Assessing the 2009 Yankees Rotation in Historical, Championship Perspective

Peter Menking has done a terrific job breaking down the current rotation, including today’s post on Joba Chamberlain, to provide readers with a good glimpse into what they may expect from a strong 2010 rotation. In turn, I figured a look back at last year’s championship staff would allow a worthwhile comparison between last season and the impending one, as well as a comparative glance back to the great Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s. In the process, this approach illustrates not only that last year’s pitching was excellent and a crucial element on the road to the World Series, but also that the 2009 staff, most of whom returns in bolstered form for 2010, compares rather favorably in many ways to the great late ‘90s teams.

Some notes on methodology: I utilized a rubric from a post last year at The Heartland, modified from Tom Verducci and Joe Torre’s The Yankee Years. In it (p. 460) Verducci charts pitchers’ W-L, ERA, innings pitched, and K/9 ratio for the Yankee starters from 2001-2007 to contend that as the decade wound on, the Yankees lacked dominant “alpha” starters with strikeout ability, costing them particularly in the playoffs.  I used this then, with some alterations, to compare the 2001-2007 non-championship years to the late 1990s dynasty to illustrate the excellence, reliability, and strikeout-ability especially among alpha starters during the dynasty, and express hope that last year’s team would replicate the dynasty rather than the pretenders of the interregnum, which they sure did. I added two important subcategories—replacement player statistics and WHIP.

Parsing primary from replacement starters provides a more nuanced comparison that confirms but also partially refutes Verducci’s primary premise—that rotations with “alpha” strikeout starters and multiple aces propel teams on championship runs. WHIP and replacement starter categories assess the vital area of rotation depth and to what degree it has determined success, and their overall quality and efficiency with WHIP—to me a seminal statistic.

I categorized as primary starters those who began the season barring injury, being the presumed or career starters, and returning from injury (e.g., David Cone in 1996). Importantly, I broke down last year’s primary starters to both include and exclude Chien-Ming Wang, for his statistics were so anomalous with the rest of his career and, frankly, with what any serviceable starter would provide. This revealed further just how good last year’s staff was despite Wang’s immense struggles, as I will discuss later.

Below are the charts. The first is last year’s primary starters (P), with the number of starts in parentheses. The second chart contains the 2009 replacement pitchers (R), and again the starts following parenthetically. The third compares last year’s primary and replacement statistics with their predecessors from 1996-2000, with the ranks in bold; primary first, then replacement, with primary ranked against primary and replacement against replacement. For the replacement starters, I inverted the rankings for IP from the primary to the replacement starters; that is, for primary starters, pitching more innings ranked that year’s staff higher. For replacement starters, pitching more innings that season ranked them lower. This was to treat as more valuable, comparatively, those staffs that logged more innings, and to devalue those that, for injury or inefficiency, did not and thrust more of the workload onto replacements.

