Update: CC Sabathia exits start with hamstring strain

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

11:59pm ET: Sabathia has a left hamstring strain, the Yankees announced. Here’s video of the injury. I imagine Sabathia is heading for tests to determine the severity of the strain.

11:35pm ET: CC Sabathia left tonight’s start after four innings with an apparent left leg injury. He grabbed at his hamstring between pitches at one point, though he did stay in to complete the inning. Sabathia walked off the field gingerly and headed to the clubhouse.

The Yankees have been really fortunate with the health of their starting pitchers so far this season. They used a sixth starter for the first time this past weekend, and that was only to give the struggling Masahiro Tanaka an extra day, so he wouldn’t have to face the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

I suppose the good news is the problem is not with Sabathia’s right leg, with the troublesome knee. He’s had all sorts of problems with his right knee over the years. Whatever it is, hopefully it’s minor. The Yankees have not yet provided an update on Sabathia, so stay tuned.

Yankeemetrics: Old Ace rising, Tanaka tanking (June 6-8)

(AP)
(AP)

Numbers Never Lie
A home run derby broke out at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, but in a very depressing way for the hometown fans. Masahiro Tanaka‘s batting-practice fastballs and cement-mixer sliders were flying out of the park, while the Yankees’ repeated clutch-hitting woes sealed their fate – a disappointing 5-4 loss to their AL East rival.

The Red Sox entered the game with the fewest homers in the league, but that statistic mattered little on a chilly night in the Bronx as they went deep three times against Tanaka, who gave up five runs in five innings. Tanaka’s longball issues have reached crisis mode, with 14 surrendered in his last 32 innings pitched dating back to the fifth inning of his May 2 start vs Toronto.

That’s a remarkable number considering that:

  • It’s more home runs than any Yankee pitcher had given up the entire season through Tuesday
  • 77 of the 86 other qualified pitchers in MLB had allowed fewer than 14 home runs for the entire season through Tuesday

If those stats aren’t sobering enough, how about this: he gave up more homers to the Red Sox (3) than guys he struck out (2) … and it’s not even the first time he’s done that in a game this season! Unsurprisingly, he never did that in any game during his first three seasons in pinstripes.

The bottom line: Tanaka is the only pitcher in the majors this year who has multiple starts where he struck out at least two batters and still managed to allow more home runs than strikeouts in the game. Send help, please.

Not only did Tanaka serve up meatballs left and right against the Red Sox, his overall “stuff” was severely diminished and his pitches showed little deception. He got just three swings-and-misses (yup, the same number of homers he allowed), tied for the fewest in any of his 87 career starts.

(AP)
(AP)

CC’s lead the way
While the team’s improbable comeback wins have been getting a lot of buzz this season, an underrated theme for this Yankees squad has been their resiliency and avoiding long losing streaks. They haven’t lost more than three games in a row and haven’t been swept in any series so far. They assured both those milestones would remain intact on Wednesday, snapping their two-game slide and taking the second game of the series, 8-0.

This was a historic rout of their longtime division rival, marking their largest shutout win vs Red Sox since June 27, 1991 at Fenway. The last time they blanked the Red Sox by this large of a margin at Yankee Stadium was more than 50 years ago – on September 3, 1965!

The Yankees definitely had the right guy on the mound – Carsten Charles Sabathia – to stop their losing streak. After twirling eight scoreless innings, the 36-year-old lefty improved to 6-0 with a 1.25 ERA in seven starts following a Yankee loss. That’s the lowest ERA in games after a team loss for any pitcher in the majors this season (min. five starts).

This brilliant outing continued a string of ace-like performances by Sabathia, who is 5-0 with a 1.11 ERA in his last five starts. He’s just the third lefty in franchise history to win five starts in a row, allowing no more than two earned runs and six hits in each game: Ron Guidry had two such streaks (in 1978 and 1981) and Lefty Gomez also had a similar stretch in 1937.

On Wednesday, Sabathia’s slider was in peak form as the Red Sox went 0-for-8 in at-bats ending in the pitch – including four punchouts. Here’s a beautiful pitch chart of the 30 sliders he threw:

cc-sabathia-1

As you can see in the graphic above, he got only one whiff with his slider, but instead relied on its nasty movement to paint the edges of the zone and generate a whopping 13 called strikes. That matches the most he’s gotten with the pitch in any game since joining the Yankees.

