The pros and cons of the upcoming six-man rotation

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

At the moment the Yankees have six viable big league starting pitchers for five rotation spots, which is pretty amazing considering the state of the rotation coming into the season. Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia formed a solid yet fragile front three. The last two spots were very much up in the air. Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery grabbed them and ran.

The Sonny Gray traded added another high-end arm and, if nothing else, the Jaime Garcia trade added depth. So, even after losing Pineda to Tommy John surgery, the Yankees are still six deep with starting pitchers in the season’s final month. And following tomorrow’s off-day, the Yankees plan to use all six starting pitchers. They’re going to a six-man rotation.

“You have a guy like (Severino) getting into an (innings total) he really hasn’t much passed. Sometimes it might help a Tanaka and it might help a CC so that is why we are doing it,” said Joe Girardi to George King and Pete Caldera last week. “… Some is the physical part of it, and we feel they might perform at a higher level on a sixth day.”

The Yankees will play 13 games in 13 days following tomorrow’s off-day, so they’ll be able to go two full turns through the six-man rotation. It’s September and rosters have expanded, so carrying six starting pitchers is no problem. Rolling with six starters and either a six-man bullpen (nope) or a three-man bench (yep) from April through August is where it gets tricky. That’s not the case now.

The six-man rotation comes with pros and cons like everything else. Or, really, it’s one big pro and one big con. The pro: giving pitchers rest late in the season. Severino’s and Montgomery’s workloads are an obvious concern — Severino (169.1 innings) and Montgomery (142.2 innings) have both already eclipsed their previous career high workloads — and something the Yankees need to monitor. They have to protect those young arms.

The four veteran guys could probably use the rest too. Tanaka just spent ten days on the disabled list with what was essentially a dead arm, plus there’s the whole partially torn elbow ligament thing. Sabathia had a knee flare-up recently. Gray has had some injury issues the last 18 months and Garcia’s injury history is as ugly as it gets. All four of those guys could benefit from a little extra rest now and then. Everyone could.

As for the downside of the six-man rotation, the Yankees would potentially be taking starts away from their best pitchers and giving them to their worst. The postseason races, both the AL East and wildcards, are awfully close. Taking even one start away from Tanaka or Severino and giving it to Montgomery or Garcia hurts the team’s postseason chances, at least in theory. (Montgomery or Severino could always come out and throw a gem, I suppose.)

Generally speaking, starters perform better with extra rest, which would maybe mitigate some of that “getting fewer starts from your best pitchers” thing. Here are the numbers quick:

  • MLB average on normal rest: 4.55 ERA (4.35 FIP)
  • MLB average with an extra day of rest: 4.38 ERA (4.32 FIP)

There is such a thing as too much rest — the MLB average with two or more extra days of rest is 4.51 ERA (4.48 FIP) — and that’s something Girardi acknowledged. “I don’t want guys having seven days (between starts),” he said. The numbers suggest an extra day of rest could improve performance, but those are league averages culled from thousands of innings and hundreds of pitchers. Anything could happen in one individual game, or a handful of individual games in this case.

For the Yankees, using a six-man rotation seems more about controlling Severino’s and Montgomery’s workloads, and giving the four veterans with injury histories a little breather late in the season. The Yankees could always call an audible depending on the postseason races. If things get too tight, they could scrap the six-man rotation and go with their five best. Here’s the possible rotation:

  • Wednesday, Sept. 6th at Orioles: Gray (on normal rest)
  • Thursday, Sept. 7th: off-day
  • Friday, Sept. 8th at Rangers: Tanaka (on one extra day of rest thanks to off-day)
  • Saturday, Sept. 9th at Rangers: Severino (on one extra day of rest thanks to off-day)
  • Sunday, Sept. 10th at Rangers: Garcia (on five extra days of rest)
  • Monday, Sept. 11th at Rays: Sabathia (on one extra day of rest thanks to off-day)
  • Tuesday, Sept. 12th at Rays: Gray (on one extra day of rest thanks to off-day)
  • Wednesday, Sept. 13th at Rays: Montgomery (on four extra days of rest)
  • Thursday, Sept. 14th to Sunday, Sept. 17th vs. Orioles: Tanaka, Severino, Garcia, Sabathia all with one extra day of rest
  • Monday, Sept. 18th to Wednesday, Sept. 20th vs. Twins: Gray, Montgomery, Tanaka all with one extra day of rest
  • Thursday, Sept. 21st: off-day

The Yankees have, essentially, skipped one Garcia start already when Montgomery got the ball Monday. That doesn’t mean he’ll sit around for nine days and do nothing between starts. He’s a veteran guy and knows what he needs to do to stay sharp. I’m sure he’ll throw extended bullpens and all that between starts.

