In the wake of Ivan Nova's strong spot start this past Saturday (7 IP, 2 R, 1 BB, 6 K), the Yankees decided to go with a six-man rotation for a week to get one more look at both Nova and Phil Hughes before deciding who would remain as their fifth starter. Tuesday night, Hughes responded to the challenge from Nova, and some mechanical tweeks from pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and turned in by far his best start of the season, needing just 65 pitches to throw a rain-shortened, six-inning shutout in which he allowed just three men to reach base, none of whom got past first base, and got his fastball up to 95 miles per hour.
That performance presented Joe Girardi and his coaching staff with a problem they're happy to have.
"We have to talk about this," Girardi said late Tuesday night. "Maybe we stay at six-man rotation through another time. I don’t know what we’re going to do at this moment, but I’m happy with what I saw tonight, and I really liked it."
Now, sabermetric orthodoxy argues that baseball should be trending in the other direction, back toward the four-man rotation. The argument being that, as long as they are conditioned to do so, there is no evidence that starting pitchers are at any higher risk for injury pitching every four days than they are pitching every five days, thus there's no reason to give 30 starts and 160-plus innings to the fifth-best starting pitcher in your organization (and/or his replacements), when those starts and innings can be consumed by superior pitchers. I strongly agree with that and have thus watched with a mix of horror and disappointment as six-man rotations have become one of the season's hot trends, with the White Sox, Royals, and Rays each employing six starters at different points this season before the Yankees jumped on the bandwagon this week.
That said, I think the six-man set may make sense for the this Yankee pitching staff at this particular point of this season (and hopefully never ever again). Here's why:
To start, the Yankees have a seven-game lead in the Wild Card race and no particular incentive to prefer winning the division (in which they trail the Red Sox by just one game with a three-game set in Boston coming this weekend). Yes, if the playoff started now, they'd be facing the Justin Verlander-led Tigers in a short series, but the Tigers and Rangers are only 2 1/2 games apart, so jockeying for position based on a likely first-round opponent is pointless. Rather, the Yankees' primary goals over the next two months should be avoiding disaster and getting their players where they need to be for the playoffs.
The six-man rotation aids them in pursuit of both goals. Most obviously, it gives the team an extended period in which to evaluate both Hughes and Nova. Hughes, you'll remember, was one of the Yankees top three pitchers heading into last year's playoffs and turned in a fantastic start in the Division Series clincher against the Twins. If what he showed in Chicago on Tuesday night was real, he could reestablish himself as a playoff starter given sufficient opportunity over the remainder of the season. Meanwhile, Nova is, in my opinion, the Yankees' fourth-best starter right now, and at the very least deserves a chance to prove that he is or isn't, as the top four men in the rotation will form the playoff rotation. What's more, to be fair, A.J. Burnett, who I argued should have been bounced from the rotation instead of Nova when Hughes returned and who hasn't turned in a quality start since June, deserves the same opportunity, as he has been the rotation's weakest link, but has been far from awful, posting a 4.83 ERA and a 9.9 K/9 in July with at least 5 1/3 innings pitched and no more than four runs allowed in any of his five starts on the month.
The six-man rotation also eases the load each pitcher is bearing. We already know that Bartolo Colon is in terrible shape and could snap in half at any moment. We saw him pull a hamstring covering first, then baby that leg after his return, with disastrous effects. The 109 innings he has already tossed this season are the most he's thrown since 2005, he didn't play at all last year, and he's 38 year's old. He's also the team's second-best pitcher. The Yankees need to do whatever they can to keep him healthy into October. The six-man rotation is one of the more significant ways the Yankees can protect Colon down the stretch.
Similarly, Freddy Garcia, the team's current number-three, threw 100 more innings last year than he had in any of the previous three seasons, and he's on pace to exceed last year's innings total by roughly another 20 frames. He's not as brittle or, at 34, as old as Colon, but the extra days off wouldn't hurt.
Then there's CC Sabathia. My first instinct upon considering the validity of the Yankees sticking with the six-man rotation was to suggest that they keep Sabathia working on four-day's rest while the rest of the rotation moves around him on five-day's rest. That is, let CC slip in every fifth day rather than stay in rotation with the rest so as to not reduce the innings thrown by a man who is one of the three-best pitchers in the league at the moment (and most other moments as well). Then I looked at Sabathia's innings total.
Sabathia is on pace to throw 264 2/3 innings. To put that in context, the last man to throw more than 260 innings was Roy Halladay . . . in 2003. To gather up the last four 260-inning seasons, you have to go back to 1998, two of those four were tossed by Randy Johnson, and one of Johnson's seasons was 260 innings exactly, less than Sabathia is projected to throw this year. Sabathia absolutely belongs among those names and very likely could endure such a load without ill-effects, but why risk it when the Yankees need him to dominate in October. Why burn him out protecting a seven-game lead in the Wild Card race when they can give him an extra day each time through the rotation without much additional risk of blowing that lead?
Sabatha's season high in innings pitched was 253 in 2008, the season he split between the Indians and Brewers. Sabathia tanked in his lone playoff start that October and the Brewers were eliminated in the first-round. The belief was that Sabathia used up all his bullets pitching the Brewers into the playoffs. The next year, Sabathia threw "just" 230 regular season innings, and thus had plenty of ammunition left to help lead the Yankees to a World Series win. Add in his playoff work, and Sabathia threw 266 1/3 innings in the regular and post-seasons combined in 2009. This year, he's on pace to throw roughly as many in the regular season alone.
Combine the need to keep Sabathia fresh for October and the benefit of being able to properly evaluate Hughes, Nova, and Burnett (the last is wishful thinking, perhaps, but the Yankees did drop Burnett from the ALDS rotation last year) over a longer period of time, and I would actually strongly advocate that the Yankees stick with the six-man rotation as long as they can down the stretch, perhaps even going so far as to use minor league reinforcements to keep the rotation at six men in the event of an injury to or extreme poor performance from one of the current six starters.
I can't believe I just wrote that.