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The Yankees could learn some lessons from the 2012 season

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2012 was the last time the Yankees held a division lead this large. What happened then, and is there anything the current squad can learn from that experience?

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I ran out of adjectives to describe this Yankees team long ago, and have now resorted to making weird yelping sounds at my screen whenever the unlikely lads pull off an unexpected win. Their latest feat, completing consecutive extra-inning wins against the Tampa Bay Rays, left me screeching like a baboon. Too bad that they couldn’t make it three in a row, but you can’t win them all.

More importantly, the Yankees’ extra-inning heroics currently leaves them with 7.5 games’ worth of breathing room apart from said Rays, further securing their perch atop the AL East in the final days of the first half. Let’s just say there are worse places to find your favorite team before the All-Star break.

However, a hefty division lead in mid-July doesn’t guarantee you a cakewalk to the division title come September. If you need proof of that, you need only to look back to the last Yankee squad to enter the All-Star break with a substantial division lead; namely, the 2012 edition.

That team owned a commanding 7-game lead over the 2nd place Baltimore Orioles at the All-Star break, and stretched that even further to 10 games by July 18. Yet, due to baseball being baseball, the Yankees ended up having to fight pretty hard for the top spot down the stretch.

They eventually did clinch the division, but it took them until October 3, by which time the Orioles had crept to just two games behind them. And while the 2012 team did advance to the ALCS, they were swept there pretty convincingly by the Detroit Tigers. The season was by no means a failure, but it certainly didn’t end the way everyone hoped, despite how dominant the Yankees looked in the first half.

They say history is the greatest teacher of them all. Then, is there anything that the current Yankees can glean from the 2012 campaign? The main lesson is this: having a good-enough rotation isn’t good enough.

The 2012 Yankees featured an above-average rotation, ranking 8th in ERA- and 6th in FIP- among MLB teams. It wasn’t an especially deep rotation, though. After CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, the starting five consisted of an inconsistent Phil Hughes, an enigmatic Ivan Nova, and an ineffective Freddy Garcia. Zombie Andy Pettitte joined the major league roster mid-season and gave the Yankees 75.1 innings of 2.87 ERA ball, which was a big boon.

However, when injuries caused both Sabathia and Pettitte to miss time in the second half, the Yankees were forced to rely upon David Phelps, while still running out García and Nova on a daily basis. Phelps was half-decent, posting a 4.26 ERA in eight starts, but Nova was lit up to the tune of a 7.05 ERA, while García ran a 5.16 ERA. Understandably, the Yankees posted only a 43-34 record in the second half, after going 52-33 in the first half. That, combined with the Orioles’ late-season surge, made for quite the tight division race.

That being said, the Yankees did end up winning the division, thanks to a behemoth offense that led the majors in wRC+ (113) and was 2nd in runs scored (804). The Yankees’ bats grew cold in the postseason though, putting added pressure on the rotation to perform.

In the ALDS against the Orioles, the Yankees scored just 16 runs over 5 games, with 7 of those coming in the series opener. The mighty Bronx offense was stymied by the likes of Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Joe Saunders. If not for some stellar pitching performances from Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte, along with some Game 3 heroics from Raul Ibanez, the Yankees’ season could have ended right there. It just goes to show you, anything can happen over a short series, like the Orioles’ staff neutralizing a strong Yankees offense.

The Yankees’ offensive woes continued in the ALCS, this time because they were up against one of the premier rotations in MLB, in the Detroit Tigers’ starting corps. Featuring a prime Justin Verlander, an emergent Max Scherzer, an out-of-nowhere Anibal Sanchez, and a solid Doug Fister, the Tigers held the Yankees to just six runs over four games. Meanwhile, the rotation pitched valiantly but could not quite match the Tigers, and the Yankees were summarily swept.

So, what does all this mean for the current Yankees? Put simply, the bar for the rotation is pretty high if you’re serious about making the World Series. If 2012 is any indication, having two weak spots in the rotation can turn a 7.5 game division lead into barely nothing come September. And while it’s possible that the current lineup will keep working their late-inning magic come October, as 2012 showed, even the best offenses can falter. Because of that, having a rotation that can win you close games becomes that much more important. And to do so in the postseason, where the Yankees will encounter the best rotations in MLB, it’s probably better to employ the best starting pitchers you can.

The 2019 Yankees have some great talents in their rotation. They have James Paxton, who is on a per-inning basis among the best in the game. They have Masahiro Tanaka, a solid number two and probably the best big-game pitcher for the Yankees in recent memory. Yet the rotation as a whole is riddled with question marks and uncertainty, and the Yankees haven’t exactly shown urgency in trying to address those problems, exemplified most recently by their passing on Dallas Keuchel. Let that not be the case at the end of the trade deadline, lest they follow a similar fate to the 2012 team.