His backdoor slider has been among the toughest in baseball for hitters to pick up this season. Sabathia’s 14 looking strikeouts with the slider are tied with Jhoulys Chacin for the most in MLB, and his slider called-strike rate is the second-highest among pitchers that have thrown at least 200 sliders this season.

While Sabathia was dealing on the mound, the other CC was a monster at the plate. Chris Carter went 3-for-4 with a towering home run and a season-high four RBIs, providing us with our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Week: he joins Scott Brosius (2000) as the only Yankee No. 9 hitters to drive in at least four runs and have at least three hits in a game against the Red Sox.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Who’s Your Daddy?
The Yankees finished off the series with another dominant win over their AL East rival, 9-1. This is just the third time in the last 30 years that they’ve notched back-to-back wins by at least eight runs against the Red Sox; the other two instances were Sept. 18-19, 2004 and May 23-24, 1998.

The Yankees pummeled David Price, scoring six runs in five innings against the former Cy Young winner. It was the sixth time over the last two seasons that Price has given up at least six earned runs in a game — and four (!) of those six disaster outings have come against the Yankees.

Gary Sanchez broke the game open with a towering three-run homer in the third inning to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead. But he was just getting warmed up… Sanchez took Price deep again two innings later, making him a ridiculous 4-for-7 with four homers in his career vs the Boston lefty.

He is one of six players with at least four homers vs Price — Manny Machado, Curtis Granderson, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, Jose Bautista are the others — and those five guys have faced him at least 40 times.

It was also Sanchez’s fifth multi-homer game in the big leagues, a staggering figure for someone playing in his 87th career game. He became the second-fastest player in major-league history to reach five multi-homer-games, behind only Mark McGwire (who did it in his 84th career game).

And, oh yeah, he also was the first Yankee catcher ever to have at least five RBIs and two homers in a game against the Red Sox. #FunFacts

While Sanchez was re-writing the Major-League record books, Aaron Judge continued his assault on the Statcast leaderboards. Judge’s sixth inning single left his bat at 119.8 mph, the third time this season he’s hit a ball 119 mph or faster. The rest of the players in major-league baseball have combined to do that zero times in 2017.

Yankeemetrics: Smallball, longball down A’s (May 26-28)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Welcome back, Masa-Hero
Friday’s game may have been a 4-1 loss in the standings, but it was a victory in the minds and eyes of the Yankees and their fans thanks to the spectacular performance by Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka looked like an ace again as he mowed down Oakland’s lineup, dominating them with his devastating signature splitter/slider combo. He set career-highs in strikeouts (13) and swinging strikes (26), displaying the top-of-rotation stuff that had been missing in the first month and a half of the season.

The 26 swings-and-misses were the second-most by any Yankee pitcher in the past decade, one shy of the 27 that CC Sabathia got on June 7, 2012 against the Rays. Each of the 13 punchouts were via a strike-three whiff, matching Sabathia (June 30, 2012 vs. Brewers) for the most swinging strikeouts in a game by any Yankee pitcher over the last 10 years.

Eight of the 13 strikeouts came on his sharp, late-breaking slider, and the other five were on filthy splitters that dropped out of the zone:

masahiro-tanaka-13-k

The improved depth of his splitter was one of the biggest keys to Tanaka’s domination on Friday night. He threw 25 splitters and located those pitches an average of 1.82 feet below the middle of the strike zone. That was his lowest vertical location for the splitter in any game this season, netting him 10 whiffs and silly swings like this one from Ryon Healy in the seventh inning:

halfelectricfoal

So that was the good news from Friday night.

Unfortunately, there was some bad news too. The Yankee bats went cold once again and the bullpen suffered another inexplicable meltdown, allowing three runs plus an inherited runner to score. Tanaka’s final line of 7 1/3 innings, 13 strikeouts, no walks and one run made him not only a hard-luck loser, but also etched his name in the record books.

It was just the third time a Yankee pitcher struck out at least 13 batters in a game and got the loss. The other two were done by Roger Clemens: June 17, 1999 against the Rangers and May 28, 2000 against the Red Sox in an epic duel with Pedro Martinez.

Even more incredible is this #FunFact: Tanaka is the first pitcher in Yankee history to get the loss in a game where he had at least 13 strikeouts, no more than one run allowed and zero walks.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Two close for comfort
Thanks a third straight solid outing by CC Sabathia and justenough offense, the Yankees bounced back to win the middle game of this three-game series, 3-2.