Clearly, the Yankees are more concerned about Montgomery’s workload than the raw innings totals would lead you to believe. Only once in his last eight outings has he thrown more than 85 pitches. That was 92 pitches against the Indians last week. Five times in those eight outings he threw fewer than 80 pitches. The Yankees are trying to keep his workload down and that’s why I think they’ll essentially skip his next start.

A rainout tonight would throw a wrench into things, though the rotation outline above allows for some flexibility. That Twins series could end up being awfully important. If the wildcard race is tight, the Yankees could easily skip Montgomery entirely that series, and go with Tanaka and Severino on regular rest instead. We’ll see. Every so often I sketch out these possible rotation plans and they’re never right. Injuries and playoff races have a way of changing things.

For now, we know Girardi said the Yankees will use a six-man rotation following tomorrow’s off-day, which makes sense given the workload and injury concerns that exist. Extra rest this late in the season is good. But, at the same time, getting fewer starts from your top pitchers in the middle of a postseason race is not ideal. The Yankees very well might have to change their rotation plans if the race gets tighter in the coming days.

Jacoby Ellsbury is hot at exactly the right time for the Yankees

(David Maxwell/Getty)
(David Maxwell/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon the Yankees won their third straight game and for the fourth time in their last five games, and they’re now 29-22 with a +42 run differential in the second half this season. True story. I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, but the Yankees have collectively played well since the All-Star break. It’s kept them in the AL East race and atop the wildcard standings.

Starlin Castro and the bullpen led the way in yesterday’s win, though the resurgent Jacoby Ellsbury played a big role as well, going 1-for-2 with two walks. He drove in the game-tying run with a single and also came around to score an insurance run later in the game. That comes after a big game against the Red Sox and Chris Sale, in which Ellsbury went 3-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base, and saw 22 pitches in four plate appearances.

The overall numbers are still not great. Ellsbury is hitting .254/.335/.394 (95 wRC+) in 318 plate appearances this year which, when combined with his defense, makes him maybe a league average player. He missed time with a concussion and was also benched in favor of Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier (and I suppose Brett Gardner) for long stretches of time. And it wasn’t undeserved. Ellsbury has not played well most of the season.

Right now though, Ellsbury is in the middle of a hot streak that has seen him go 11-for-26 (.423) with two doubles, one triple, one homer, three walks, and only one strikeout in his last nine games. He’s started seven of the last ten games and the Yankees have needed him to. Hicks is back on the disabled list and Aaron Judge needed to sit out a few days last week, either for a mental break or to let his shoulder heal or both.

There’s never a bad time for a hot streak, but Ellsbury’s comes at an especially good time because Hicks and Frazier are both hurt, and because Judge still hasn’t completely snapped out of his second half slump. Judge has looked a bit better the last two days, and that’s encouraging, though it’s not nearly enough to declare him fixed. The fourth outfielder is Tyler Wade right now, so yeah. Ellsbury is going to play and play a lot.

The easy narrative here is getting demoted to the bottom of the order and later benched has lit a fire under Ellsbury. He’s playing with a big chip on his shoulder and taking it out on the baseball. And it absolutely could be true. Ellsbury, to his credit, took the lineup demotion and later the benching like a total pro. He never complained publicly and he did whatever the Yankees asked, including pinch-run late in several close games.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Ellsbury wasn’t irked by the demotion, of course. He should be upset. You want a player to be upset when he’s removed from the lineup for performance reasons. Ellsbury, like every other player, is a competitor and he wants to be in the lineup every single day. Now he’s back in the lineup and performing well. We’ve seen Ellsbury get hot in the past. When he gets hot, he gets really hot and can carry a team.

Frazier will begin a minor league rehab assignment tomorrow and the Yankees hope Hicks can begin swinging a bat within ten days, so help is on the way and that’s good. Until they return, Ellsbury is going to play, and the Yankees need him to produce because they’re trying to chase down the Red Sox in the AL East and trying to fend off basically half the AL in the wildcard race. The Yankees are, for all intents and purposes, playing playoff games right now.

