It is kind of incredible how good the Yankees rotation has been despite a laundry list of injuries (spoiler alert: three of the starting pitchers discussed below are or were on the disabled list) and the usual off-season/pre-season question marks. They rank:
- 5th in GB%
- 5th in soft contact percentage
- 6th in fWAR
- 6th in park-adjusted FIP
- 11th in K%
- 12th in BB%
- 12th in park-adjusted ERA
It’s not an elite group, to be sure – but it’s nonetheless a strength when a pitching staff is average across the board. And it’s especially nice to see for a team that purportedly tried and failed to improve throughout the off-season, and remains ever-vigilant as the trade deadline approaches.
Let’s take a look at how the individual parts measure-up.
Midseason Grade: D
It would be easy to look at German’s numbers as a starter and settle on an ‘F’ for his grade. There are several ugly peripherals in those 63.1 IP, including a 5.97 ERA (6th worst among starters with at least 60 IP), 4.58 FIP, and 1.71 HR/9, and he has failed to make it out of the fifth in three of his last four starts. That’s not great, Bob.
But we’re grading relative to expectations here, and I don’t think the expectations for the team’s 6th or 7th starter were all that high. Moreover, there are a lot of positives hidden in German’s season, too. His 26.6% strikeout rate is well above-average, his 8.4% walk rate is right around average, and his 41.7% groundball rate is right there, too. He’s also authored five quality starts (in twelve chances), and had another two that were just shy of that not-so-lofty standard.
Does that make up for his five starts that ranged from “bad” to “awful?” Not at all. But I do think that the combination of his slot on the depth chart, strong peripherals, and fifty-fifty shot of giving the team an adequate outing brings him above the standard of a failure.
Going forward, there are two things to pay attention to with German. The first is simple: his velocity.
He has lost about 2 MPH off of his fastball from the beginning of the season, which isn’t too shocking as he spent the first month in the bullpen. At the same time, though, he’s lost just over 1 MPH since he first joined the rotation on May 6 – and fastball velocity tends to increase as the season goes on and the weather warms up. It’s not necessarily a concern at this point, but it’s there.
The other is German’s pitch use in general. Fastballs (his four-seamer and sinker) represented 40.6% of his offerings in May, 47.6% in June, and 55.9% so far in July. With his velocity backing up a bit and three of his last four starts being bad, German’s pitch selection may well be an issue.
Midseason Grade: F
I was excited when the Yankees swung their deal for Gray last July, as a long-term believer in his approach, stuff, and resume. And I was certain that he was going to come into 2018 looking more like the pitcher that they dealt for (that is, the guy we saw with the A’s in the first-half) than the nibbler that the Yankees received. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, and Gray is sitting on a 5.46 ERA (88th out of 92 pitchers with 90-plus IP).
There really isn’t a positive way to spin Gray’s season to-date, either. He has seven quality starts in eighteen outings, and has failed to make it out of the fifth seven times. He’s allowed four-plus runs eight times, and he’s just barely averaging 5 IP per start – both of which make him a larger drain on the bullpen than the other starters. Gray may not be the worst starter in the league right now, but he’s fairly close when you focus on pitchers who have been in the rotation the entire season.
If I had to hazard a guess at the cause of this, I would focus on his pitch selection. Or, perhaps more accurately, the anti-fastball approach of the Yankees in general.
Gray is throwing fewer four-seamers than ever before, and more curves and sliders. From 2014 through 2017, he averaged about 35% four-seamers and 30% breaking balls; in 2018, those numbers are 26.7% and 39%, respectively. That’s a fairly drastic change of approach, and that sequencing could undoubtedly cause issues.
At least he ended the first-half on a high note.
Midseason Grade: Incomplete
Loaisiga is one of the better stories of the Yankees season, having made his way back from multiple injuries to dominate four levels of the minors between 2017 and 2018, and making the jump from Double-A to the majors in mid-June. He has alternated good starts with bad so far, but the sum of his parts has been fantastic – he has a 28.4% strikeout rate, 60.0% groundball rate, 3.00 ERA, and 2.87 FIP. It’s only eighteen innings, but it’s encouraging. And, when you see the way his pitches move, it’s not surprising that folk haven’t been able to hit him with authority just yet. Just look at that change-up:
FILTHY 89mph Changeup from Jonathan Loaisiga.
This guy is nasty. pic.twitter.com/QyN4WcIY3I
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) June 15, 2018
That’s a thing of beauty, isn’t it?
It was short-lived, though, as he had to have a cortisone shot in his shoulder, and is currently shut-down. We knew that he was on some manner of innings limit, considering that he didn’t pitch at all in 2014 or 2015 due to injuries, and tossed a combined 35.0 IP between 2016 and 2017 around Tommy John surgery – but seeing him go down with shoulder inflammation isn’t what you want.