This was only the second time in the last 60 seasons that the Yankees won a game in the Bronx with no more than two hits. It also happened on Sept. 9, 1988, when Claudell Washington hit a walk-off homer to beat the Tigers (the other hit was a Rickey Henderson triple in sixth inning).

The decisive blow on Saturday was delivered by Matt Holliday, who ended Jharel Cotton’s no-hit bid and broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning with one swing of the bat, crushing a two-run homer to left. It was his ninth homer of the season and team-best sixth dinger that either gave the Yankees a lead or tied the game.

Sabathia pitched into the seventh inning, allowing two runs while striking out a season-high nine batters. Four of the nine strikeouts — including three that were looking — came with his slider, which has routinely frozen hitters this season. He’s gotten called strikes on 23.2 percent of his sliders thrown, the fourth-best rate among starters (min. 100 pitches).

Dellin Betances was the end-of-game hero as he escaped a second-and-third, one-out jam in the eighth inning by striking out the next two batters, and then easily retired all three guys he faced in the ninth. The last Yankee to inherit at least two baserunners and get a perfect save of at least five outs? Mariano Rivera on April 23, 2008 vs. the White Sox.

(@Yankees)
(@Yankees)

Your Honor, the Grand Jury is in session
The Bronx Bombers returned to form on Sunday afternoon in 9-5, series-clinching win that pushed their AL East lead to a season-high three games. This is just the fourth time in the Wild Card era that the Yankees have entered play on Memorial Day in sole possession of first place in the division. The other three times it happened – 1996, 1998, 2001 – they made the World Series and won it twice.

On the mound, Michael Pineda struggled with his command (season-high three walks) but showed his toughness in limiting the A’s to three runs in six innings. It was his ninth straight start allowing three earned runs or fewer, one shy of the longest streak by an AL pitcher this season (both Michael Fulmer and Derek Holland have 10-start streaks).

Aaron Judge provided the power with his first career grand slam in the third inning to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead. He was the first Yankee right-fielder to go yard with the bases loaded against the A’s since Paul O’Neill on April 5, 1997. And the 25-year-old slugger is the youngest Yankee to hit a grand slam at Yankee Stadium since Nick Johnson (24 years old) on Aug. 8, 2003 vs. Mariners.

While it’s hard to believe that a rookie can keep up this pace – with 16 homers in the team’s first 47 games – let’s have some fun with numbers …

  • 1921 Babe Ruth through 47 team games: 16 homers (finished with 59)
  • 1927 Babe Ruth through 47 team games: 17 homers (finished with 60)
  • 1961 Roger Maris through 47 team games: 15 homers (finished with 61)

Yankeemetrics: Kings of Kansas City (May 16-18)

(AP)
(AP)

Vintage CC
The Yankees kicked off the most grueling stretch of this early season – 20 games in 20 days – with one of their most complete and thorough performances so far. Power, pitching and defense were all on display in a satisfying 7-1 win over the Royals on Tuesday night.

The power was supplied by Gary Sanchez and Chris Carter, who each went deep and combined to drive in five runs.

Sanchez broke a scoreless tie in the third inning with a booming 428-foot homer, putting the Yankees up 3-0. It was his 23rd career homer in just his 69th game at the big-league level. The only player in major-league history to hit more homers before his 70th career game is White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (25).

Carter tacked on two more runs with a deep blast to center in the fourth inning, punctuating his breakout 3-for-4 night at the plate. The list of Yankee first baseman to have at least three hits, including a homer, at Kauffman Stadium is a fun one: Lyle Overbay (2013), Tino Martinez (1998, 1999), Don Mattingly (1993), Steve Balboni (1983) and Chris Chambliss (1979). Welcome to the club, Chris!

Sure, chicks dig the longball, but the best story of the game was the strong bounce-back outing by CC Sabathia. The lefty had an ugly 9.58 ERA in his previous four starts entering this series, but delivered a vintage performance with 6 2/3 scoreless and efficient innings.

Sabathia checked off a couple notable milestones in the victory. It was his:

  • 109th win as a Yankee, tying Spud Chandler and Fritz Peterson for 15th place on the franchise all-time list
  • 13th win at Kauffman Stadium, matching the most wins by a visiting pitcher at the ballpark. Justin Verlander, Mark Buehrle and Bert Blyleven also have 13 wins there.