Ellsbury is not going to validate his entire seven-year control in this final month. That is the wrong way to look at it. He could help make up for what has generally been an underwhelming season to date, however, and help push the Yankees into the postseason. Ellsbury has talent. That’s part of what makes his play so frustrating. He can be so much better than he has been. Ellsbury is clicking right now though, and it’s not a moment too late for the Yankees.

Recent elbow MRI yet another red flag for Aroldis Chapman

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

August is almost over and roster expansion is right around the corner, and at this point, it is completely clear the Yankees can not trust Aroldis Chapman in high-leverage situations. After giving Chapman the largest reliever contract in history over the winter, the Yankees have received 38.1 innings with a 4.23 ERA (3.08 FIP) in return, and have had to demote him out of the closer’s role. What a mess.

As you know, this isn’t simply a case of Chapman running into some bad luck with more bloops falling in and balls sneaking into the short porch for cheap Yankee Stadium homers. He looks basically nothing like the dominating Aroldis Chapman of the past six years. And it’s only getting worse. His swing-and-miss rate:

aroldis-chapman-swings-and-misses

Poor performance is one thing. Poor performance and injuries are another. Chapman missed roughly a month with shoulder inflammation earlier this year, and according to George King, Aroldis went for an MRI on his elbow Sunday. The MRI came back clean and Chapman was available to pitch Monday — “There was a little bit of discomfort. It was precautionary and they decided to do a test … It’s 100% fine,” he said to King — but still. Shoulder and elbow scares in year one of a five-year contract? Yikes.

Everyone is trying to figure out what’s wrong with Chapman and no one has the answer, not even the Yankees. They’re still searching. I don’t buy the “he’s getting hit harder because hitters are used to seeing 100 mph now” excuse for a second. How ridiculous is that? Luis Severino has no trouble throwing 98-99 mph heaters by hitters. Dellin Betances is still getting swings and misses with his fastball. I’ve heard a lot of silly baseball theories over the years. That one might be the silliest.

Last week Zach Kram, based on release point data and things like that, surmised Chapman might be pitching hurt. Maybe not hurt in the sense that he’s in pain and gutting through it. Hurt in that he’s not right physically even if there’s no real pain. It could be due to an underlying injury, or fatigue, or a World Series hangover, or general wear and tear. From Kram:

Throwing from a slightly lower arm slot, with a slightly more exaggerated elbow angle, is not per se an indicator of injury, and normally it could be attributed to a minor mechanical blip, the likes of which fellow Yankee—and new closer—Dellin Betances experienced earlier this summer. But combined with Chapman’s recent injury history, it represents a more serious sign of concern. In the book Complete Conditioning for Baseball, collegiate strength and conditioning coach Steve Tamborra writes, “There is no ideal angle between the arm and the head during the throwing motion, but pitchers tend to lower their angle when protecting a weak or injured shoulder.”

This is still just an observation, and it’s impossible to link it explicitly to Chapman’s struggles—again, his aggregate velocity and location are doing just fine, and both Chapman and Girardi contend that the lefty isn’t hurt. But it’s a new Chapman, and it’s a worse Chapman, so it’s reasonable to suppose that some connection exists.

Here’s the thing though: Chapman’s velocity and location are not doing just fine. There’s no way to measure location — Kram uses Chapman’s career high 54.3% zone rate as evidence his location is fine, which is dubious — but having watched him pitch all year, Chapman never hits his spot. He’s always been wild — that career 11.5% walk rate isn’t an accident — and this year it’s become more extreme. It seems like Aroldis has no real idea where the ball is going.

As for the velocity, the radar gun readings in general are fine. Chapman is averaging 100.1 mph with his fastball this season, which is down from 101.1 mph last year, but is right in line with the rest of his career. Now look at the fastball perceived velocity:

  • 2015: 100.8 mph (+0.7 mph from average)
  • 2016: 101.6 mph (+0.5 mph from average)
  • 2017: 100.4 mph (+0.3 mph from average)

Perceived velocity tells us how fast the pitch looks to the hitter when factoring in the pitcher’s extension and things like that. Chapman is a big guy, he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs., so he’s releasing the ball a little closer to the plate than the average hurler. For whatever reason though, his perceived velocity “gain” has been trending down.

