For the first four or five months of the season, the pitching staff carried the Yankees. The offense was nonexistent and the guys on the mound had to do all the heavy lifting. That same pitching staff has faltered in recent weeks — Chad Jennings did a great job breaking down the rotation’s recent performance yesterday — perhaps because they’re running out of gas after having so little margin for error earlier in the year. I imagine having to throw something close to a shutout every five days can wear on a pitcher.
The Yankees did not acquire a starter at the trade deadline — they did try to acquire Dan Haren last weekend, but to no avail — so they have had to improvise down the stretch. Since CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte are locked into starting spots no matter what and Ivan Nova pitched more than well enough in July and August to remain in the rotation, Phil Hughes was the odd man out. And deservedly so, he’s been terrible all year.
Unfortunately, the alternatives weren’t all that great. David Phelps (forearm), Vidal Nuno (groin), and Michael Pineda (shoulder) were all hurt, leaving David Huff as the only option. He pitched well in a handful of long relief appearances against last place teams but got destroyed by the Red Sox in his only start, so the Yankees opted to put Hughes back in the rotation with a twist — he and Huff would work in tandem. We saw it against the Orioles last week and Joe Girardi indicated over the weekend the tandem would remain intact.
The whole idea of a tandem starter system is to limit each guy’s exposure. The Yankees are cool with Hughes and Huff going through the lineup once (or once and a half), but the second and third times through are a concern. This calls for some obligatory stats, so here is what Hughes has done each time through the order:
|1st PA in G, as SP||130||1168||107||268||64||6||27||89||250||2.81||.254||.312||.402||.305||92|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||128||1116||144||270||53||3||44||83||204||2.46||.269||.329||.459||.294||110|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||119||765||116||196||41||1||38||54||124||2.30||.282||.334||.507||.292||123|
|4th+ PA in G, as SP||22||37||0||5||0||0||0||0||4||.135||.135||.135||.152||-26|
Now here is what Huff has done each time through the order:
|1st PA in G, as SP||53||481||52||125||24||2||16||38||57||1.50||.287||.342||.462||.297||93|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||53||465||69||128||38||6||10||32||57||1.78||.303||.354||.492||.328||103|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||48||314||55||91||29||0||15||22||35||1.59||.314||.364||.569||.317||122|
|4th+ PA in G, as SP||7||20||3||5||0||0||2||4||2||0.50||.313||.450||.688||.250||171|
This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison statistically. Going through the lineup the first time as a starter is different than doing it as a tandem starter. As a starter, you need to hold something back — usually the pitcher’s third pitch — to get through the lineup the second and third time. As a tandem starter, you can go all-out right out of the chute. There’s no reason to hold anything back because the other guy is coming out of the bullpen in an inning or two. It’s more of a reliever mentality and that would improve a guy’s performance, at least in theory.
The tandem starter idea sounds great on paper but it’s difficult to pull off most of the season because roster spots are limited. Using two pitchers to fill one rotation spot means either the bullpen or bench is going to be short. That isn’t an issue for the Yankees now because rosters are expanded, so Hughes and Huff can tag-team the fifth starter’s spot without leaving any other part of the team shorthanded. Girardi used each guy for three innings in Baltimore last week and the result was six combined innings of two-run ball, better than anything either Hughes or Huff could do on their own.
Now, the danger of using a tandem starter system is that you may be replacing an effective pitcher with an ineffective pitcher for no good reason. Who knows, maybe Hughes would have fired off five more scoreless innings had he stayed in the game against the Orioles. The more relievers you use in a game, the more likely you are to run into someone who just doesn’t have it that day, and that could be very costly. Same thing with the tandem starter system; the guy coming out of the ‘pen might be less effective than the guy who just left the game. That’s the risk.
Even though the Yankees were off yesterday and are off again next Monday, they can’t use the schedule to skip the Hughes/Huff rotation spot. If they could, I’m sure they would. The best they can do is push it back a day or two, but at this point they’re better off keeping everyone on turn to give the three veteran guys get an extra day of rest late in the season. By themselves, Hughes and Huff are obviously below-average big league starters. When smushed together in tandem system, they might actually be pretty good because they won’t have to go through a lineup multiple times. Considering the alternatives, it’s the best option the Yankees have.