One of the key differences for Sabathia against the Royals was his ability to pitch inside to righties with his cutter. On the left, his cutter location to right-handed batters in his previous four starts from April 21-May 9; on the right, his cutter location to right-handed batters on Tuesday:

cc-cutter-rhb-combined

In his previous four starts, righties hit .346 and slugged .590 overall against Sabathia, including a .407 average and .741 (!) slugging percentage against his cutter. On Tuesday, the Royals right-handed batters went 3-for-16 overall and were 0-for-4 when putting a cutter in play against Sabathia.

(TNS)
(TNS)

Runs, runs, and more runs
Another night, another run-scoring bonanza for the Yankees. They pummeled the Royals on Wednesday, 11-7, their MLB-leading seventh game with more than 10 runs. That’s the same number of 11-plus-run games they had all of last year, and tied with the 1936 club for the second-most in franchise history through 37 team games.

Royals starter Jason Vargas entered the game with the lowest ERA in the league (1.01!), but was shelled early and often by the visitors – a result that shouldn’t have been surprising given his track record against the Bronx Bombers. After surrendering six runs in four innings, his ERA against the Yankees rose to 7.15, the highest by any active player with at least 35 innings pitched against them.

Aaron Hicks contributed to the offensive fireworks with two hits, including a three-run homer, and one walk. After Wednesday’s slate, he was one of 16 major-league players with at least 25 plate appearances and more walks (22) than strikeouts (17). The only other guy on the list with a higher slugging percentage than Hicks (.616) was Bryce Harper (.744).

Starlin Castro led the hit parade with two doubles and a single, his 18th multi-hit game of the season. Over the last 20 years, the only other Yankee to produce 18-or-more multi-hit games within the team’s first 37 contests was Alfonso Soriano, who did it in 2002 and 2003.

Throwback (to 2016) Thursday
The Yankees couldn’t complete the sweep of the last-place Royals, falling 5-1 on Thursday in a game where the offense was M.I.A. for much of the night. It would have been their first series sweep in Kansas City in nearly a decade (September 2007).

Didi Gregorius once again saved the Yankees from being shut out for the first time this season with a one-out RBI single in the ninth inning. They are still one of three teams that haven’t been blanked in 2017, along with the Nationals and Twins.

Although the Yankees have scored at least one run in every game, there’s been some close calls. This was the fourth time that the Yankees had zero runs through eight innings (also on April 18, May 5 and May 12), and this was actually the second time in less than a week that Gregorius was the hero. His RBI single in the ninth inning on May 12 against the Astros was the Yankees only run of that game.

(AP)
(AP)

Jordan Montgomery allowed a career-high five runs in five innings, and the big blow was Mike Moustakas’ three-run homer on a first-pitch slider in the fifth inning. Entering this game, batters were 6-for-34 (.177) with one extra-base hit (double) when putting Montgomery’s slider in play.

Royals starter Danny Duffy was brilliant as he mowed down the Yankee lineup, retiring the first nine batters — six of them via strikeout — before Jacoby Ellsbury‘s bunt single leading off the fourth inning.

Duffy allowed just two more hits in seven scoreless innings while striking out 10. Duffy became the third Royals pitcher with double-digit strikeouts and no runs allowed against the Yankees, joining Tom Gordon (April 20, 1991) and Mark Gubicza (Aug. 17, 1986).

It’s not yet time for the Yankees to remove CC Sabathia from the rotation

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, for the fourth time in his last four starts, CC Sabathia put the Yankees in a early hole, this time by allowing five runs in the second inning. The Reds strung together six singles and a walk that inning. Sabathia did settle down and retire 13 of the final 15 men he faced, but by then it was too late. The Yankees couldn’t come back, which they’d done the last two times Sabathia gave up early runs.

“For whatever reason, (the cutter) was leaking over the plate,” said Sabathia to Andrew Marchand after the game, which matches what my eyes told me. Sabathia couldn’t get the cutter all the way in on righties in that second inning, and they kept making him pay. “It seemed like he didn’t find his cutter until later on. Once he did, it got a lot easier,” added Joe Girardi following the game.