In the grand scheme of things, losing 0.2 mph of perceived velocity from one year to the next might not be such a big deal, though the overall trend is disconcerting, and it’s one of those things that could be compounding Chapman’s issues. The lower release point and more exaggerated elbow angle (per Kram) combined with slightly lower velocity and shoulder and elbow woes is … unsettling. If not outright bad.

At this point, the hope is Chapman will get over whatever’s ailing him and contribute these final five weeks of the regular season and postseason. That’s the only way he can salvage what has been a pretty terrible first full season with the Yankees. And hopefully this recent elbow problem really is nothing, even if it might explain a whole lot.

How much do the Yankees need to limit Jordan Montgomery’s workload anyway?

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Last week the Yankees sent Jordan Montgomery down to Triple-A for one specific reason: to control his workload. Jon Morosi reported Montgomery would pitch on seven days rest going forward and have his innings capped within his starts. Five innings seems to be the organizational standard. It’s easier to manipulate a pitcher’s workload like that in Triple-A than MLB.

“We are going to shorten some outings down there just to cut back a little bit,” said Joe Girardi to George King last week, after Montgomery was sent down. “We do have somewhat of a concern that if he got over 180 innings, where he would be? There was no innings set, but the number was about 180 and the innings are always more stressful here.”

Plans change, of course. The Yankees lost both CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka to injuries last week, so they had to call Montgomery back up to fill out the rotation. The plan to control his workload had to be put on hold because the Yankees are fighting for a postseason spot and their pitchers keep getting hurt. Winning is the priority. Once Tanaka and Sabathia return, the Yankees will be in better position to cut back on Montgomery’s innings.

Here’s the thing though: how much do the Yankees really need to cut back on Montgomery’s workload? Obviously they know him better than we outsiders, so if they believe they need to take it easy on him the last few weeks of the season, I’m not going to doubt them. I’m more or less thinking out loud right now. Here are Montgomery’s innings totals over the years:

  • 2014: 107.2 innings (college and minors)
  • 2015: 134.1 innings (minors)
  • 2016: 152 innings (minors)
  • 2017: 126 innings and counting (minors and MLB)

Nice, steady progression. Montgomery is a very big and very durable guy — he’s never missed a start, not in high school or college or pro ball — and the Yankees want to keep it that way, so they’re not going to put him at risk of injury through overwork this year.

Now, that all said, let’s do the math here quick. Montgomery started Sunday night, in the 116th game of the season. If he were to start every fifth game from here on out, he’d make nine starts the rest of the season. If he were to average six innings in those nine starts, he’d finish the season at 180 innings on the nose, which is the cap the Yankees seem to have set for him. Convenient! A few things:

1. 180 innings is not a hard cap. The Yankees did not come out and say Montgomery will be limited to 180 innings this year. Girardi said there is “somewhat of a concern that if he got over 180 innings where he would be,” meaning would he be running on fumes and at risk of injury? I’m surprised Girardi threw out that 180 innings number, to be honest. The Yankees have steered clear of revealing workload limits the last few years because there’s nothing good that can come from it. Point is, things are going to be touch and go. The Yankees might want to get to Montgomery to 180 innings, but if he hits a wall at 160, he hits a wall at 160.

2. Averaging six innings per start isn’t easy. My little back of the envelope calculation has Montgomery getting to 180 innings by averaging six innings per start in his final nine starts of the season. Averaging six innings per start is hard! He’s averaging 5.50 innings per start now. Only ten times in 22 starts has Montgomery completed six full innings. The AL average is 5.58 innings per start. Sixty-five pitchers have made at least 20 starts this year and only 28 of them are averaging six innings per start. There’s some wiggle room in my little “six innings per start for nine starts” assumption.

3. What about the postseason, dummy? The Yankees have not played well the last few weeks overall, but they are still in postseason position and very much in the race. Heck, they’re still in the division race. It might not seem like it, but they are within striking distance (4.5 games back) with seven head-to-head games to go against the Red Sox. It’s doable. Unlikely, but doable. The Yankees have a lot to play for these final seven weeks.