Midseason Grade: Incomplete
The Yankees were only able to enjoy six starts from Montgomery this year, as the 25-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery in June. Those six starts were 27.1 innings of 3.62 ERA ball, which is quite good … but that’s all that they’ll get from him until sometime next Summer.
If you’re looking for some semblance of a silver lining here, it is worth noting that Montgomery had no prior injury history of note, and they didn’t play the waiting game with rest and rehabilitation. Surgery isn’t great, to be sure, but if it’s a necessity, sooner is better than later.
Midseason Grade: A
Is an ‘A’ somewhat aggressive here? Maybe. But it’s difficult to be anything other than impressed by how successful Sabathia’s reinvention has been. His 3.51 ERA is his lowest since 2012, and he has held the opposition to three or fewer runs in 66% of his starts. With the exception of Luis Severino, no Yankees starter has kept the team in a better position to win than Sabathia.
Are there issues with Sabathia’s season? Sure. He spent two weeks on the disabled list in April, and he’s routinely shelled when he has to turn the lineup over for a third time (when opposing batters hit .359/.404/.644) – but his overall numbers speak for themselves. As does his pitch selection:
Sabathia has all but eliminated his four-seamer at this point in his career, and he’s also throwing his sinker far less often this season. As per Brooks Baseball, there have been eleven starts in which Sabathia hasn’t used a single four-seamer, including his last four outings. Cutters and sliders make up more than 70% of his offerings, and that mix was worked wonders thus far.
The All-Star break was well-timed for the soon to be 38-year-old, as he has scuffled in his last two starts. He’ll have nine days of rest by the time he gets the call, and he has thrived on extra rest this year, posting a 1.59 ERA in his six starts with six-plus days of rest. At his age, it would make sense for the Yankees to continue to give him as much extra rest as possible; whether or not they’re able to is the question.
Midseason Grade: A+
I’m going to present a series of MLB rankings for Severino, as I think that illustrates the greatness of his season better than any narrative can. He ranks:
- 4th in ERA+
- 5th in bWAR
- 5th in FIP
- 7th in fWAR
- 7th in ERA
- 7th in IP
- 9th in WHIP
- 10th in strikeouts
- 10th in K-BB%
- 11th in K%
In addition to those lofty placements, he has also completed at least five innings in all twenty starts, and has only allowed more than three runs twice. He’s a bona fide ace, through and through.
Severino did stumble into the break a bit, allowing 7 runs in his last two starts of the half, so he’ll almost certainly appreciate the extra rest afforded by the break. His next start isn’t until July 23, so he’ll have had ten days of rest (not including the All-Star game) when he takes the mound.
And, for what it’s worth, he had a fun All-Star game, catching Aaron Judge’s home run, and striking out Bryce Harper and Brandon Crawford:
Midseason Grade: D
Last year was by far the worst of Tanaka’s short career, but it can be split up into manageable sample sizes. His ERA sat at 6.34 on Father’s Day last year, and fans were beginning to loudly wonder if the team would be better off with Tanaka opting out. And then a switch went on, and he was great the rest of the way. From June 23 through the end of the season, Tanaka pitched to a 3.54 ERA in 101.2 IP, with very good peripherals. That success carried over into the playoffs (and then some), as he posted a microscopic 0.90 ERA in 20 IP.
And then the calendar flipped to 2018, and the wheels fell right back off.
In addition to his 4.54 ERA (which is a tick below-average, translating into a 95 ERA+), Tanaka has bottomed-out in walk, ground ball, and home run rates, posting career-worsts across the board. His 4.90 FIP is the worst of his career, too. Now, to be fair, he’s not as bad as he was in the first half of 2017 – so there’s that.
The problem with Tanaka is easily identified – his propensity for home runs. He’s allowing more fly balls than ever this year, which means he’s allowing gopher balls at a career-worst pace of 1.94 per 9 innings. That’s the fifth-worst home run rate in the game, and that’s why he’s allowed 18 bombs in just 83.1 IP. And, for the sake of comparison, every pitcher that has allowed more has also thrown at least 18 additional innings.
One interesting note: Tanaka’s improvements last year seemingly coincided with more splitters and sliders, and sinkers being traded out in favor of four-seamers. That trend has continued to the extreme this season:
Could that have something to do with his gopheritis? Perhaps.
I was almost inclined to go with an ‘F’ for all of this, but Tanaka has at least given the Yankees some length in his starts, and he’s a league-average-ish starter. That’s not what you want from a pitcher on his contract, but he hasn’t been a straight-up dud like Gray.