After three excellent starts to begin the season, Sabathia has become the biggest liability in the rotation these last few weeks. We’re talking 22 runs and 42 baserunners in 20.2 innings these last four starts. Yikes. This is reminiscent of the Sabathia we saw from 2013-15, before last season’s resurgence. And with the Yankees playing extremely well overall, it’s only natural to wonder whether Sabathia still belongs in the rotation. Heck, it would be fair to ask that even if they weren’t playing well.

First things first: the Yankees are not pulling Sabathia from the rotation anytime soon, so don’t get your hopes up. They’ve stuck with him through much worse than this and there’s no reason to think that will change. I get the argument that he’s an impending free agent and not part of the long-term future, so give a young player a chance, but I don’t think that means much right now. The Yankees have shown in the past Sabathia has a very long leash and I’m sure the same is true now.

Secondly, I don’t think pulling Sabathia from the rotation would be a smart idea anyway. At least not right now. Sabathia had a miserable eleven-start stretch in the middle of last season — he threw 65 innings with a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) from June 22nd through August 27th last summer — before snapping out of it and finishing strong. Based on what I saw in his first three starts, I think he should be given a chance to work through this.

To put it another way, I’m not convinced this is an irreversible decline and not simply a slump. It happens! Masahiro Tanaka is going through it right now himself. Sabathia’s stuff has been fine outside that one start in Pittsburgh. Last night the cutter averaged 91.0 mph and he generated swings and misses with both his changeup (three on eleven swings) and slider (two on seven swings). The problem is location. Look at lat night’s pitch locations, via Baseball Savant (Trackman calls the cutter a four-seamer for whatever reason):

cc-sabathia-pitch-locations

Way too many pitches out over the plate. Sabathia used to be able to get away with that location earlier in his career. Now he can’t. He has to be on the edges and/or down. Middle-middle is a bad combination and that’s where Sabathia has left too many pitches the last four times out. I’d be more worried if Sabathia lost stuff. If his fastball was more 87-88 mph or something like that. The stuff is pretty much what it was last year. The location is not.

The Yankees do, of course, have options to replace Sabathia should they decide to go that way at some point. Adam Warren is not moving into the rotation, so forget about that. The Yankees still have Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Cessa available to start, and you know what? Odds are they’ll all get the ball at some point. The Yankees have been very fortunate so far. They’re one of seven teams to use only five starters so far. That won’t last forever. The other guys will be needed to start at some point.

Sabathia has been pretty terrible the last four times out, there’s no denying that, though his leash will be long and I think the Yankees are smart to stick with him right now. We can reevaluate things in a few weeks. I think it’s just a matter of correcting some location issues — and Sabathia seemed to do that after the second inning last night, I should add — to get him back to being the league average-ish starter he was last season. It’s still early in the season. Now’s the time for patience, not a drastic reaction to four starts.

Yankeemetrics: Rocky road trippin’ (April 21-23)

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Bad, the Ugly and the Awful
Last year the Yankees went 3-7 on their road Interleague slate, tied with the Twins for the worst record among AL teams … and the trend continued into 2017 after dropping the series opener in Pittsburgh, 6-3, on Friday night.

All the momentum and confidence built up from a strong 8-1 homestand came to a screeching halt thanks to a mix of bad pitching (see below), sloppy defense (two unearned runs) and a lack of clutch hitting (0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base).

CC Sabathia was knocked around early, allowing a lead-off homer on the third pitch he threw and another longball in the second frame, putting the Yankees in 4-0 hole after two innings. Although he settled down and was able to gut through three more innings without allowing another run, he still was tagged for his worst outing of the season.

For whatever reason, Sabathia’s fastball (sinker/cutter) velocity was down significantly from his first three starts, averaging 88.2 mph compared to 90.6 in his first three starts combined …

brooksbaseball-chart-1

… and stuff-wise, each of his fastballs had much less “ride” on Friday, averaging just 7.1 (sinker) and 1.3 (cutter) inches of horizontal movement compared to 11.9 (sinker) and 3.7 (cutter) in his first three starts.

brooksbaseball-chart-2
Unsurprisingly, the Pirates crushed Sabathia’s diminished hard pitches, going 5-for-14 with two homers when putting his fastballs in play. In his first three starts, batters hit .244 and slugged .317 against Sabathia’s sinker/cutter combo.

