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Where does the Yankees’ starting rotation rank among MLB’s best?

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The Yankees’ reloaded rotation has looked great to start 2021, though injury concerns still loom large.

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

At this point in the season, the Yankees’ rotation has been a somewhat-unexpected source of excellence. They trail only the Dodgers in fWAR and SIERA, suggesting that they’ve been one of the best starting rotations in baseball in terms of the quality and quantity of their production.

Having just eclipsed the first quarter of the MLB season, it’s worth taking a look at where the Yankees’ rotation lands amongst the other elites:

5. San Diego Padres

If not for a smattering of regression towards mediocrity, the Padres would be higher on this list.

Above all others, Blake Snell has been the biggest disappointment from San Diego’s staff, as he’s been hit harder than ever before with the highest walk rate of his career, leading to a 4.50 ERA and a 4.65 xERA that backs it up. He still strikes batter out at elite rates, but his inability to control the zone has led to a preponderance of unfavorable counts and inefficient outings.

Dinelson Lamet’s struggles with inflammation in his right forearm has limited him to just 11 innings across three starts and five appearances. While at first glance his 1.64 ERA makes him look like he’s outperformed his impressive 2020 campaign, his 1.27 WHIP and 4.23 xERA tell a different story.

Chris Paddack has been decent, and definitely improved upon his sophomore slump in 2020, but he’s yet to regain the ace-level strikeout stuff that made him one of the most exciting rookies in 2019. There’s no reason to assume that it’s completely gone, but with low spin-rates on his fastball and curve along with wavering command, it’ll be an uphill battle to regain his elite production.

Aside from the trio of underperformers, a pair of veteran Padres have gotten of to career-years. Joe Musgrove’s had more than just one night of dominance with the first no-no in Padres history; he’s posted career-bests in strikeout rate and walk rate while notching the best ERA of his career to date (2.47). Basically, he’s doubled down on the improvements he made in 2019, when he reduced the usage of his four-seam fastball in favor of more sliders, curves, and this year, cutters too.

After steadying his previously inconsistent command in 2020, Yu Darvish has turned into one of the most dependable starters in baseball even as he approaches his mid-to-late thirties. His ERA of 1.75 and xERA of 2.56 would both be personal records for the four-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young runner-up as he cruises through his age-35 season.

Darvish and Musgrove give the Padres’ rotation a pretty high floor, but they won’t reach their ceiling unless the others pick it up.

4. New York Mets

Any starting rotation with Jacob deGrom would be a glaring absence from this kind of list. Despite his short injured list stint due to some “discomfort” in his right side, he’s been better on a per-inning basis than every other pitcher in recent memory by a significant margin. Among hurlers with at least 40 innings in 2021, deGrom ranks first in ERA, WHIP, and average fastball velocity, and second in xFIP, SIERA, and K-BB%. He’s been the best pitcher in the majors over the past handful of seasons, and he’s outdoing himself yet again this season.

Marcus Stroman has walked the walk with his sub-3.00 ERA, helping offset the temporary losses of Taijuan Walker, who pitched well before his injury, and Carlos Carrasco, who has yet to make his 2021 debut. Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ true No. 2, recently suffered a setback in his second rehab start after feeling some discomfort in his throwing elbow. Syndergaard’s return to form post-Tommy John surgery would give the Mets one of the top starting pitching duos in the majors ... if it ever happens, of course.

The Mets need their other four arms to maintain some dependability if they want to contend, but their automatic spot among the elite is thanks to the overwhelming dominance of their top dog.

3. New York Yankees

With the offseason signings of long-injured former frontline starters Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, as well as the impending return of the suspended and injured Domingo Germán and Luis Severino, the Yankees set themselves up for an incredibly wide range of outcomes. If everything broke right, they’d have two, or even three Cy Young contending level arms by the season’s midpoint, backed by another couple of dependable starters.

Germán, Kluber, and Taillon have all since improved upon rocky beginnings to the season, culminating in the rotation’s recent stretch of dominance. German’s probably had the most consistent stretch of the three since his demotion and return to the bigs, but has done so against exceptionally weak offenses, posting his best starts against Cleveland, Texas, and Baltimore twice.

Since developing his changeup as a legitimate counter to the so-called “Kluball,” Kluber has seemingly found a new path to approach the level of steady dominance he displayed during his Cy Young seasons in Cleveland. With his increased age and radically reduced velocity, it’s unlikely he’ll ever be as good again as he once was, but he’s looked sharper as the season’s gone on, culminating in his no-hitter last week against the Rangers. Kluber might be in a bit of hot water after departing Tuesday’s start early with shoulder tightness, but hopefully, this won’t be a major setback.

