Watching the Yankees scuffle in the second half and the ALDS last year, it sure seemed like starting pitching was the bane of the their existence. Yet, looking back at the rotation’s collective body of work, and their level of performance relative to other teams, it becomes clear that the Yankees actually had an above-average starting staff in 2018. To wit: the squad ran a 94 ERA-, tied with the Diamondbacks and Mets for 9th best in MLB. By FIP- they look even better, ranking 4th-best with a mark of 87. Sure, the rotation wasn’t exactly filled with workhorses, but the innings they did pitch were, on the whole, actually very solid in terms of quality.
What was a solid-if-underwhelming rotation last year has received substantial reinforcements this offseason, as Brian Cashman snagged James Paxton via trade and brought back J.A. Happ on a reasonable deal. Though I would’ve liked to see the Yankees go deep for Patrick Corbin, there’s no denying that Severino, Paxton, Tanaka, Happ, and Sabathia makes for a very talented rotation, even if questions about durability linger.
If you disagree, consider this: these five pitchers combined for an ERA of 3.64 last year. The last time the Yankees’ starters had a lower overall ERA than that was 1981, when they combined for a 3.16 mark in a strike-shortened year. If the members of the current rotation can each recreate their 2018 performances, the Yankees might have one of the best starting fives they’ve had in quite a while, at least in terms of raw ERA.
This got me thinking: of all the starting rotations that the Yankees have had, which one was the best at preventing runs? And how does the 2019 edition stack up against them?
To answer the first question, I used ERA- to make historical comparisons between past starting squads. This approach allows for consideration of differences in run-scoring environments between eras, something that raw ERA doesn’t reflect. For example, by ordinary ERA, the best Yankees starting staff since integration is the 1968 version, which posted a 2.80 mark. However, this ignores the fact that 1968 was an especially extreme year in an era of suppressed run production, as the league average ERA was 2.98 and hitters collectively hit .230/.297/.339. The 1968 Yankees starters’ 2.80 ERA translates into an ERA- of 99, or 1 percent better than league average. Solid, but nothing special, either.
By ERA-, the best collection of Yankees starters is the 1957 squad, who posted a sparkling mark of 80 (2.88 ERA). Of the five pitchers who started at least 20 games for the Bombers that year, three ran ERAs below 3.00 - Tom Sturdivant (2.54, 70 ERA-), Bobby Shantz (2.45, 68 ERA-), and Bob Turley (2.71, 75 ERA-). Whitey Ford only started 17 due to shoulder soreness, but he was as good as ever when he did pitch, posting a 2.57 ERA (71 ERA-). Johnny Kucks (3.56, 98 ERA-) and Don Larsen (3.74, 103 ERA-) capably filled out the rotation, and the rest is history.
How does the current rotation stack up against the 1957 edition? Assuming that its members can all repeat their 2018 seasons, the 2019 iteration would have a collective ERA of 3.64. Assuming that run-scoring trends and park factors will stay the same from 2018 to 2019, a 3.64 ERA would approximately be good for an ERA- of 84. This means that, relative to their peers, the 2019 Yankees rotation would nearly be as good at preventing runs as the best starting staff in Yankees history. Not too shabby, right?
Now, it’s a reach to conclude from this that the 2019 rotation will go down in Yankees history as one of its best. Health is a concern, as Paxton, Tanaka and Sabathia all missed significant time last year, and Happ, while durable, is 36 years old. In addition, no player is immune to ups and downs, as Severino reminded us with his second half from hell last year. And even if these pitchers play at the top of their game, the Yankees’ suspect infield defense might screw them over. There’s no guarantee that these five pitchers will perform to expectations. Such is the nature of the game.
That said, it’s not like projecting the current rotation to collectively run an ERA 16 percent better than average is entirely unreasonable, either. After all, they did just that a year ago, without any of them having career years. Severino and Paxton had substantially better campaigns in 2017 than in 2018. Tanaka had a nice year, but we all know he can do better. Happ and Sabathia have less upside than the top three, but they’ve been doing their thing with no signs of any cliffs approaching for quite some time now. It’s not too hard to imagine all of these hurlers putting up ERAs below 3.64, for that matter. Yes, adding Corbin and/or Keuchel would have been sweet. But make no mistake, this rotation - from one through five, at least - is pretty great as is.