2009 Primary (P) W-L ERA IP K/9 WHIP
Sabathia (#34) 19-8 3.37 230 7.7 1.148
Burnett (#33) 13-9 4.04 207 8.5 1.401
Pettite (#32) 14-8 4.16 194 2/3 6.8 1.382
Chamberlain (#31) 9-6 4.78 156 1/3 7.6 1.554
Wang (#9) 1-6 11.38 34 5.8 2.176
TOTAL w/Wang (#139) 56-37 4.33 822 7.6 1.387
TOTAL (without Wang) (#130) 55-31 4.02 788 7.7 1.353
2009 Replacement W-L ERA IP K/9 WHIP
Hughes (#7) 3-2 5.45 34 2/3 8.9 1.500
Aceves (#1) 0-0 8.10 3 1/3 5.4 1.500
Mitre (#9) 3-3 7.16 44 5.5 1.750
Gaudin (#6) 1-0 3.19 31 6.7 1.387
TOTAL (#23) 7-5 5.58 113 6.6 1.566
Season & # Starts W-L, % & Rank ERA & Rank IP & Rank K/9 & Rank WHIP & Rank
1996 P (#134) 62-36 .633 (4) 4.38 (5) 809 (5) 6.3 (6) 1.397 (5)
1996 R (#28) 5-13 .278 (6) 9.11 (6) 112 2/3 (2) 5.4 (4) 2.050 (6)
1997 P (#137) 61-34 .642 (2) 3.91 (2) 879 1/3 (3) 6.9 (4) 1.339 (2)
1997 R (#25) 11-8 .579 (4) 5.48 (4) 138 (6) 6.9 (1) 1.558 (4)
1998 P (#142) 79-35 .693 (1) 3.72 (1) 947 1/3 (1) 7.3 (2) 1.230 (1)
1998 R (#20) 7-4 .636 (1) 4.98 (2) 114 (4) 4.0 (6) 1.333 (1)
1999 P (#152) 68-46 .596 (5) 4.31 (4) 945 (2) 7.0 (3) 1.394 (4)
1999 R (#10) 3-4 .429 (5) 4.93 (1) 57 2/3 (1) 6.1 (3) 1.526 (3)
2000 P (#137) 55-51 .519 (6) 4.80 (6) 849 (4) 6.7 (5) 1.409 (6)
2000 R (#24) 10-7 .588 (2) 5.37 (3) 115 2/3 (5) 4.1 (5) 1.504 (2)
2009 P (w/out Wang) (#130; w/Wang in italics, 139)

55-31 .640 (3)

56-37 .602 (4)

4.02 (3)

4.33 (4)

788 (6)

822 (5)

7.7 (1)

7.6 (1)

1.353 (3)

1.387 (3)

2009 R (#23) 7-5 .583 (3) 5.58 (5) 113 (3) 6.6 (2) 1.566 (5)

Why 1998 tops all: The best and deepest staff of these championship teams, 1998 leads more categories than any other. Cone (20-7, 3.55 ERA, 207 2/3 IP), Andy Pettite (16-11, 4.30 ERA, 213 1/3 IP), and David Wells (18-4, 3.49 ERA, 214 1/3 IP) started at least 30 games and threw over 200 innings, while El Duque Hernandez’s ascendancy to alpha (12-4, 3.13 ERA, 1.170 WHIP, the great Game 4 ALCS gem in Cleveland) moved Ramiro Mendoza (10-2 overall/6-1, 3.87, 1.155 WHIP as starter) back to the bullpen, where he spent much of his career (and is why, despite starting the season in the rotation, is slotted as “replacement” here statistically). Loaded with pitching studs, they also had the best run differential (1.91/game) since the equally great 1939 Yankees (a whopping 2.72/game), and an AL-leading ERA+ of 116.

Despite not being a championship team, 1997 exhibited great pitching numbers, had many of the same pitchers from before and after (Pettite, Cone, Wells, Kenny Rogers, Doc Gooden, Mendoza who started 15 of those 25 replacement starts, and Irabu), with Pettite (18-7, 2.88 ERA, 240 1/3 IP) and Cone (12-6, 2.82 ERA, 195 IP, 10.2 K/9) anchoring the staff.

Last year’s rotation ranks very closely behind 1997, to me.  C.C. Sabathia was a genuine ace, going at least 7 innings in 13 of the first 14 starts after the All-Star break to become a flat-out horse, flirting with no-no’s twice against Boston, and dominating in a great playoff run. A.J. Burnett was inconsistent but at times dominant, at his best in that great, 2-0, 15-inning classic August 7 Bronx duel versus Josh Beckett, and Game 2 of the Series. Lefty gained momentum in the second half and clinched all three post-season series with wins at age 37. Joba became shakier as his work became irregular, but had flashes of brilliance, built up innings, took the ball regularly, and has a strong shot to start in 2010. Even with Wang’s historically abysmal starts, the rotation was still very good. Four starters made 30+ starts, something only the ’99 Yanks did, and the ’09 Yanks’ staff was overall superior to 1999’s.

