When asked what the Yankees’ biggest weakness is, most fans would point to the team’s starting rotation, and with good reason. The team’s offense is one of the most powerful in the game, and the bullpen contains some of the most talented relief arms in the history of the game. So, yeah, the starting rotation has some tough competition.
That said, the 2019 Yankees head into the season with a starting rotation that is better than many pundits and fans give them credit for. For all the talk that the rotation could be the team’s Achilles’ heel, the Yankees’ starting pitching profiles as better than it has been in years.
Luis Severino’s performance down the stretch in 2018 left plenty to be desired, but almost every metric shows that he has been a top-10 pitcher in baseball these last two years. Over that span, he has the fifth-best WAR, fifth-best WHIP, seventh-best strikeout rate, eighth-best FIP, and 11th-best ERA among pitchers who threw at least 250 innings. Severino is absolutely one of the best pitchers in the game, and an ace.
The key to the Yankees’ rotation this year will be James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka. These are pitchers who have ace-caliber stuff, but will be mid-rotation starters for the Yankees in 2019. I’ve written before that Paxton is an extremely comparable pitcher to Patrick Corbin, the best pitcher on the free-agent market this year, and Paxton essentially takes Sonny Gray’s place in the rotation, which has to be considered an upgrade. As for Tanaka, he’s proven time and again to be the Yankees’ most clutch pitcher. His health is the only thing that can get in the way of more success in 2019.
For many teams, Paxton and Tanaka would be the lead guys. That they can be mid-rotation starters for the Yankees is a massive advantage that the team will lean on in a playoff series, where rotations are only four pitchers deep.
The Yankees also have some surprisingly sturdy veterans at the bottom of the rotation. While it is a little risky to rely on J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia in large roles, neither is being asked to produce as more than good back-end starters. Neither is quite at the end of the line yet, and each still has what it takes to get hitters out. Both posted ERA’s under 3.65 last year despite their advancing age.
Happ also ran the 29th-best K/BB rate in the MLB, ahead of guys like David Price, Cy Young-winner Blake Snell, and Michael Fulmer. Happ can still miss bats, and he still has quality control and command. He took well to New York last year, and should be well worth his contract this season at age 36.
This will be Sabathia’s final season in all likelhood, but he is still a tough at-bat. He had the league’s third-best average exit velocity against, and a better strand rate than Luis Severino, Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel. This shows that Sabathia’s ability to get out of trouble is still top-notch, as is his ability to induce soft contact. He’s not the world’s most durable pitcher, but he’s among the league’s best fifth starters.
The Yankees’ pitchers are at the very least qualified for the roles they’ve been assigned. But how does their rotation compare to that of their rivals? The Astros have two aces in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, but many question marks after those two. Their pitching looks weaker this year than it has in prior years. The Indians’ rotation may be the best in baseball, but that is subject to change with rumors that Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer are on the trade block. The Dodgers might have the best rotation in the NL, but the Yankees only have to worry about them in a possible World Series.
For the most part, the Yankees pitchers can probably match up with these teams. Their rotation has finally reached these teams’ class as one of the top 10 in MLB. However, none of these staffs are the ones that Yankees fans really care about though, right? Of course, it’s the Red Sox that make up the one rotation that Yankees fans want to beat. And unfortunately, the Red Sox may still have an edge. Chris Sale is even better than Severino, while David Price, Nate Eovaldi and Rick Porcello are either just as good or perhaps slightly better than Paxton, Tanaka and Happ.
Ultimately, the Yankees’ rotation has improved from the state it was in last year, and has dramatically improved from where it was several years ago. Check out this table that best approximates the Yankees’ opening day starting rotations over the last 14 years:
Gosh, there were some lean pitching years in there, huh? Check out Chris Capuano taking turns in 2015, or how much the team relied upon Ivan Nova a few years ago. That said, the last time that the Yankees had a rotation this good was 2009. While the Yankees have generally had aces over the years, they’ve never had this kind of quality past the top two spots. Paxton, Tanaka, Happ and Sabathia provide that. But while the Yankees have improved their pitching drastically, they are still a step behind the Red Sox. There are still some decent pitchers on the market worth taking a flyer on, and there will almost certainly be a mid-season trade or two.
Still, these are minor problems for an organization that was starting Michael Pineda as its number-two starter just two years ago. The Yankees’ rotation isn’t the best in the game, or even the division, but it is easily among the top-10 in baseball, and could become even scarier with the right in-season tweaking.