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Is the Yankees’ starting pitching really among the best in baseball?

Improving the starting rotation was at the top of Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s list of priorities this offseason.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman laid out his offseason priorities immediately after his club was eliminated by the rival Red Sox in the American League Division Series last October. Improving the starting rotation was at the top of the list.

Cashman quickly re-upped veteran left-hander CC Sabathia. He later sent the organization’s top prospect, Justus Sheffield, to Seattle in exchange for another southpaw, James Paxton. He followed by re-signing J.A. Happ, trading Sonny Gray, and inking former Cy Young Award finalist Gio Gonzalez to a minor-league deal.

In effect, the Yankees retained the same four-man rotation that lost the ALDS, with Paxton replacing Gray in the nominal fifth slot. Meanwhile, Gonzalez joined Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Cessa, and Chance Adams as rotation depth.

Was this enough of improvement? The stat gurus at FanGraphs seem to think so. In their 2019 Positional Power Rankings, FanGraphs projected that the Yankees would have the second-best starting pitching in all of baseball.

Is this a far-fetched projection? Not according to the numbers. Last year, Yankees starters produced 16.2 fWAR, which was the third-highest total in the AL. They trailed only Cleveland (22.2 WAR) and Houston (21.7), while the Mets (18.1) were the only NL team that managed to top the Yankees’ WAR tally.

FanGraphs projects that Yankees starters will improve on last year’s mark by an ever-so-modest 0.7 WAR. But because they also predict that the Astros and Mets will backslide, the result is a projection that has the Yankees posting the second-best WAR in MLB behind the Indians this season.

FanGraphs 2019 starting pitching projections with 2018 results

Team '19 WAR '18 WAR '19 FIP '18 FIP
Team '19 WAR '18 WAR '19 FIP '18 FIP
Indians 19.3 22.2 3.60 3.44
Astros 16.3 21.7 3.84 3.28
Yankees 16.9 16.2 3.97 3.84
Red Sox 16.0 14.2 3.84 3.80
Mariners 8.7 11.4 4.49 4.14
Rays 12.6 11.4 4.00 3.73
Twins 11.3 9.6 4.39 4.48
Angels 9.1 8.7 4.49 4.39
Athletics 7.7 8.2 4.57 4.39
Royals 6.7 7.9 4.59 4.55
Tigers 6.6 7.0 4.82 4.79
Blue Jays 7.9 6.2 4.55 4.68
Rangers 7.6 5.9 4.82 5.18
White Sox 5.7 4.0 4.95 5.18
Orioles 5.2 4.0 5.14 5.26
Data courtesy of Fangraphs, table by Brett Borzelli.

It’s noteworthy that FanGraphs published these projections on March 25th, after it was known that Sabathia and Luis Severino would begin the 2019 campaign on the injured list. So their predictions actually account for the team’s rotation depth throwing a sizable chunk of innings this year. In fact, they don’t have a single Yankees starter hurling more than 171 frames.

In their 2019 Positional Power Rankings, Fangraphs predicted that the Yankees would have the second-best starting pitching in all of baseball. Screenshot from Fangraphs.

Paul Sporer, providing the commentary on the rankings for FanGraphs, was concise in noting all of the issues surrounding the Yankees rotation that fans are already familiar with. He lists Severino’s uncertain timetable to return, Sabathia’s suspension, angioplasty, and knee surgery, Happ’s age (36), Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow, and the fact that Paxton has never thrown more than 160 innings in a season.

Despite these myriad concerns, the projections still put the Yankees second on the list. It may prove necessary for Yankees starters to actually live up to those projections, because FanGraphs lists the division rival Red Sox and Rays among the top five in the AL.

So how are the Yankees starters doing so far? It’s way too early in the season to use WAR, however, the starting pitching rate stats look strong so far. Yankees starters boast a 3.09 ERA and 3.07 FIP, but bear in mind that’s only over 46.2 innings. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played.

Most encouraging has been the stellar performance of the replacement starters. German has emerged as the very early staff ace. He is 2-0 in two starts, and has allowed just two earned runs on three hits in 11 innings. Loaisiga was given a big opportunity by the Yankees, and has thus far delivered. The 24-year-old allowed one run on one hit in his lone start, which lasted four frames.

Things will get interesting this weekend, when Sabathia is expected to return to the rotation. CC made his fourth and final minor-league start Sunday for Class-A Tampa, allowing one run on one hit over 4.2 innings. The Yankees team leader lines up to make his first start for the big-league club on Saturday versus the White Sox. There’s no word on whose spot in the rotation he will take, but my educated guess would be Loaisiga. German has gone deeper in both his starts and has looked sensational.

Frankly, having too many good starting pitchers from which to choose is a nice problem for the Yankees to have. It certainly would represent a change for the better, considering all the challenges the team has faced in this area recently. If the current group continues performing as they have, then the Yankees will indeed be able to count their starting pitching among their primary assets this season.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.