If there was one thing we were all expecting from 2020, it was the return of the workhorse to the Yankee rotation. In fact, we really expected two such pitchers - signing Gerrit Cole brought one into the fold, but a full, healthy season from Luis Severino gave the hope of a pair of 200-inning arms at the top of the rotation.
Whatever happens in 2020, we won’t see that. We can, however, get a glimpse of what could have been through our PSA Plays the Show simulation, where after two weeks of games, we can see that the studs at the top of the rotation have been doing their job, and Aaron Boone has been letting them.
In our simulation, Yankees starters are working almost a full inning more per game than their real-life counterparts over the past two seasons, while also more than doubling their rate of quality starts.
Quality starts aren’t a great measure of pitching performance - as Michael Kay likes to say, if you have a quality start every time, you could have a 4.50 ERA. Even if that’s not really true in practice, simply logging a quality start isn’t super remarkable. However, a high percentage of quality starts shows one thing without question: starters are working deep into games, taking pressure off the bullpen.
For context, last year the MLB average innings per start was 5.20, while 37% of starts counted as quality starts. The Yankees in 2020 are outpacing not just their real selves, and not just previous league averages, but the best marks in all of baseball in 2019. The Mets led MLB in IP/S at 5.8, while the Astros logged 54% of their starts being quality. The Yankees aren’t necessarily the best starting rotation in baseball, but early in our sim, they are the hardest working.
This becomes even more clear as we drop the full season analysis, and look just at the season’s opening month. It’s reasonable to assume that managers are going to be more cautious with their pitchers early in the year, so how has the Yankee rotation compared against April marks in years past?
This is where we really see some changes. Our metrics for 2018 and 2019 are fairly similar - there’s clearly a consistent strategy for conserving starters in the early goings of a season. Our virtual Aaron Boone seems to be settled on a different approach entirely, letting his starters air it out early.
We can’t ask Aaron Boone what’s responsible for the change in approach - perhaps the digital Yankees agree with the trend of relievers gradually worsening, or the removal of any human decisions from the process of baseball actually helps starters rather than hurting them. MLB The Show does include a running fatigue metric, so whether that usage builds up and is addressed later in our sim will be something to watch for.
Incidentally, those two workhorses we were all so excited to watch? Cole’s averaging 6.8 innings per start to begin the year, but Severino’s “lagging” at 6. The real stud of the rotation, through two weeks, has been Masahiro Tanaka, logging 7.5 innings per start the first three times through the rotation.