Two things about the postseason and Montgomery’s workload. One, the Yankees have to actually get to the postseason before this is a problem. Can’t put the cart before the horse. If the Yankees need to max out Montgomery’s workload to get to the postseason and he’s not available for the playoffs, so be it. And two, I think the Yankees would take the reins off in October and let him pitch no matter what, as long as he’s still effective. Flags fly forever.

* *

On paper, it seems Montgomery’s workload might not be that big of an issue down the stretch. If the target is 180 innings, he figures to have innings to spare even if he starts every fifth game from here on out. The caveat here is that Montgomery might show signs of fatigue (i.e. ineffectiveness) before reaching 180 innings, and he might be completely unavailable for the postseason should the Yankees qualify. The Yankees will deal with that when the time comes.

As much as we and the Yankees are focused on the here and now, this is all about the future. Montgomery looks like a keeper and the Yankees want to keep him healthy and productive. Young mid-rotation starters are awfully valuable. Guys with Montgomery’s numbers will cost you about $15M a year in free agency. His health and workload will have to be monitored as we approach the end of the season, though right now, it’s entirely possible any restrictions might now be much of a factor after all.

Chad Green and one of baseball’s most dominant fastballs

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees, thanks largely to young players like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino, have a chance to return to the postseason this year and a chance to win their first AL East title since 2012. Judge and Severino have been the headliners, though others like Gary Sanchez and Jordan Montgomery have been key contributors as well. The young kids are driving this bus.

Among those young players is 26-year-old right-hander Chad Green, who I suppose isn’t really that young by baseball standards, but is in his first full MLB season. He’s locked himself into a bullpen spot, and if not for the David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle trade, he’d be seeing much more high-leverage work. It’s a big time luxury to be able to use Green in the middle innings rather than saving him for the seventh or eighth.

So far this season Green has a 1.74 ERA (2.28 FIP) with 39.0% strikeouts and 7.0% walks in 46.2 innings, almost all out of the bullpen. (He did make one two-inning spot start.) He’s been as good as Dellin Betances was in 2014. Green relies heavily on his fastball like so many other relievers, though his fastball is not like most others. It’s unlike any other fastball, really. Check out the fastball swing-and-miss leaderboard. This is whiffs-per-swing, not whiffs-per-total fastballs thrown (min. 100 fastballs):

  1. Chad Green: 40.3%
  2. Justin Wilson: 38.7%
  3. Craig Kimbrel: 38.4%
  4. Dellin Betances: 37.3%
  5. Tyler Clippard: 35.8% (?!?)

Holy Yankees/ex-Yankees. Think they value the ability to generate swings and misses with the fastball? Of course they do. We’ve know that for a while now. The Yankees love their power arms. Anyway, the MLB average is 19.7% whiffs-per-swing on the fastball this year, and Green is the only pitcher in baseball to double that rate. The gap between him and Wilson, the guy he was traded for and the No. 2 pitcher on the list, is pretty significant.

The whiffs-per-swing rate is incredible and what makes it so interesting to me is the velocity. Green has very good velocity, though his fastball not an overpowering triple-digit heater like Betances’ or Kimbrel’s or Aroldis Chapman‘s. His fastball is averaging 95.7 mph this year and he’s topped out at 98.2 mph. Dellin’s average fastball is 98.4 mph this year. Kimbrel’s is 98.7 mph. Chapman’s is 100.1 mph. And yet, none get as many whiffs-per-swing as Green.

There is more to a fastball than velocity, of course. Location matters, as does spin rate. You want either a high spin rate or a low spin rate on a fastball. High spin equals swings and misses and low spin equals ground balls. When you’re in the middle, you get neither. Green’s fastball, as the whiffs-per-swing rate suggests, has one of the league’s highest spin rates. The 22nd highest among the 423 pitchers to throw 100+ fastballs this year.

  • Green’s fastball spin rate: 2,483 rpm
  • MLB average fastball spin rate: 2,258 rpm

One thing about Green we can’t quantify is the deception in his delivery, and I have no doubt that plays a role in his overall effectiveness and fastball dominance. He’s a big guy at 6-foot-3 and he lifts his leg up real high, and his arm action is pretty long in the back. There’s a lot going on before Green explodes forward and the hitter actually sees the ball. Good velocity plus good spin rate plus good deception equals a great fastball.

