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The Yankees starting rotation might not be so bad

As volatile as it is, the Yankees rotation might just be able to hold it together.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that the starting rotation is believed to be a weakness for the Yankees. Beyond Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, the starting rotation is a complete mystery. Michael Pineda remains as enigmatic as ever, while unproven pitchers like Bryan Mitchell, Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green are battling for the remaining spots in the rotation.

As a team that is supposedly in a rebuilding phase, the Yankees might actually surprise a lot of people. In 2016, they were 12th in the AL in runs scored, receiving minimal production from the first base and DH positions. They were also horrendous with runners in scoring position, with an AL-worst .228 batting average, compared to a .243 batting average with runners on base. Considering everything that went wrong offensively in 2016, the fact that the Yankees still won 84 games is quite impressive.

Stifling that optimism, however, is the starting rotation. Some might be thinking, “Alright, how bad can it be?” The answer is very, very bad. Here is how the back end of the rotation fared in 2016:

Yankees Starters in 2016

Player Name (As Starter) ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 HR/FB%
Player Name (As Starter) ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 HR/FB%
Luis Cessa 4.01 6.10 1.39 1.92 19.3%
Chad Green 5.94 10.90 2.97 2.97 27.3%
Luis Severino 8.50 7.74 2.83 2.08 22.9%
Nathan Eovaldi 5.08 7.08 2.69 1.77 19.8%
Ivan Nova 4.86 7.34 2.59 1.94 22.2%

With a bounce back season from the likes of Greg Bird and Matt Holliday, the Yankees might find themselves in the playoff hunt. Poor starting pitching might boot them right back out of the playoff hunt, especially if they continue to give up home runs at such an alarming rate.

Luckily, sabermetrics suggests that time alone might heal the Yankees’ rotation. The starters mentioned above had extremely high home run to fly ball ratios (HR/FB%), compared to the 2016 league average of 12.8%. HR/FB% is generally expected to regress back to the mean given a sufficient sample size, much like stats like BABIP and LOB%.

In fact, by xFIP, the Yankees had one of the best starting rotations in baseball. FIP assumes a league average BABIP and LOB%, while xFIP also assumes a league average HR/FB ratio. Yankees’ starters had a combined xFIP of 3.93, which was second only to the Indians in the American League.

Obviously, Yankee Stadium is not the place to be for pitchers who are trying to limit home runs. But if the number four and five starters are able to bring their HR/FB%’s down to, say, 16%, it might just be enough to maintain a decent rotation, especially if Tanaka and CC can continue to provide quality innings at the front end.

I am weary of saying how much better a pitcher would do if he simply improved his fastball command, since I feel like it is the pitcher’s equivalent of imagining what a hitter could do if he improved his plate discipline. Obviously, it would help, but how often and how quickly it actually happens are different stories. However, some of the Yankees’ peripheral stats were so extreme that they might come back down to earth even if they don’t do anything differently.

As young and inexperienced as it may be, it should not be a foregone conclusion that the Yankees’ rotation will be a complete disaster. Obviously, there are numerous adjustments that need to be made. But Yankees’ starters might just be able to hold it together long enough for the improved offense and bullpen to carry the team.

Data is courtesy of Fangraphs.