Had Wang thrown just 160 innings—slightly more than Joba did under limitations last season—the ’09 Yankees’ primary starters would have logged more innings than any 1996-2000 rotation. Joba may have been inconsistent, but he, C.C., A.J., and Pettite threw more innings (788) than the top four starters in any rotation from 1996-2000 except 1998 (806 1/3)–with Joba’s work limited. That’s impressive and attests to their excellence and, just as important, durability. Among last year’s replacements, Chad Gaudin was fairly good, Phil Hughes decent before shining in set-up duty, and Sergio Mitre often painful but no more so than Hideki Irabu in ‘97 (5-3, 7.01 ERA, 1.672 WHIP in 43 2/3 IP).

Common characteristics of these terrific teams:

Durability: Most if not all teams had several starters log 28-34 starts and a few from 180-220 innings, if not more. Even the ’96 team had a strong and mostly consistent rotation, with Cone making only 11 starts after a career-threatening aneurysm. Torre had to cobble together starts with young, inexperienced replacements in David Weathers (0-2, 14.81 ERA), Scott Kameniecki (1-2, 13.50 ERA), Mendoza (3-5, 7.35 ERA), off-setting an otherwise strong primary starter performance that year. Overall, they reduced the need to rely on replacements who, other than a maturing, unusually flexible and dependable Mendoza, were usually filler. Great and good pitchers took the ball every fifth day and, more often than not, were healthy.

Out Efficiency: Here is where I differ somewhat from Verducci’s emphasis on the “alpha” strikeout ability. Yes, it mattered much on last year’s team, from the primary to the secondary starters to, as I will show in my next post, the superb bullpen—more than any team from 1996-2000. Yes it helped especially against the Angels and Phillies. Yet Verducci’s focus on 2001-2007 elides the fact that, except for 1998, the late 1990s teams relied far less on the K than the 2001 (7.79 K/9) and 2002 (7.32 K/9) teams. The 1998 team’s primary starters had a strong K/9 at 7.3, but it was also efficiency that won for them and other teams. The 1998 team had the lowest BAA in the AL (.247) yet was 10th in GIDP induced (118). Not just the K’s, but the combination of strikeout ability and reducing hits and walks, is what matters. In this, Verducci overlooks how plenty of pitchers during these years—Wells in 1998 (6.8 K/9, 1.045 WHIP), Irabu in 1998 (Yes, even Irabu—6.5 K/9, 1.287 WHIP yet didn’t throw a post-season pitch), Pettite in 1997 (6.2 K/9, 1.240 WHIP), El Duque in 2000 (6.5 K/9, 1.211 WHIP)—were good (Irabu) or alpha starters (the others) without just being strikeout artists. Their K/9 ratios hovered near the 6.55 of the 2004 staff that had a 4.82 ERA, and the 6.91 K/9 that the 2003 starters had—that middle stretch when Verducci says the Yanks needed strikeout pitchers. The championship staffs got batters out every which way, not just with the K.

Depth, But Not Overexposed: The horses took the ball, with the late 1990s teams exceedingly reliant on Mendoza for spot starts without relying much on other young, usually inferior pitchers. Last year, the Yanks needed Mitre for just 9 starts, not the 15 that Sidney Ponson threw in 2008 (4-4, 5.85 ERA, 1.638 WHIP), or the 20 from Darrell Rasner in ’08 (5-10, 5.40 ERA, 1.535 ERA), or a not-ready-for-prime time Ian Kennedy for 9 (0-4, 8.17 ERA, 1.916 WHIP). The more inferior (for youth, inexperience, or narrow margin for error) pitching gets seen, the greater the chances it gets hit. Rasner’s first six starts of ’08 were good, most of the rest were subpar to poor, and he wasn’t accustomed to that much work at that level. Last year, the Yanks’ four best made 80% of their starts, paralleling the results especially from 1997-1999—and the championships of the latter two.

