his spot ends up being is exactly replacement level and adds zero wins to the tally.
We don’t know what to expect out of Nova next year because he’s so young and these guys can be so unpredictable, but I can’t imagine he’ll repeat Javy Vazquez‘s -0.2 fWAR performance. If he does pitch that poorly, the Yanks will simply send him back to the minors and call up Hector Noesi or David Phelps or whoever. Let’s say Nova or the other fifth starter dreck pitches to a 5.00 FIP in 180 innings, or 1.2 fWAR.
Check out the table to the right for the final tally. Surprisingly, the 2011 rotation ain’t half bad compared to the 2010 outfit based on my admittedly half-assed projections. Basically all of the improvement is tied to getting Javy out of there and replacing him with even a below average starter, but a slight rebound from Burnett helps as well. If the Yankees fill in Pettitte’s missing innings with someone better than a replacement level starter, the 2011 staff will only get better.
Now this is where I explain that this is an extremely simplistic and incredibly unscientific look at things, so don’t take it to heart. I repeat, this is an extremely simplistic and incredibly unscientific look at things, so don’t take it to heart. I just did it for fun more than anything because I thought the mailbag question was interesting. I obviously didn’t account for the starts that Sergio Mitre (0.0 fWAR) or Dustin Moseley (-0.4 fWAR) made in 2010, and we can’t ignore that there’s a decent chance of getting less than 120 innings from Andy and also Hughes as well. The Yankees should absolutely go out an get some kind of starter between now and the start of Spring Training, but maybe the concerns about their rotation are being overblown. Crazy, I know.