One of the bigger early stories of the Yankees' season in 2014 has been the unusual starting rotation. Signing Japanese standout Masahiro Tanaka in the off-season appears to be a brilliant move, as the 25-year-old righthander has been arguably the best pitcher in the American League thus far. After Tanaka though, it's a big step down to the rest of the rotation.
Of the Opening Day rotation, supposed ace CC Sabathia was ineffective and is now out indefinitely due to his degenerative knee. Breakout candidate Ivan Nova was dreadful, then was lost for the season thanks to the Tommy John surgery epidemic. Hiroki Kuroda is showing his age and has been mediocre, a far cry from the rotation stalwart he was during the past two seasons. Michael Pineda looked tremendous in his first three starts, but a pine tar suspension and a shoulder muscle injury have put him on the shelf since mid-April. In the injured starters' place, the Yankees have turned to three relatively inexperienced pitchers to help the team stay afloat: David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, and Chase Whitley. Mostly a reliever in his three-year career, Phelps did have 23 MLB starts to his credit prior to 2014, but Nuno had just three and Whitley had none.
On the plus side, none of the trio have been truly repulsive the way temporary starters like Sergio Mitre, Chase Wright, and Tim Redding have been in the past. Teams could do a lot worse than the numbers posted so far by Phelps, Nuno, and Whitley. The biggest downside to them so far is that they just haven't given the Yankees many innings. To be fair, that was to be expected since Phelps and Nuno each needed a start or two to get stretched out after beginning the year in the bullpen, and Whitley was just converted from a full-time minor league reliever late last year.
The Yankees have been able to get by with these shorter outings since, as Chris noted the other day, Dellin Betances and Adam Warren have been outstanding out of the bullpen, providing several outings of multiple innings thanks to their previous starting experience. Since they are both young and used to throwing more innings in a season than the typical reliever, there's a decent chance that neither will fade too much as the season wears on, but Joe Girardi cannot ask them to go multiple innings every night. Beyond them, the current middle relief options are Preston Claiborne and Alfredo Aceves, soooo yeah. Girardi will want to stay away from them. Check out where the Yankees currently rank compared to the rest of MLB in terms of average starting pitcher innings per game, and where they stood last year:
|Rank||2014 Team||GS||SP IP||IP/GS|
|Rank||2013 Team||GS||SP IP||IP/GS|
Oy. It would be cherry-picking to remove Tanaka's starts from the 2014 chart since logically, every team's numbers would suffer with their best pitcher's workload removed from the sample, but the Yankees' IP/GS would look quite bad without Tanaka. Here's how their starters have done individually so far:
While there's some small sample size mixed in there, the product has not been great thus far. Tanaka is far above above the MLB average from the past couple years of just below six innings per start. Outside of him though, Kuroda is in second at right-on-the-dot average from MLB starters to date in 2014. Contrast that to 2013, when he averaged 6.29 innings per start, and 2012, when he averaged 6.66 innings per start, and it's clear that his stamina seems to be slowly fading. That shouldn't be too surprising from a pitcher who turned 39 in February. The Yankees need a little bit more than what they're getting from Kuroda though, if not only to decrease the pressure on the rest of the rotation.
The other young starters have to pitch more innings than the below-average rates they've posted so far. Whitley has yet to pitch more than five innings, and Phelps and Nuno have combined to pitch past the sixth inning just three times. As Brad Vietrogoski observed, there is hope that perhaps the trio is slowly stretching out, as they've improved enough to encourage Girardi to allow them to pitch longer than normal in their most recent starts. For the long-term success of the bullpen, hopefully that is the case because otherwise, the relievers will wear down in a hurry. The starters simply have to eat more innings.