Also, the same way there’s more to a fastball than velocity, there’s more to a good fastball than swings and misses. If hitters are missing with 40% of their swings but squaring it up with the other 60%, how good is the fastball really? Not very. (That’s Clippard’s fastball, apparently.) According to expected wOBA (xwOBA), which is based on exit velocity and launch angle and things like that, hitters don’t do much damage even when they make contact with Green’s fastball. The fastball xwOBA leaderboard:

  1. Anthony Swarzak: .198 xwOBA
  2. Chad Green: .219 xwOBA
  3. Sean Doolittle: .219 xwOBA
  4. Seung-Hwan Oh: .227 xwOBA
  5. Tommy Kahnle: .228 xwOBA

Man, what in the world has gotten into Anthony Swarzak this year? Whatever got into Kahnle, I guess. Anyway, a .219 wOBA is “pitcher hitting” territory. The worst hitter with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Alcides Escobar, has a .235 wOBA this year. Green’s fastball turns everyone into a worse version of Escobar, and boy does Escobar stink.

One thing I should note is that Green’s fastball didn’t suddenly get good this year. Most guys see their fastball tick up once they shift to relief, though that’s not necessarily what happened here. Green’s fastball showed similar traits last season, when he worked primarily as a starter:

  • 2016 average velocity: 95.4 mph (95.7 mph in 2017)
  • 2016 max velocity: 99.2 mph (98.2 mph in 2017)
  • 2016 whiffs-per-swing: 30.6% (40.3% in 2017)
  • 2016 spin rate: 2,471 rpm (2,483 in 2017)

Velocity and spin rate are similar — max velocity is down, weirdly enough — while the whiffs-per-swing rate was much lower last year, as a starter. It was still comfortably above-average, but not as good as this year. Also, last season’s Green’s fastball had a .346 xwOBA, which was almost exactly league average (.347 xwOBA). Not bad, not great, just … average.

I think the big improvements in whiffs-per-swing rate and xwOBA this year are entirely the result of the move into relief. The velocities and spin rates may be similar, but hitters aren’t seeing Green multiple times this year. He’s not turning a lineup over. He’s coming in for an inning or two at a time, airing it out, then leaving the game before the lineup turns over. There’s no second (and third) time through the order penalty.

Green throws his fastball roughly 70% of the time this season and I think he could even stand to throw it more, especially as a full-time reliever. He can’t thrown only fastballs, eventually hitters will catch on, but could he get away with, say, 80% fastballs? Maybe 85%? Green’s slider isn’t anything special. He dominates with his fastball. Either way, Green has found a home in the bullpen, where his elite fastball has made him into an overwhelming power reliever and a member of Joe Girardi‘s Circle of Trust™.

Sabathia’s injury gives Yankees a chance to line up their best starters for the upcoming Red Sox series

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This weekend the Yankees will play their most important series of the season (to date), as they’ll host the first place Red Sox for a three-game set at Yankee Stadium. At worst, the Yankees will be six games back in the AL East at the start of the series. At best they’ll be two games back. There’s still more than seven weeks to go in the regular season, but the remaining head-to-head games against Boston are more or less going to decide the division title.

The Red Sox have already announced that Chris Sale will start in every remaining series against the Yankees, which isn’t surprising. The Yankees are actually 2-0 when facing Sale this season. Masahiro Tanaka threw the shutout against Sale in April, then the Yankees won that long 16-inning marathon last month after Matt Holliday‘s game-tying home run against Craig Kimbrel in the ninth.

Anyway, here are the tentative pitching matchups for this weekend’s series against the Red Sox. Teams usually don’t make their starters official until the day before the start of a new series, though this is how it lines up at the moment:

That TBA was CC Sabathia, who left last night’s start with right knee pain and seems destined to land on the disabled list. Both Sabathia and Joe Girardi admitted there’s a lot of concern. Sabathia was in a lot of pain and his knee has been pretty messed up for a few years now. It’ll be surprise if he doesn’t wind up on the disabled list, really. Hopefully the upcoming tests bring good news.

As for the Red Sox series, noticeably absent from the pitching matchups are Tanaka and Sonny Gray. Tanaka is scheduled to start tonight and Gray tomorrow night, so they’ll miss the Red Sox series. Those two plus Severino are the Yankees’ three best starters at the moment. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me there. In the most important series of the season (to date), you want them on the mound.

