Things went wrong for the Yankees’ rotation almost from the very start of the season. They entered with a solid first five, but their depth was immediately stressed when Jordan Montgomery went down with a torn UCL in April. The loss of Montgomery meant untested rookie pitchers like Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga were quickly thrust into the spotlight, perhaps before they were ready.
The trouble didn’t end there. Masahiro Tanaka managed to strain both his hamstrings running the bases versus the Mets and was down for weeks. Sonny Gray suffered an implosion that was shocking for a pitcher as talented as he is. Luis Severino has been completely off since the All-Star Break. The turmoil forced Brian Cashman to compromise valuable outfield depth to bring in reinforcements in the form of J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn.
In the midst of all the hand-wringing, you’d be forgiven for missing a heartening development: the Yankees are thisclose to running out a great postseason rotation. For a staff that’s been in flux all season, the Yankees’ rotation is just within reach of entering October as one of the league’s fiercest units.
I was struck by the fact that the Yankees could enter the playoffs with a formidable rotation while considering just who they should start in the AL Wild Card game. I wrote this weekend that Tanaka was making his case with his stellar play in the second half. J.A. Happ certainly has an argument, as the veteran lefty has been churning out strong starts as consistently as anyone in baseball. And the presumed staff ace, Severino, has more talent than them all, and would be the obvious option if he is firing on all cylindars.
An in-form Severino would mean the Yankees would have three legitimate candidates to start a do-or-die game. That is exactly the kind of foundation upon which championship rotations are built. Being able to trot out a starter you would be comfortable with in a winner-take-all situation in games one, two, and three of a playoff series (not to mention wily veteran CC Sabathia in a potential game four), is a very plausible formula for World Series contention.
This line of thought does require a small leap of faith, to be sure. It demands that Severino find some semblance of his early season performance. He doesn’t have to replicate it; no one short of peak Clayton Kershaw can be expected to run an ERA starting with a “1” for months and years on end. Yet if Severino can just regress positively towards his own established mean, then the Yankees would be able to host a stable of starters capable of shutting down opposing lineups every night.
We can turn to projections for further solace. Sure, projections can’t physically watch someone like Severino take his lumps start after start, but they do take into account his struggles the past couple months, and they are still optimistic about him going forward. FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections call for Severino to post a 3.20 ERA the rest of the way and strike out 10.4 batters per nine. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA forecasts peg Severino for a 3.11 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine.
The rigorous projection systems still look at Severino and see one of the five or six best starters in baseball. If Severino simply pitched to his projections, rather than to his ceiling as he did in the first half, then the Yankees’ rotation would be fully formed. In fact, FanGraphs’ depth chart projections, which of course do assume Severino will bounce back somewhat, rank the Yankees’ starting rotation sixth in MLB. They rank the Yankees’ entire pitching staff second overall, meaning the Yankees’ pitching projects to be especially fearsome when you factor in their excellent bullpen.
The Yankees probably can’t quite touch the very best rotations in the league. Houston boasts two of baseball’s top hurlers in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, not to mention the seasoned Dallas Keuchel and the fire-balling Charlie Morton. Cleveland, with a healthy Trevor Bauer, can trot out three aces in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Bauer.
Beyond those two, however, the Yankees can match up with virtually any other rotation in the league. Just look at some of the rotations of other playoff hopefuls. The Athletics don’t have an above average starter. Neither do the Brewers. The Rockies are thin behind Kyle Freeland and Jon Gray. The Braves’ staff is talented but highly unproven, and similar things can be said about the Cardinals. The Red Sox have to pray Chris Sale is healthy, or else they’ll be relying heavily on the likes of Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez.
It’s easy to get lost in the frustration of Severino’s slump, or Sabathia’s recent troubles. Zoom out just a bit, though, and the picture becomes clearer. The Yankees’ rotation could be excellent come playoff time. It makes intuitive sense: last playoffs, the Yankees’ pitching was dynamite, and most of the same talent that was there the first time around is on hand now. It probably requires their ace rounding into shape soon, but the Yankees’ pitching might be on the edge of greatness.