The 2016 Yankees starting rotation has been slightly above average in terms of value, producing about seven wins above replacement (tied for 11th in the majors according to FanGraphs). Adding in the bullpen, the pitching staff’s value improves to fifth in the majors with 11.7 wins above replacement.
Unfortunately, the Yankees haven’t been able to turn this value into many wins mainly because of a weak offense, but also because the pitching staff is giving up home runs at an incredibly high rate.
Over the last ten seasons, the 2016 Yankees pitching staff owns the second-worst home run rate with a 1.37 HR/9 and 16.8% HR/FB. The Yankees are much worse than the league average HR/FB of 10%. The only team worse is the 2016 Cincinnati Reds, who are one of the worst teams in the majors this season.
Since HR/FB rate can vary heavily from season to season, it’s worth looking at the starting rotation because they’ve thrown the most innings, and therefore the most fly balls. Below is a list of Yankees starters who have contributed either positively or negatively to the home run explosion against the team this season.
CC Sabathia, 0.61 HR/9, 6.5% HR/FB
Sabathia has been one of the brightest spots of this year’s team. Both his HR/9 and HR/FB rate are the best of his career, putting him in elite company. His HR/9 is 10th best among pitchers with a minimum of 80 inning pitched, and his HR/FB rate ranks third-best. Given everything that Sabathia has been through this past year, you can’t help but be amazed at how good he has been.
Masahiro Tanaka, 0.77 HR/9, 10.1% HR/FB
Tanaka’s HR/9 rate ranks 21st in the majors among qualified starters. Out of his three seasons as a Yankee, he is currently giving up the least number of home runs according to both metrics. Because his home run/fly ball rate is around league average, we’re seeing a pretty accurate picture of what Tanaka is capable of. If he continues these rates over the rest of the season, it will probably be his most valuable season so far.
Michael Pineda, 1.61 HR/9, 19.4% HR/FB
Pineda owns the twelfth-worst HR/9 rate among qualified starters in the majors this season. In his career so far, Pineda was excellent as a rookie in 2011 (9% HR/FB), and even better in his return to the mound as a Yankee in 2014 (5.4% HR/FB). In 2015, he had a 14.7% HR/FB, which might seem a bit unlucky if he wasn’t having such a bad season this year. He was projected to have a HR/9 between 1.05-1.24 this season, which really highlights how bad his current 1.61 HR/9 rate is. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his home run rates regress to the mean over the rest of the season and next.
Nathan Eovaldi 1.78 HR/9, 20.4% HR/FB
While we may have had a hint about Pineda’s issues with home runs, Eovaldi’s struggles have come out of nowhere. He currently owns the tenth worst HR/9 rate among qualified starters this season. From 2011-2015, his HR/FB rates were 6.1%, 8.1%, 6.4%, 6.6%, and 7.8%, respectively. Having better than average rates in those five seasons, a case can be made that Eovaldi has been either unlucky or something is mechanically wrong.
Ivan Nova, 1.69 HR/9, 21.4% HR/FB
Nova tops this list and that’s really not a good thing. He currently has the sixth-worst HR/9 among pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings. Nova’s home run rates have been pretty inconsistent over his career. In 2012 and 2015, he was worse than league average, and in 2011 and 2013, he was better than average. Of the current starting rotation, Nova seems the least likely to improve his home run rate this year. It’s now been several years and a major surgery since his career-best 2013 season.
If Pineda, Eovaldi, and Nova were giving up home runs at the league average rate, the Yankees would have a much better rotation. The 2016 Yankees rotation could have been much better according to their 3.64 xFIP, though that also assumes a perhaps unrealistic league-average home run rate. Over the next few months we’ll see whether or not the Yankees have been unlucky or if three-fifths of their rotation are truly a liability.