The thing is, the Yankees could have easily lined up their rotation to ensure Tanaka and Gray (and Severino) would face the Red Sox this weekend. Yesterday’s off-day and last week’s six-man rotation would have made it possible with no headache at all. No one starting on short rest, no call-up spot sixth starter, nothing like that. Here’s how the Yankees could have lined the rotation up:

  • Tuesday @ Blue Jays: Tanaka on normal rest after Monday’s off-day
  • Wednesday @ Blue Jays: Sabathia on extra rest
  • Thursday @ Blue Jays: Garcia on normal rest after Monday’s off-day
  • Friday vs. Red Sox: Gray on extra rest
  • Saturday vs. Red Sox: Severino with an extra day of rest after Monday’s off-day
  • Sunday vs. Red Sox: Tanaka on normal rest

In a nutshell, the Yankees would have used Monday’s off-day to flip Tanaka and Sabathia, and Garcia and Gray. That would’ve lined up Gray, Severino, and Tanaka for the Red Sox series in that order. Instead, the Yankees are currently scheduled to start Garcia this weekend even though the Boston’s offense performs better against lefties (100 wRC+) than righties (92 wRC+).

The Sabathia injury changes things, assuming he’s unable to make his next start and doesn’t make a miraculous overnight recovery. The Yankees are going to have to plug someone into the rotation to take his spot. Jordan Montgomery is the obvious answer, but you know what? It might not be him. The Yankees could decide to keep him in Triple-A and continue on with his limited workload plan. Other rotation options include Bryan Mitchell, who pitched well in long relief last night, and either Luis Cessa or Caleb Smith. And I suppose Chance Adams, but I don’t see that happening.

Someone has to replace Sabathia, but that someone doesn’t necessarily have to start the same day Sabathia would have started. Sabathia’s replacement, whoever it is, could start tomorrow against the Blue Jays, which would push Gray back to Friday and into the Red Sox series. Mitchell and Smith pitched last night, which means Cessa and Montgomery are the only options for tomorrow’s start. (Adams doesn’t line up either.) Instead of Garcia-Severino-TBA this weekend it would be Gray-Garcia-Severino. Much better, I’d say.

One thing to keep in mind is these two teams will play again next weekend. Three games at Yankee Stadium this weekend and three games at Fenway Park next weekend, with four games against the Mets in-between. Whatever the Yankees do to the rotation this weekend will impact how things line up next weekend. For example:

Stay on turn Use spot starter tomorrow
Thursday at Blue Jays
Gray TBA
Friday vs. Red Sox
Garcia Gray
Saturday vs. Red Sox
Severino Garcia
Sunday vs. Red Sox TBA Severino
Mon. to Thurs. vs. Mets Tanaka-Gray-Garcia-Severino TBA-Tanaka-Gray-Garcia
Friday at Fenway Park TBA Severino
Saturday at Fenway Park Tanaka TBA
Sunday at Fenway Park Gray Tanaka

The column on the right looks much better, no? The Yankees would be getting two Severino starts against the Red Sox rather than two starts from whoever ends up being the TBA. There’s no way to line up Gray, Tanaka, and Severino for both Red Sox series with doing something really crazy like using multiple spot starters, and no. Just no. Two starts from Severino and one each from the other four guys is greatly preferable to two starts from TBA and one each from everyone else.

This is one of those things that makes too much sense not to happen. I hope it is. I was a bit surprised the Yankees didn’t flip-flop Sabathia and Tanaka this week — again, starting Tanaka last night and Sabathia tonight would have allowed Tanaka to face the Red Sox this weekend and next, rather than just next weekend — so who knows. Maybe the Yankees don’t care that much about optimizing their rotation for the two series against Boston and will remain on turn. I hope that’s not the case.

The Sabathia injury stinks. It really does. Sabathia looked genuinely upset and concerned about his future following the game last night, and that absolutely sucks. CC is forever cool in my book. The one thing the injury does is give the Yankees another chance to rearrange their rotation and make sure Gray faces the Red Sox this weekend, and Severino faces them this weekend and next. They had a chance to line up their ideal rotation with Monday’s off-day and didn’t take it. Now they get a second chance.

