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Thoughts VII

From Felix Hernandez to Ervin Santana, thirty-one American League pitchers have thrown 120 or more innings so far in 2012. Or put another way, the average American League team has had only two starting pitchers that have been healthy and effective enough to spend the whole year in the rotation.

The Orioles have had the 120 inning mark topped by only Wei-Yin Chen. The Royals have had only Bruce Chen. The Twins have had not had a single pitcher -- Chen or otherwise -- who has thrown 120 innings. Even the successful Rangers and A's have had only a combined four starters that have reached that threshold.

The Yankees are the only team in the American League with four: Hiroki Kuroda (143.2), CC Sabathia (135.0), Ivan Nova (133.0), and Phil Hughes (127.1).

Availability is one of the least appreciated aspects of pitching. Taking the ball every fifth day has a value that extends beyond the raw production provided on the field. The guy dredged up to fill in while a starting pitcher rehabs his oblique or refines his mechanics is probably terrible. Teams that get a lot of starts from that guy are teams that give up a lot of runs.

Which is a roundabout way of taking an optimistic view on Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes having pretty middling seasons. They've both been right around league average, with Hughes having a little bit better surface results and Nova having a little bit better underlying peripherals. Neither has been inspiring, but both have done what they've needed to do.

In 32 fewer innings, Ivan Nova has already given up more doubles, more triples, and more home runs than he did in all of 2011. Batters slugged .384 against him in 2011. So far in 2012, they have slugged .506. Last year, opposing batters were Yuniesky Betancourt. This year, opposing batters are Curtis Granderson. Seeing Nova struggle so much at something that we've seen him excel at is what's so frustrating. When he has his fastball working it's hard to get the ball out of the infield, but I can't remember one start this year when Nova has had his fastball working.

Phil Hughes has also had battles with consistency and reducing hittable pitches. He has thrown a four-seam fastball more than any qualified AL starter, which can be contrasted with Nova who has gone more and more to his breaking ball. If you knocked their heads together enough times, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova could combine and become an effective, balanced pitcher. At this point, both of them are flawed pitchers who we hope have the youth to learn and improve.

But while neither have been flashy, they could combine to throw 400 league average innings while making less money than Pedro Feliciano. Having home grown starters that stick in the rotation is a luxury that the Yankees have rarely been afforded in seasons past. And here's the biggest perk:

In his last sixteen starts, Phil Hughes has allowed three or fewer earned runs fourteen times.
In his last eleven starts, Ivan Nova has allowed three or fewer earned runs nine times.

It seems like a low bar, but pitching in a bandbox with the Yankees offense behind you, that's probably all that you need from your third and fourth starters. If Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes can stay healthy and keep the Yankees in the game just about every time out, the team is going to have a lot of success. It reduces the load on the bullpen, keeps spot starters in AAA, and prevents Brian Cashman from feeling the need to mortgage the future for Ryan Dempster.

Even if one (or both) of them has disappointed you this season, I'd call that a big success.