Taillon’s up-and-down season has underwhelmed those of us who had high hopes for the efficacy of his new throwing mechanics, but he’s been healthy so far, and could be an afterthought if Germán, Kluber, and Jordan Montgomery can maintain the success they’ve had this season. (And that’s to say nothing of Severino’s potential rehab.)

Monty too, has built off of a shockingly stable start against Tampa last postseason, posting career-bests in FIP, WHIP, K%, and OPS allowed despite a slightly elevated ERA in comparison to those qualitative measures. If he can keep up this pace, he’ll be more than suitable as the Yankees’ No. 4 starter in time for the postseason. Still, it’s entirely plausible that everyone not named Gerrit Cole regresses towards their previous lulls in health or performance and the Yankees limp into the postseason with a single trustworthy starting pitcher.

Nonetheless, Cole has been nothing short of fantastic, steamrolling his way through opposing lineups into the pole position for the AL Cy Young.

2. Milwaukee Brewers

Corbin Burnes’ emergence as the NL’s second-best pitcher has elevated the Brewers’ rotation from solid to elite. Burnes himself has gone from good to great, suddenly dominating batters with a supremely dominant cutter flanked by sliders, curves, sinkers, and changeups. Despite his diverse arsenal of offerings with sharply divergent breaks, Burnes has been able to exert impeccable control to great effect, posting the best strikeout rate in the majors and setting the record for most strikeouts without a walk to start a season.

Burnes is not the only one in Milwaukee having a career year though. Brandon Woodruff has improved his xwOBA and xERA upon each successive season of his career, and currently sports an xERA of 2.36 — within MLB’s top seven percent. He’s a power pitcher who throws a fastball variant more than two-thirds of the time, but rarely walks batters and strikes them out at an elite rate, making for one of the most sustainable packages of pitching production so long as he remains healthy. Combined with Burnes, the Brewers’ duo has an argument for the best starting pitching pairing in baseball.

Freddy Peralta, the Brewers’ third starter, has quietly been outstanding, as he currently sports an xwOBA, K%, and xERA, all within the top six percent of the majors. He’s swapped out his so-so curveball for an exceptional slider, leading to the best season of his young career so far. The other two Brewers starters, Brett Anderson and Adrian Houser, haven’t quite held their own in comparison to the superb top three. Anderson and Houser each have FIPs over 5.00 and ERAs over 4.00, so the gulf between the top and bottom of the rotation could grow even larger.

Still, with one of the top duos in the majors, and a third stud following suit, the Brewers are set to succeed come playoff time.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Even after losing their surging, flame-throwing rookie, Dustin May, to Tommy John surgery, the defending champions and preseason favorites to repeat have three — or arguably four — ace-level starting pitchers. They lead the league in just about every major pitching category by a considerable margin with reinforcements on the way.

Clayton Kershaw’s fastball isn’t what it once was, but he has maintained his edge by throwing a downright nasty and diverse set of off-speed pitches more than ever. In using his slider as his primary offering, he’s retained his elite status, striking out batters more frequently than three-quarters of the league, and notching a walk-rate within the league’s top 10 percent.

Although Walker Buehler hasn’t entirely lived up to expectations set by his dominant run in last year’s playoffs, the stuff that made him an ace at Vanderbilt is still there. His velocity is down too, but that’s most likely due to his focus on winning with craft to develop a more sustainable mode of success as he ages, as opposed to just overpowering every batter he faces. Regardless, his fastball and curve spin are each within the league’s top five percent, and has kept his ERA and WHIP below 3.00 and 1.00, respectively.

After winning the NL Cy Young last season, Trevor Bauer might be the best of the bunch. He’s striking batters out at the best rate of his career while limiting walks at an above average rate. With an ERA of 1.98 and an xERA of 2.21, Bauer’s just outside the early pair of favorites to win this year’s award (deGrom and Burnes), but could easily join the front of the pack with his comparable stuff and unwavering health.

On the heels of a string of lights-out performances in the playoffs, Julio Urías has been one of the biggest breakouts among pitchers this season. His sharpened changeup has helped maintain the edge on his vicious curveball and well-above average spinning fastball, keeping hitters on both sides of the plate off balance. Also, Urías exhibited greater control than ever before, allowing him to pitch more efficiently and dominate deeper into his starts, taking on an even greater workload for his team.

Altogether, this quartet of arms gives the Dodgers a pair of lefties and righties each capable of single-handedly carrying the team deep into a game against the best offenses in baseball. Even with the possibility of not having the best starting pitcher in a playoff series, their staggering depth of talent at the top of their rotation should give them the edge in this category over any potential opponent.