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The Yankees’ starting rotation is as boom-or-bust as their lineup

In light of Luis Severino’s injury, we can look closely at the rotation depth, and it’s a scary look indeed.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

I actually came up with the idea for this post a couple of hours before Luis Severino was scratched from his spring start with rotator cuff tendinitis. I sure hope I didn’t jinx the team, but the injury highlights the real problem facing the Yankees this year; for all the talk that the lineup is “feast-or-famine”, the starting rotation is even more so.

The rotation on its face is terrific. Severino and James Paxton at the top give the team two real Cy Young contenders, Masahiro Tanaka is among the most underrated pitchers across the league, J.A. Happ’s stuff looked just fine last year even at age-35, and if CC Sabathia were to repeat his 2018 performance, with no changes, he’d be by far the best fifth starter in the game. The trouble is they don’t throw many innings, despite throwing them at an elite level.

The wonderful thing about WAR is it credits you for both quantity and quality. It’s a counting stat, so the more innings you play, all else equal, the higher your WAR. However, if you perform at a high enough level, you’ll accumulate more WAR than lesser players who play more. If you need proof of that, Aaron Judge led the Yankees in fWAR despite missing so much time to his broken wrist. The Yankees’ starting staff as a whole is also a good example of that:

You can see how good the starting rotation was last year – they were a top-five rotation in baseball despite throwing only the 18th-most innings. The group certainly emphasizes quality of innings over quantity, and that looks to be holding true for 2019 as well, at least as far as FanGraphs’ depth charts projections are concerned:

We see something even more pronounced than last year, as the Yankee rotation is effectively tied with the Red Sox for the second-best projected rotation in baseball, but Boston is fifth in projected innings pitched while New York is 12th. Please note these projections do not at this time take into account Severino missing significant time with injury.

So we can agree that the Yankee rotation is highly talented as currently constructed. The trouble becomes, what happens when the team inevitably shuffles the rotation due to injury or ineffectiveness? You have to assume the Yankees are going to shelve a pitcher or two for various health issues – Severino is already banged up, James Paxton’s problems have always been health related, CC Sabathia seemingly requires a mandatory two-week IL stint every August, and so on.

The pitching depth behind the starting five falls off an awful lot:

The projected depth comes in the form of Domingo German, Luis Cessa, Chance Adams and Jonathan Loiasiga, and FanGraphs’ depth charts roll in a very small projected performance from Jordan Montgomery where he’s not pegged for very good play – not super surprising for a young pitcher who will need 14-plus months off.

Depth players are never as good as your starters – if they were, they wouldn’t be depth. But a full run worth of difference in both ERA and FIP spells a lot of trouble when we know the Yankees are going to be leaning on depth to cover for Sabathia’s inevitable IL stint, Paxton’s potential injury concerns, and now worries about whether or not Sevy will be effective to start the season.

The performance from game to game from the rotation is probably more projectable, predictable and stable than the same from the lineup. There will be a whole lot of games where, if healthy, Severino or Paxton or Tanaka will pitch five or six innings, give up two runs and strike out eight before handing the ball to an unbelievable bullpen. Once and if those starting five are no longer in the rotation, though, we see the “bust” potential of the pitching. The depth just isn’t reliable enough, and if Severino starts the season on the IL, that potential comes ever closer to being realized.