Years from now, an historian of baseball might look upon the 2016 Yankees and see a treasure trove of interesting items. He or she could point to the abysmal start, the fire-sale at the trade deadline, Alex Rodriguez’s departure, the emergence of Gary Sanchez, or the improbable late season surge. That seems like it would be plenty of material to work with to write a compelling history.
There’s also the story of the team’s remarkably poor starting pitching. So far, Yankees starters have averaged a 4.50 ERA, with a not much better 4.35 FIP. That’s a staff that includes Masahiro Tanaka, who currently leads the American League with a 2.97 ERA. The non-Tanaka starters have been mediocre at best and comically awful at worst. The pitching woes would make quite a chapter.
The historian, however, is trained to look for patterns. When it comes to the Yankees pitching, he or she will find that the troubles reveal a much larger problem within the organization. There is a crisis within the Yankees pitching philosophy, one that has persisted for the better part of the previous five seasons. The style of pitchers that the organization targets has been largely responsible for the current malaise.
The Yankee clearly have a “type” when it comes to starting pitchers. The team loves tall, hard-throwers, the kind who miss bats and limit walks. Generally speaking, that’s a great place to start when it comes to starting pitchers. The problem, however, is those sorts of pitchers tend to be ace-like and they’re pretty difficult to come by.
That hasn't stopped the Yankees from trying. In 2012, the team acquired Michael Pineda from Seattle, a talented yet flawed pitcher coming off of a strong rookie campaign. They executed the same strategy in 2014 when they made a trade with the Miami Marlins for flame-thrower Nathan Eovaldi. In a span of three years the Yankees put together two significant trades for high-upside pitchers.
Unfortunately, neither acquisition has worked out the way the front office anticipated. Interestingly enough, Pineda and Eovaldi have overlapping struggles. Both pitchers fit into the classic control but not command box. They have no problem throwing strikes. Pineda’s 2.58 BB/9 ranks among the best in the American League. They rarely walk batters. The real issue is that they throw too many strikes.
Pineda gets an awful lot of swings in the zone because he rarely deviates from it. He notoriously struggles to put away batters on 0 - 2 counts because he seemingly can’t expand the strike zone. Everything goes right over the plate, which is good control but terrible command.
There’s a similar case to be made for Eovaldi:
The hard-throwing, low-walk pitchers they acquired turn out to be eminently hittable. Perhaps it’s time to re-formulate the strategy. That’s not to say that the organization should go hunting exclusively for soft-tossers and command artists. The focus, however, should expand beyond high-upside strike throwers with little chance of commanding the zone.
Another problem with the Yankees pitching philosophy is the seemingly glaring disconnect between the front office and the coaching staff. It’s known that management-level has a sabermetric slant. General Brian Cashman was among the first the openly discuss exit velocity after the Chase Headley trade. That’s pretty progressive stuff! On the contrary, pitching coach Larry Rothschild seems less inclined to buy into advanced stats.
"There’s something to winning. Pitchers that win, they know how to win. They know how to get through games. They know how to win games when they don't have their good stuff. I know how a lot of peripheral numbers have changed the thought process. But I still think wins are important."
That’s a notably traditional take on pitching, and one that seems to compete with the front office. Could this have an impact on the field? It’s possible. Rothschild might find it challenging to work with sabermetric darlings. The peripheral stats that interest Cashman might not work with the pitching coach. While this is speculation, it highlights a philosophical disagreement within the organization.
There are exceptions, of course. Tanaka has six-pitches that he can throw in any count. He’s not a one-dimensional hard thrower. That’s in addition to his pinpoint command. There’s also the case of Brandon McCarthy, who excelled in his stint in pinstripes thanks to the organization encouraging the use of his cutter. These are the exceptions, of course. It’s clear that the Yankees have their favorite mold, and that has backfired.
The pitching problems of the 2016 Yankees shouldn’t be a surprise. The team has relied on command-challenged starters and that’s not a successful model. If the organization wants to field better pitching, then they have to change their philosophy. There’s no reason to believe that Rothschild is a miracle worker who can correct errant command issues. If the Yankees keep believing in that, then they have to live with the inevitable frustration.