One championship does not a dynasty make. Yet with C.C., A.J., and Pettite returning, Vazquez the #4, and Joba or Hughes the fifth starter, the Yankees have more than enough talent to contend for a second straight title after an outstanding 2009 run. C.C. has historically been durable (223 innings over his career, 162-game average). To me, A.J. is the linchpin. The last two seasons are the only two back-to-back 200-inning seasons of his career. When he pitches, he is usually very good, sometimes dominant. Can he stay healthy, reduce the walks and homers, and improve upon last year’s 13-9, 4.04? Can Pettite, turning 38 in June, continue to defy age? Given their stacked offense (915 runs in ’09), if the rotation stays healthy and makes outs efficiently—if they provide the continuity and perennial excellence that the late 1990s pitchers did—the 2010 Yankees have an excellent chance to repeat.

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7 Responses to Assessing the 2009 Yankees Rotation in Historical, Championship Perspective

  1. I think this team has potential to be a mini dynasty. They might not even win, but I think for at the next at least 2 or 3 years they have potential to be elite. I'd say they have 6 very capable starters right now. Then you can supplement them next year with one of the big free agents, Lee, Beckett, Webb.

    I'd say Joba and Hughes are going to make a big difference in the future. If they have two guys who throw 750 innings each over the next 4 seasons, obviously a best case scenario, things will be very good in the Bronx.

  2. swedski says:

    Good post! nice to see you back.
    I think that the Yanks have finally gone back to the understanding that its pitching that wins you Titles. We can analayze the hell out of this statistically but the truth is the Yanks finally had 3 good starters and now have four or five (as you pointed out). It will be fun to watch them go head to head with the Sox and see who cracks first. This is what we want, competitive teams that fight it out.

    I am looking forward to the 2010 season

  3. great job jason– i can't help but wonder if by the end of the 2010 season in javy might well be the #2. of course he has a lot to prove in the playoffs..and not just for the yanks but white sox as well. lets hope they all stay healthy..

  4. smurfy says:

    Jason, I strongly agree with your departure from Verducci's emphasis on K's. At the worst times, they're indispensable, but over the long haul, gimme ground balls with a sharp infield, and that rally-killing double play!

    Also agree that AJ is key: he's got phenominal stuff; if he can better harness it, refine his tactical approach, probably pitching more to contact, we'll have lots of delightful, quick wins to watch.

    Your stats show one thing clearly: CC is so, so goood. I was prejudiced against his body type, but no more. May he keep it up!

  5. Joe says:

    Part of why they were less reliant on the K's back in the late 90's — and still achieved positive results — can most likely be attributed to a superior defense as well.

  6. Joe says:

    Oh, and good post. Great writing!

  7. Agreed all around, Rob. With health, the Yanks are on the cusp of it.

    Thanks, Mark (swedski). It's good to be writing about baseball. Right there with you about the eagerness for 2010, the competition with Boston and others, and the rotation. They were terrific in 2009, really the biggest difference maker.

    Thanks, Mike. You might be right about Javy and, if memory serves, I believe you said the same thing about Pettite last year, and that came to pass. Health is the key, no two ways about it.

    smurfy, we see eye-to-eye on the ground balls and DPs. That's also in good part what made C.C. tremendous. He used his nasty slider to fan batters, but also did a good job using his two-seamer to get more ground balls later in games. Smart, effective pitching. I totally agree about C.C. and what a great pitcher–and person–he was. I harbored some concern about his motion, with that drop-hitch, but it helps him hide the ball, and his mechanics are very sound and consistent. The guy was a flat-out STUD in 2009, and that the Yanks have him wrapped up for six more years is beautiful.

    Thanks, Joe the Statistician Magician! You're absolutely right about the defense, which was much improved last year. I wish I had a little more time to assess that, but maybe down the road. Interestingly enough, the Yankees were second-last in opponents' GIDP last year. In part, it shows how reliant on the K that they were. Yet guys like C.C., Pettite, and even Mitre and Gaudin generated some ground balls. Like smurfy, I'd like to see more of that in 2010.