Contrary to what we thought and saw earlier in the season, the Yankees pitching staff has held its own in the first half. Even with an injury to one of the expected starters they’ve pulled through and currently have one of the better staffs in the league. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the starters as a unit stand among their peers.
(Just to be clear, the last two are innings pitched per game by the starter, and WAR per 81 games. I did these because the Yankees have played fewer games than most other teams due to rain outs.)
These might not be standout numbers, but they’re very good nonetheless. Most surprising is the high innings pitch per games started. At the start of the season, even after the first turn through, it seemed that Girardi wielded a hasty hook at six innings. But lately he’s been more hands off, and it has allowed the starters to go deeper into games. Since I’m fond of the adage that the best bullpen consists of a strong starting staff, this comes as a pleasant development. But what has worked in the first half might not work as well in the second. Let’s take a look at one primary, and probably unchanging, reason why the staff has succeeded, and then look at ways they can continue their success in the second half.
Pitching + Fielding = Defense
The recent rise of, and interest in, defensive statistics comes from our understanding that the pitcher does not control everything that happens when a team is on defense. A defense consists of the pitcher and the fielders behind him, and those fielders can make a huge difference in how many runs a team prevents. By most measures the Yankees defense has performed superbly behind its pitchers this year. UZR actually ranks them the best at 7.5 UZR/150. This comes mostly from the outfield, which dominates with 21.9 UZR and 13.6 UZR/150, both well ahead of the rest of the league. The Yankees also rate well in turning batted balls into outs. They rank ninth in the league in defensive efficiency.
Defense, like hitting, can go into streaks and slumps, so we don’t know yet if the Yankees were abnormally good in the first half. But it does appear that they are solid fielders. A-Rod appears rejuvenated at third base, and while he’ll miss a month Eduardo Nunez, if he can throw the ball, will be an adequate replacement. Nick Swisher, the weakest link among the outfielders, has shown a deftness absent from his game in 2009 and 2010. Russell Martin continues to wow behind the plate, and there is always Robinson Cano, who, by the eye tests as well as the stats, had a below expectations first half. If the Yankees can maintain their solid fielding, they will make life a lot easier for the pitching staff. That helps solve problems right off the bat.
How far can the current staff go?
Few, if any, people thought Freddy Garcia would still be on the roster today, never mind have the second lowest ERA among starters. Bartolo Colon furthers our surprise with every outing. Even A.J. Burnett has been pleasant to watch, at least compared to 2010. Yet even though the staff has experienced much success in the first half, it’s hard to shed the feeling that they’re due for regression in the second half. Maybe Garcia and Colon cruised through the first half, but what are the chances they continue that?
The Yankees have options, both internal and external, to help shore up the staff. It might not appear necessary right at this moment, but as we’ve seen so many times, what they have now is not necessarily what they’ll have in August, never mind October. In 2009 they had four strong starters at this point, but then Joba Chamberlain fell apart. Last year people suggested that since the Yankees had five quality starters that they did not need Cliff Lee. Yet by August Javier Vazquez had declined significantly, while Phil Hughes struggled, Andy Pettitte got hurt, and A.J. Burnett continued his plod through the season. The Yankees would be fools to nix a deal because they think Garcia and Colon will hold up for the next three and a half months.
The Yankees do have a number of arms they can call on, but none of them provides any semblance of security. Ivan Nova will be the first called up, but he had his ups and downs in the first half. He can capably fill the back end of the rotation, but the Yankees can’t expect much more from him. Beyond that they have Hector Noesi, who, like Phil Hughes before him, appears bound to the bullpen for the season. You can add in Adam Warren to that list, since they’re similar pitchers in terms of ceiling. David Phelps is another option, though he’s a bit less exciting then even the other three. Chances are the Yankees won’t need to look any deeper than these four if they seek internal help.
The problem is that these are all guys who would fill the four and five spots in the rotation, if they were to succeed at all. But if something happens with Garcia or Colon, the Yankees will need more than that. They’ve both pitched like No. 2 or No. 3 starters so far, at least in terms of results. If one or both of them declines in performance in the second half, the Yankees will be in a bind. They can replace from within, but then they risk having an ace followed by a bunch of four and five starters (since we can’t expect much more from Hughes). The internal options just won’t give the Yankees anywhere near the performance they realized earlier in the year from Garcia and Colon.
There are higher end arms in AA, but it’s clear that the Yankees don’t plan to bring them up. As Mark Newman said, they’re in AA because the team can control their workload. They’re still both working on their first full, 140-inning seasons, and so likely will remain in the minors all season. It might be upsetting to see these high ceiling guys in the minors when the majors could use help, but they’re still young and developing, each entering the season with roughly 200 innings of professional experience. They’ll be up in due time, but it appears that they’ll finish out the year at AA.
Here’s where things get tricky. We’ve looked at tons of starting pitchers that the Yankees could target in the next few weeks, but that does not mean they will become available. But there certainly will be something available, and likely something that the Yankees can viably use in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot. Whether that’s a potential ace, such as Ubaldo Jimenez, or a 2/3 type such as Ryan Dempster or Hiroki Kuroda (or a mystery pitcher I’ll be writing up shortly after the break). Make no mistake, though: the search for a top of the rotation starter will loom large in the coming weeks.
If the Yankees want to finish the season strong and enter October with a formidable staff, I’d consider the trade route a necessity. I’m all for giving the youngsters a shot, but given the Yankees needs they’d be simply seeking lightning in a bottle. That doesn’t always happen. None of the four prospects mentioned above has a ceiling above that of a No. 4, or maybe a No. 3 at absolute best. But the Yankees need something better. Not only that, they need someone proven. That means trading for a higher end starter. That will necessarily hurt, as proven No. 2 starters don’t come cheap. It could mean the loss of Betances, Banuelos, or Jesus Montero. But unless the Yankees want to continue pressing their luck and going with Sabathia and a group of unknowns and unreliables, they’ll have to look outside the organization for help.
Such is the balance of winning now and winning in the future. If the Yankees were trailing the Red Sox significantly and were battling for the Wild Card, they might not be able to justify sending top prospects in hopes that another starter could boost their chances. But with only a game separating them from the Red Sox, and with a five game lead on the Wild Card, they owe it to the organization and fans to go for it. We might not like the cost, but it’s all part of the game the Yankees play.