2012 Season Preview: Innings, Innings, Innings

New ink? (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

During the pitching-starved days of the mid-aughts, the Yankees seemed to tax their bullpen on a nightly basis, because their starters were unable to pitch any more than five or six innings. That started to change a few years ago as the team added some quality starters and offense around the league declined in general, and now the club has no fewer than three starters who can be counted on for six strong innings. Back in the day it was just one, before age started to catch up with Mike Mussina.

The Yankees got 979.1 IP out of their starters last season (6.05 IP per game), the eighth most in the AL and the 14th most in baseball. That total is up from 973 IP in 2010 (ninth and 14th, respectively) and 935 IP in 2009 (tenth and 19th, respectively). There isn’t very much correlation between starter innings and team winning percentage, but there is a strong correlation between starter innings and overall runs allowed. Relievers are relievers for a reason; they’re typically inferior pitchers and the more time the starters spend on the mound, the better. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ innings guys for this coming season.

CC Sabathia
There is no greater workhorse in baseball than Sabathia. The burly left-hander has topped the 230 IP plateau in each of his three seasons with the Yankees and in each of his last five seasons overall. Including playoffs, he’s thrown an ungodly 766 IP in just three years with New York. His 1,199 IP since the start of 2007 are the most in baseball, and only Roy Halladay (1,194.2) is within 50 IP of his total.

Sabathia has made 67 starts over the last two seasons, and only once has he failed to complete five innings. That was May 8th of 2010, when a rain delay forced him from the game at 85 pitches with two outs in the fifth. His current streak of 60 consecutive starts with at least five innings pitched is the longest in baseball, eight more than Justin Verlander and 14 more than Jeremy Guthrie. Sabathia has more starts of at least eight innings (28) with the Yankees than starts of six or fewer innings (21). There are few things in baseball more certain than CC taking the ball and pitching deep into the game 30+ times a year.

Hiroki Kuroda
As a veteran starter, the Yankees are expecting peace of mind from Kuroda. He’s supposed to just take the ball every five days and pitch as deep into the game as possible with as little drama as possible, kinda like the old Andy Pettitte mentality. Pitching like an ace isn’t required, but the expectation is a solid performance good enough for a win each time out. It sounds simple enough, but we all know these things are never easy.

Because he was pitching in the NL and for a bad offensive team, Kuroda was often lifted for a pinch-hitter despite having gas left in the tank in recent years. Just last season he was removed from a game with fewer than 100 pitches before the start of the seventh inning 11 times. It’s 40 times since the start of 2009, or nearly half of his 83 starts. Hiroki has averaged just 15.6 pitches per inning during that time, yet only 6.1 innings per start. The Yankees won’t have to worry about pinch-hitting for him, so Joe Girardi is free to let Kuroda throw 100+ pitches each time out in 2012.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Ivan Nova
The Yankees have done some mind-numbingly stupid things to control the innings of their young hurlers in recent years, but Nova is the rare exception. He’s thrown at least 180 innings and made at least 30 starts in each of the last two seasons (majors and minors but not including playoffs), and at least 140 IP in each of the last four seasons*. Nova has never been on the disabled list, and his first serious injury came in Game Five of last year’s ALDS. His strained flexor is 100% healed however, and he’s been able to go full bore since Day One of Spring Training.

*  We’re fudging a bit for 2009, when Nova threw 139.1 minor league innings. He was a Rule 5 Draft pick of the Padres that year, and the Yankees had to send him to Extended Spring Training briefly because San Diego used him as a reliever in camp and he hadn’t been properly stretched out.

After struggling to get through the order multiple times early in the season, Nova used his improved slider to complete at least seven innings in seven of his 12 starts after returning from the minors. He was also very pitch efficient down the stretch, averaging just 14.5 pitches per inning after the All-Star break. Only six pitchers were more efficient in the second half (min. 60 IP), and only one of those six pitched in the AL (Doug Fister). More of the same would be just dandy in 2012.

* * *

Although Phil Hughes remains a question mark and Freddy Garcia has been a five-and-fly starter the last two seasons (averaged 5.2 IP per start), Michael Pineda‘s workload isn’t much of a concern. He threw 171 IP for the Mariners last season, up just 31.2 IP from 2010. It was his third time over 138 IP in the last four years, with the one exception being 2009. A sore elbow cost him three months that summer, but otherwise he’s been healthy throughout his career. Pineda is poised for 200 IP in 2012, though I don’t think giving him a little two-week vacation at the All-Star break would be the worst thing in the world since he figures to be part of a potential playoff rotation.

The Official RAB Bracket Challenge

If you’re a sports fan it’s hard not to get swept up in March Madness. It’s the first competitive playoff sports action since the Super Bowl, and the knockout format usually leads to big-time upsets, Cinderella teams and high drama. Last year, 5.9 million people filled out brackets on ESPN.com alone, so we’re introducing our own first official RAB Bracket Challenge. Entering is free and easy. You have to create a bracket entry on ESPN.com and join our group, which you can find here.

