The New York Yankees played their 31st game of the 2017 season on Tuesday night, losing 5–3 to the Reds at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Following the loss, the Yankees dropped to the second best record in the majors at 21–10, with an impressive .677 winning percentage. They had been the only remaining team with single-digit losses, but they still boast MLB's best run differential (+56). A good portion of that run differential can be attributed to the early-season success of the pitching staff, and that is what we are going to focus on today.
Through 30 games, Yankee pitchers had allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL and third-fewest overall (119). The group was at or near the top in every major pitching rate stat for the American League. They ranked third in ERA (3.52), second in WHIP (1.19), first in batting average (.227), first in OBP (.295), second in slugging percentage (.364), first in OPS (.659), third in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (9.3), and fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.05).
Last season, the Yankees got off to a slow start at 12–18 and the pitching staff was never considered to be among the best in the American League. Here is how the 2017 Yankee pitchers have performed compared to the 2016 group after 30 games:
There has been a significant improvement in almost every area, including a 72-point drop in ERA, 33-point drop in batting average, 75-point drop in slugging percentage, and 91-point drop in OPS. Let's dig a little deeper into how it happened and try to determine whether we can expect it to continue.
Michael Pineda has been the Yankees’ best and most consistent starter in 2017, but the season did not begin that way for "Big Mike." He gave up four runs on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings in a loss at Tampa Bay on April 5, the Yankees third game of the season. To date, that has been Pineda's shortest outing of the year and the most runs he has allowed. In his next start, Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, he pitched a perfect game into the seventh, while striking out eleven and walking none. It was one of the best starts of his career. From then on, Pineda has been a pillar of consistency in the Yankees' rotation.
In six outings this season, Pineda has compiled impressive stats. Compare them to his first six starts of 2016:
The contrast is like night and day. What has changed for Pineda? It appears that he has solved the problem that has plagued him throughout his career. Prior to this year, Pineda had a habit of getting ahead in the count and then failing to finish the batter off. This season, it has been a complete turnaround. Pineda is still getting ahead in the count, but he's finishing with consistency. He has much better command. He is allowing fewer base runners, giving up fewer hard hits, and coughing up fewer runs. His OPS is nearly 300 points lower than it was after six starts last year. Pineda looks more poised and confident, and he appears to be finally utilizing his immense talent. If Pineda can keep this up, he may very well pitch himself into the Cy Young Award conversation.
Luis Severino began the 2016 season as the fourth starter in the Yankees' rotation. He got hit hard, was demoted to the bullpen, and ultimately to the minors. His assignment was to learn how to throw his changeup effectively and with consistency. After enlisting the help of Pedro Martinez in the offseason, Severino regained the fourth starter job in spring training. So far, he has pitched much better this year:
In six starts this season, Severino has thrown the changeup an average of 9.3% of the time. His fastball-slider split has been 55.7% and 35.0%, respectively. This represents a big change for the better for Severino. If he continues mixing his pitches well, he will continue having success.
Masahiro Tanaka's 2017 campaign has ranged from one extreme to the other. On Opening Day, he gave up seven earned runs and only recorded eight outs. Four starts later, he threw the best game of his career, a complete game three-hit shutout against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. His other five starts were somewhere in between. Although his rate stats are well below where they were at this time last year, the team is 5–1 when Tanaka has started:
It's no secret that Tanaka performs better on longer rest. His gem at Fenway was spun on six days' rest. In his most recent start at Cincinnati on Monday, he pitched on five days' rest, and was visibly tired in the seventh inning. He walked his first batter of the game and then gave up a home run.
The Yankees are coming up on a stretch where they play 20 games without a day off. It will be interesting to see how Tanaka pitches on regular rest. The Yankees really need him to rebound more quickly in between starts. If he can do that, then the Yankees will be in good shape moving forward. If he can't, it's going to take a toll on the bullpen.
CC Sabathia had some ups and downs in his bounce-back season last year. He started 2017 on a good note, hurling five shutout innings and limiting Tampa Bay to three hits and two walks in the Yankees' second game of the year. Sabathia's starts have gotten progressively worse since then. His last three starts have been bad. CC gets run support and the Yankees are 5–1 in his first six starts this season:
Update: Make that four bad starts in a row. As we go to deadline, Sabathia just got torched for five runs in the second inning at Cincinnati.
CC's main problem has been the inability to mix in the cutter with his fastball and slider. With a loss of velocity on his fastball, he absolutely needs command of the cutter in order to deceive hitters. Without it, he's in trouble. Sabathia is going to have to get a handle on that if he wants to have a successful 2017 campaign.
Jordan Montgomery came out of nowhere to win the fifth starter competition this spring. In effect, he has taken over the job that Nathan Eovaldi held early in 2016. Montgomery has pitched fairly well so far in his rookie campaign:
Montgomery displays confidence on the mound. He really looks like he knows what he's doing out there. It's fun to watch a rookie possess such poise. Montgomery is not going to blow anybody away, but he does have an array of pitches that he can throw for strikes. You expect a rookie to sometimes be wildly inconsistent from start to start, but so far we haven't seen that from Montgomery. If he continues to pitch this way, he could solidify a spot for himself in the Yankees' rotation for a long time to come.
The Yankees have seemingly always had a great bullpen featuring a dominant closer. You can trace the lineage all the way back to 1927 when Wilcy Moore closed 30 games and earned 13 saves for the Murderer's Row team.
This year is no exception. Despite beginning the 2016 season with the "No Runs DMC" troika of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman essentially turning games into six-inning affairs, last year's bullpen has been out-performed by the current group so far:
That's right, the 2017 Yankee bullpen has bested last year's relief corps in every single category except strikeout-to-walk ratio. Note the 107-point improvement in ERA, 102-point improvement in slugging percentage, and 115-point improvement in OPS. Like the 2017 Yankees' pitching staff as a whole, the bullpen also ranks among the league leaders in all of the important categories.
The troika formula that the Yankees have used to close out wins for many years has now become a foursome. The combination of Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Tyler Clippard, and Adam Warren may be the best foursome in baseball.
Aroldis Chapman has converted seven out of eight save opportunities, and the flame-thrower is poised to have another great year closing out games. You can forget about the blown save which led to the Wrigley Field marathon that began on Sunday night and ended on Monday morning. Remember, Mariano Rivera blew a couple of saves practically every April, and he always ended up finishing the year with other-worldly numbers. Chapman will be just fine.
Tyler Clippard has become more than just the seventh-inning setup man. He has been increasingly effective at coming into the game with runners on base and stranding those runners. So far in 2017, Clippard has allowed only one of eight inherited runners to score.
Adam Warren is also adept in the fireman role. He has allowed one of six inherited runners to score. Warren also has the ability to pitch multiple innings in relief and keep the Yankees in a close game.
Tommy Layne led the 2016 Yankees with 25 inherited runners. He allowed only five of them to score. He has inherited four runners so far this year, and none of them have been permitted to score. The Yankees have also gotten some very nice multiple-inning appearances from both Jonathan Holder and Chasen Shreve. Of course, Dellin Betances is well on his way to his fourth All-Star selection.
This is a very deep bullpen. It's too early to make predictions, but this could prove to be the best bullpen from top to bottom that the Yankees have had in years.
The Yankees are officially in contention, and the pitching has helped put them there. Can the Yankees' pitchers continue performing at a high level? Yes, I believe very strongly that the talent is there. Will they do it? I don't know, but they might have to if the team is going to win the AL East. Despite their tremendous start, the Yankees trailed the Baltimore Orioles by only a half-game following Tuesday’s action.