The Pirates did their best to give the Yankees a chance to win, committing three errors, while the Yankees weren’t credited with an official RBI on any of their three runs scored. It was just the sixth time in franchise history they scored as many as three runs in a game with zero RBI. The last time it happened was May 2, 1989 in a 5-3 loss to the Royals.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Love these Komeback Kids
The Yankees got back in the win column with their sixth comeback win of the season, this time erasing a 3-0 deficit after five innings and cruising to an 11-5 victory.

Starlin Castro ignited the first rally with a three-run homer in the sixth inning that knotted the score at 3-3. It was his 25th longball with the Yankees and the 12th one that either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead – that’s three more than any other Yankee over the last two seasons.

Ronald Torreyes then followed with a two-run double to give the Yankees their first lead, 5-3, in the sixth. Torreyes finished with four hits and two RBI, giving him 13 RBI through the team’s first 17 games. The only other Yankee shortstops with that many RBIs this early into the season were Derek Jeter (1999, 2006) and Frankie Crosetti (1936).

After the Pirates came back to tie the score, Chris Carter delivered his first True Yankee Moment®, belting a tie-breaking, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning – his first time going deep in pinstripes. He is just the fourth Yankee pinch-hitter with a go-ahead homer in an Interleague game, joining Travis Hafner (2013 vs Arizona), Eric Chavez (2012 vs Mets) and Clay Bellinger (2000 vs Braves).

Aaron Judge then put the icing on the cake, connecting for yet another moonshot deep into the left field bleachers at PNC Park. Statcast measured the blast at career-high 457 feet with an exit velocity of 115.6 mph. Since his debut on Aug. 13, 2016, he has hit three homers traveling at least 445 feet. In that span (and through Saturday), only Justin Upton could match Judge in 445-plus foot homers.

It was the sixth time in 2017 that Judge ripped a ball with an exit velocity of at least 115 mph, making the leaderboard of 115-plus mph batted balls this season through Saturday … well, pretty ridiculous:

  • Aaron Judge: 6
  • Joey Gallo: 2
  • Rest of MLB: 9

Supernova’d
As good as the Yankees have been in the Bronx, they’ve been just as bad away from the friendly confines. After dropping the rubber game on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Yankees fell to 0-3 in road series this season.

Ivan Nova — in his first start against the Yankees since being traded away last summer — got some sweet revenge against his former team as he allowed one run in seven efficient innings. It was the ninth time in 15 starts (60%) with the Pirates that Nova gave up one earned or fewer; he did that in just 25 percent of his 118 starts with the Yankees.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Jordan Montgomery continued to show poise on the mound and a knack for pitching out of trouble in another impressive outing. Making his third career start, the 24-year-old rookie scattered seven hits across six innings, surrendering two runs. The Pirates had one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring against Montgomery, who has held batters to a .118 average (2-for-17) with a man on second and/or third in his three starts.

The Yankees had plenty of chances to win the game but repeatedly came up empty. Notably, they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth but Aaron Hicks struck out and then Pete Kozma grounded out to end the game.

This was not an ideal situation for Hicks: he is now 2-for-27 (.074) with the bases loaded in his career, the second-worst mark among active players (min. 25 at-bats). And Kozma is just a bad hitter: his .148 batting average overall since the start of 2015 is better than only two non-pitchers that have at least 100 at-bats in the last three seasons (Craig Gentry, .139 and Erik Kratz, .117).

The starting rotation has been a strength during the Yankees’ seven-game winning streak

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Five games into the 2017 season, everything that could go wrong with the Yankees was going wrong. Their young hitters were struggling, the rotation was providing neither bulk innings nor quality innings, and their greatest strength (Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman) was rendered moot because the rest of the team wasn’t doing its job. The Yankees lost four of their first five games and looked every bit as bad as their 1-4 record suggested.

Fast forward a week, and the Yankees are now riding a seven-game winning streak heading into tonight’s series opener against the rebuilding White Sox. This winning streak started with a late-inning comeback win over the Orioles last Sunday, the kind of game you can easily build a “turning point!” narrative around, and has continued with back-to-back three-game sweeps of the Rays and Cardinals.

Winning seven straight games requires a team effort. The Yankees have not been carried offensively by one player. There seems to be a new hero every night. Aaron Judge hit home runs in three straight games at one point. Aaron Hicks had a two-homer game last week. Last night Greg Bird snapped out of his slump and got in on the fun too. The bullpen has been great as well, even on days Betances and Chapman were unavailable.