No contest is complete without prizes, so we’re offering RAB gear to the top three entries. Third prize is an RAB mug or tote bag, second prize is an RAB T-Shirt and first prize is an RAB Hoodie. The deadline to finalize your bracket is tipoff on Thursday afternoon, and we’ll be checking in frequently throughout the tournament with group scoreboard updates. Join today and show the RAB community what you know. Feel free to leave your questions and/or predictions in the comments.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 12th, 2012

Record Last Week: 3-5 (23 RS, 34 RA)
Spring Training Record: 5-5 (38 RS, 43 RA)
Opponents This Week: vs. Astros (Mon.), vs. Red Sox (Tues. on YES/MLBN), @ Blue Jays (Weds.), @ Nationals (Thurs. on MLBN), vs. Nationals (Fri. on YES), vs. Astros (Sat. on YES/MLBN), @ Orioles (Sun. on MLBN)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Spring Training Samples

Bust. (AP)

The obvious pro of Spring Training is that baseball is back! Horray! Baseball players! They are truly wonderful and amazing creatures, capable of feats none of us could ever accomplish. I once attempted to play second base in the local rec softball league, constantly mentally telling myself to just do it exactly like Robinson Cano does. As you can imagine, this did not work out, and not only did I make a total idiot of myself, but a ground ball took a funny bounce, destroyed my shin, and had me limping for the rest of the day. After that, I decided to stick to writing about and watching baseball.

Anyway, even in Spring Training, most of the players could probably whoop us, even the veteran double-A guys who don’t know what else to do with themselves. They’re rusty, especially the big-timers like Sabathia. And I think getting on them for having a first poor Spring Training outing is, quite frankly, a little stupid.

First of all, the whole point of Spring Training is to get back into the groove. Baseball’s all timing, and when someone hasn’t thrown a ~90 MPH ball of cork at you in months, it can take some time to get used to that again. Likewise, if you haven’t thrown that ball in a while – not at full speed, facing a live batter, of course – it takes time to put all the parts back together. Throwing a baseball is a complex biomechanical action, and I’m not holding it against anyone who takes a few weeks to get back into the swing of things, consider the minuscule percentage of people who can even figure out what the correct swing of things is.

Secondly, one outing in any event should be treated as too small a sample to judge, and an outing of two innings should be a mere blip on the radar. If it doesn’t count, that seems like it should be even more insignificant on the ‘things Yankees fans should worry about from the team’ checklist. Even if Sabathia had gone out and bombed two innings in a regular season game, there’s simply not enough to worry about.

So, can we stop getting on Nova, Sabathia and Cano for not being able to put it together just yet? They’ve been playing baseball for a week. It doesn’t count. They’re obviously (ok, according to Girardi, not Nova) going to be in the lineup/rotation. It’s not like we’re dealing with scrubs who, if they don’t perform in the spring, aren’t going to be on the team. These guys are using Spring Training to experiment, re-adjust and recalibrate themselves to being utterly awesome. A little turbulence should be expected, in my humble opinion. So chill out.

On the flip side of this, if you do make it your goal in life to be stressed out about five Spring Training innings from your fourth place Cy Young finisher from last year, I have a better place for you to put those feelings. This feeling-adjustment fulfills all the necessary requirements of irrational Spring Training rage: A) The players in question are playing way differently than they’re expected. B) The samples sizes are extremely small. C) We know if they’re going to the Yankees or not.

1. Gus Molina (3-for-3)

Here we have a catcher with some potential, making very good contact and getting on base. Quite frankly, I don’t even know why we bother with Russell Martin behind the plate. It’s obvious Martin has all the power (he’s 2-for-8 with a double and 3 strikeouts) and none of the other skills. He might work out better at first base, because while him and Mark Teixeira have similar numbers, Martin has all the power.

2. Jose Gil (2-for-3)

On second thought, let’s just release Mark Texieira and put Gil at first base. He’s raking in spring training, with two doubles, an RBI, and a walk. That’s the making of a potential MVP right there, I think. Especially considering that he probably won’t bunt as much as Teixeira has been talking about doing. No bunting allowed. Ever.

3. Dan Burawa (0.00 ERA)

Really, those shiny zeroes say it all. Here we have a genuine ace who’s going to toil away at some minor league level where no one can appreciate his genius. Obviously, what the Yankees should do is demote Nova and put Burawa in his pace. While the man has given up three hits, he’s also got a strikeout and generates plenty of groundballs to make a successful job in the majors. Anyone who has a 0.00 ERA is pretty good. Exhibit A: Nick Swisher.

Levine: $189 million plan includes Cano and Granderson

Roughly three-quarters of the emails we receive concern various aspects of the $189 million luxury cap for 2014. How will the Yanks get below this? we’re asked. Can they do it with Player X and Player Y? The most frequent of these questions center on Robinson Cano and, to a slightly lesser extent, Curtis Granderson, both of whom become free agents after the 2013 season. Yankees President Randy Levine spoke to Jon Heyman, and he seems to believe the Yankees can retain both. “The plan contemplates (Robinson) Cano, (Curtis) Granderson and a full championship team,” Levine said. It is certainly possible, but little will have to go wrong in the Yankees’ plan for them to achieve that goal.

Pineda up to 93 mph

According to Erik Boland, Michael Pineda reached 93 with his fastball during the first inning of his appearance today. That’s a tick faster than he threw this past Monday, when he topped out at 91 mph. That’s a bit reassuring, at least. It goes along with what Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs on Tuesday, noting that Pineda is not a guy who has to fire bullets every single time. Relatedly, it’s interesting to hear that Brian Cashman mentioned that he’d read Cameron’s article (via Bryan Hoch).