Any other team would be in trouble right now. The Yankees had exactly one pitcher they could rely on the first month of the season, and even he started slow out of the gate. One pitcher suffered a torn labrum. Another, an aging veteran one year rental, couldn’t get an out. Another more expensive veteran wasn’t living up to his $11 million billing. The young starter who surpassed expectations last year had done the opposite so far. Finally, the guy who was supposed to be a changed man coming out of Spring Training was didn’t follow through in April. Somehow they managed to still sport a decent record that wasn’t too far off the teams at the top of the AL East.
Brian Cashman and the front office did not panic. They moved Garcia to the pen and gave David Phelps a shot to start while reinforcements in the form of a certain cagy lefty veteran were on their way. In the meantime, they gave Phil Hughes a few more outings to see if he could right the ship.
As it turned out, Phelps gave the team a better chance to win than Garcia, and sure enough Phil Hughes has began to turn it around. Pettitte made his return looking like the same guy that retired after the 2010 season. Kuroda brought his ERA down to 3.96 despite some inconsistent performances, an uncharacteristically high WHIP (1.37) and an uncharacteristically low strike out rate (5.4 per nine IP). His most recent outing was a stellar eight shutout inning performance against the admittedly light hitting A’s. The biggest remaining question mark is whether Ivan Nova can turn things around.
After a horrific April performance, the team ERA is down to 4.09, which is better than it was in 2009 (4.27) when they won the world series, and not that far off from last year’s paltry 3.73 ERA. In April, the team ERA was 4.33, but this month the team ERA through May 28th is 3.87. Unfortunately this has not translated to consistent winning, but that has been more of a result of the lack of hitting, which appears to be improving recently.
Let’s go through the rotation and see specifically why the team is in good shape with it’s current staff.
First you have the unquestionable ace of the staff, CC Sabathia. Very few people would argue that Sabathia isn’t going to continue to do what he’s done for his past few starts. It is well known that Sabathia starts slow, and this season has been no exception. He’s hitting his stride and there’s not much to worry about on the number one starter front.
Then it gets a bit blurrier. It appears that Andy Pettitte is the second best starter on the team right now. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to keep up what he’s done for the first three starts, but I can’t think of a reason why he wouldn’t. His stuff is the same as before, and he’s still able to hit all of his spots at this stage in his career. His mechanics are perfect and that cutter is still a difficult pitch to hit. I don’t know if I’m ready to anoint Andy the number two starter for the playoffs, but he could force himself into that role.
So far you have to give the number three slot to Hiroki Kuroda. Although he has been disappointing to many, and most certainly inconsistent, he has managed to keep his ERA under 4.0. This is actually not much worse than what was expected of him. Given that he came from the Dodgers and the NL, there was bound to be a regression from the 3.07 ERA he put together last season. If Hiroki can develop some consistency then he will be an excellent number two or three pitcher come playoff time. If not, he’s on a relatively inexpensive one year deal and he’s still going to win this team some games.
Phil Hughes has clearly had one of the most dichotomous seasons of any Yankees pitcher so far in 2012. His April ERA of 7.88 was almost double his 4.66 ERA thus far in May. His peripheral statistics in April were actually pretty good, so there was bound to be a regression to the mean, but he also started attacking hitters and hasn’t made as many mistakes. Take away his most recent start and his ERA was 3.56 in May. His stuff is still much better than last season. He should be able to continue this success, and if he does he will be one of the best fourth starters in the league, and might even squeeze himself into the playoff rotation.
Finally there’s Ivan Nova. Nova still has an inflated 5.4 ERA. He has not been particularly impressive in any of his recent starts save the most recent against the A’s. Even then he let up three runs which was actually a lot considering how the A’s have hit recently. I’m not sure what exactly is wrong with Nova. He seems to have lost his greatest asset from last season, which is his control. Nova has been leaving balls up in the zone left and right, and opposing hitters have consistently made him pay for it. He’s letting up too many homeruns, and he’s simply missing spots. It could be mental or mechanical. Knowing Nova he will not let it rattle him, and he will find a solution. I only say this because he’s done it before, and I couldn’t think of a better coach to help him than Larry Rothschild. The talent is there, he just has to make his pitches.
Aside from the starting five, it is remarkable that the Yankees have still maintained a fair amount of depth. Garcia can make a spot start at any time, and Phelps has already shown that he can hold his own against major league lineups. D.J. Mitchell is ready to fill in if needed. Adam Warren is currently struggling, but if he is able to turn it around in Tripe-A he represents a ninth option.
The one thing that has plagued Yankees teams in the post 2000 era is a lack of pitching. Even last season, when the team had the best ERA in years, they still seemed to be thin on pitching in the playoffs. This year it was hard to watch this staff pitch in April. They put worry into the hearts of many Yankees fans after the pitching staff was supposed to be a strength. There were injuries and ineffectiveness, and just about everything that could go wrong did.
Now that the dust has settled a bit, and pitchers have regressed to their mean while Pettitte’s return has stabilized the rotation, things are looking significantly better. Many fans are still not confident in the starters Girardi is putting out there, but they will start to turn the corner as this starting rotation continues to solidify itself.