Sabathia going on the disabled list means either Montgomery or Cessa could come back up before spending the requisite ten days in the minors to make that spot start tomorrow, pushing Gray back. That’s how this is all made possible. The disabled list stint is needed to bypass the ten-day rule. The Yankees are four games back with 51 games to play, so they can’t afford to fall too much further behind Boston. The Yankees should do whatever they can to make sure their best pitchers start as many of those remaining ten head-to-head games against the Red Sox as possible.

The near inevitability of a six-man rotation in September

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Last week, after acquiring Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia at the trade deadline, the Yankees went with six starters for one turn through the rotation. That gave everyone a little extra rest, which I’m sure they all appreciated. It’s August and it’s hot, and the innings are starting to pile up. Any time you have a chance to give the starters a breather, you do it.

The Yankees sent Jordan Montgomery to Triple-A following Sunday’s game, which means the six-man rotation is no more. They said it was a one-time thing and they stuck to it. The Yankees are back to a five-man rotation for the foreseeable future. And I think it’s only temporary. Once September rolls around and rosters expand, I think it’s all but certain the Yankees will go to a full-time six man rotation. For two reasons, mostly.

1. The Yankees really value that extra rest. The overall league numbers say pitchers perform better with extra rest. Throughout MLB this season, pitchers have a 4.54 ERA (4.35 FIP) on normal rest. That drops to a 4.34 ERA (4.10 FIP) with an extra day of rest. That’s league-wide, however, and not every single pitcher responds well to short rest. For all the talk about Masahiro Tanaka pitching better with extra rest, it’s not really true:

Tanaka on normal rest (2017): 4.50 ERA and 3.55 FIP
Tanaka on extra rest (2017): 5.27 FIP and 4.97 FIP

Tanaka on normal rest (career): 3.53 ERA and 3.54 FIP
Tanaka on extra rest (career): 3.48 ERA and 3.89 FIP

At this point though, the “Tanaka pitches better with extra rest” myth has been repeated so much and for so long that I’ve given up hope people will realize it isn’t true. Score this a win for FAKE NEWS.

Anyway, forget about the numbers for a second. The Yankees have shown they value that extra day of rest with their actions. They’ve given their starters get that extra day whenever possible the last few seasons. There’s no reason to expect that will change now. And, really, it’s not about performance. It’s about health. Tanaka has a partially torn elbow ligament. CC Sabathia is 37 with a bad knee. Gray has had some injuries the last 18 months. Garcia’s injury history is ugly. That’s why they want to give them extra rest.

2. Montgomery and Severino are heading into uncharted workload territory. I’ve written about this already. The Yankees surely have some innings limit in mind for both guys — maybe that number is higher than you’d think given their career workloads to date, but the number exists — though that’s an overly simplistic way of looking at this. Long-term health is a concern, no doubt. But so is short-term effectiveness.

The Yankees are in the postseason race and they don’t want to run into a situation where Montgomery and especially Luis Severino hit a wall in September because they’re running out of gas. As young and as strong as these two guys are, neither has pitched a full MLB season yet. Pitching deep into September with more innings on your arm than ever before can be difficult. A six-man rotation and extra rest along the way would help mitigate the fatigue risk.

* * *

Using a six-man rotation now, with a 25-man roster, would be pretty difficult, which is why I think it’ll wait until rosters expand in September. Here’s what Joe Girardi told Randy Miller about a potential six-man rotation last week:

“In theory it sounds great, but now you (would) have six relievers and six starters,” Girardi said. “You get rid of one of your relievers that can give you distance, it puts you in a bind. If the commissioner would let me add another man on the roster and then you have 26, I’d really think about it … You’ve got to remember, too, that most pitchers are used to going on a five-man rotation. It might help one guy and screw up the other four. That’s a problem.”

Injuries and ineffectiveness have a way of changing plans in a hurry, but right now, I think the Yankees are planning to use a true six-man rotation once September rolls around and carrying an extra starting pitcher wouldn’t mean sacrificing a bench player or reliever.

As it stands, the Yankees have six big league caliber starting pitchers, and that’s really good. You’d rather than too many that not enough. The Yankees are going to use those six starters too. Montgomery might be in Triple-A now, but that’s only temporary. He’ll be back before you know it. Once rosters expand, using a six-man rotation makes an awful lot of sense given the physical and workload concerns in the rotation. It makes so much sense that I fully expect it to happen.