One constant during this seven-game winning streak has been strong starting pitching, and given how things played out in those first five games of the season, I didn’t think we’d be able to consider the rotation a strength so soon. The starters have pitched well and they’ve also pitched deep into games, lightening the workload on the bullpen. Here’s the rotation game log for the winning streak:

Date & Opponent Starter IP H R ER BB K HR
April 9th @ Orioles CC Sabathia 6 6 3 2 4 3 0
April 10th vs. Rays Michael Pineda 7.2 2 1 1 0 11 1
April 12th vs. Rays Jordan Montgomery 4.2 5 3 2 2 7 1
April 13th vs. Rays Luis Severino 7 5 2 2 1 11 1
April 14th vs. Cardinals Masahiro Tanaka 6.1 5 3 3 2 5 1
April 15th vs. Cardinals CC Sabathia 7.1 3 1 1 1 6 1
April 16th vs. Cardinals Michael Pineda 7 6 2 2 1 6 1
Totals 46 32 15 13 11 49 6

That’s a seven-game stretch with a 2.54 ERA and a 4.45 K/BB ratio for the starters. They also have a 0.93 WHIP, if WHIP is your thing. Furthermore, the Yankees have gotten at least six innings from their starter in all but one of those seven games, with the only exception being Montgomery’s big league debut. Joe Girardi said he was on a pitch count — Montgomery threw 89 pitches that day after throwing no more than 77 pitches in Spring Training or the minors — plus a kid making his MLB debut tends to have a short leash.

Pineda has been the pitching star during his seven-game winning streak. He retired the first 20 batters he faced in the home opener last Monday, and last night he gave the Yankees another seven strong innings. In a way, last night’s game was more impressive. Pineda had everything working in the home opener, and when that happens, he’s untouchable. Last night he ran into some trouble early, including allowing a two-out run in the second inning, but he settled down and pitched deep into the game. And when Yadier Molina took him deep to start the seventh inning, Pineda shook it off and retired the next three batters without incident. There was no unraveling this time.

“I didn’t think his slider was as sharp as the other day, but he found a way to get through seven innings,” said Girardi after the game. “His stuff got better after the second inning. Fastball and changeup was good. He gave up the one run with two outs, but then he settled down after that and threw a good game. It’s important because you want him to keep building and get some momentum, because he had a hard time doing that last year.”

Amazingly enough, Tanaka has been the Yankees worst starting pitcher in the super early going this year. I didn’t expect to write that at any point this season. His three starts have gotten progressively better — at one point in his last start he retired 17 of 19 batters — but he still looks a little off. Tanaka’s location has not been nearly as good as it usually is so far this year, particularly with his fastball. Check it out, via Brooks Baseball:

masahiro-tanaka-fastball-location

You can click the image for a larger view, which is probably a good idea. Anyway, that is 2016 on the left and 2017 on the right, and we’re looking at Tanaka’s fastball location from the catcher’s point of view. Last year Tanaka lived down in the zone and to his arm side with his heater. This year he’s over the plate and up in the zone more often, and he’s paid dearly for some missed locations already.

Tanaka said all throughout Spring Training he wasn’t right mechanically and I don’t know about you, but I kinda brushed it off because he was dominating. Obviously that was a mistake. I know we’re conditioned to think “Tanaka isn’t pitching well oh no is his elbow hurt?” nowadays — isn’t it awful? man it’s awful — but there’s no reason to think he’s hurt. He’s throwing as hard as he usually does and he’s still going out there every fifth day. Sometimes pitchers fall out of whack mechanically and their location suffers. Tanaka is so darn good that I think it’s only a matter of time until he gets back on track. We saw signs of it in his last start.

Point is, when Tanaka is your worst starting pitcher, even for a 12-game stretch early in the season, that means you must be getting some pretty good work from your other starters. And the Yankees have. Sabathia has been awesome so far, Pineda’s last two outings were impressive, Montgomery showed some positive signs in his start, and Luis Severino has looked far better this year than he did any time as a starter last year. Severino’s improvement and development is incredibly important to the Yankees long-term. He’s part of the new young core.

For now, the starting pitchers are on a roll and have more or less carried the Yankees through this seven-game winning streak. We know it won’t last forever. At some point someone will have a dud start, or the Yankees will need a sixth starter, something like that. That’s baseball. The rotation was an easily identifiable weak spot coming into the season, though right now, there are indications this unit can be a strength, or at least not a glaring weakness.