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The rotation has been good, but is it good enough?

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Yankees starting pitchers have been good, but are they good enough for a team with big aspirations?

MLB: JUN 17 Yankees at Blue Jays Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Yankees’ starting rotation carried a lot of question marks coming into the 2021 season, but on the whole, it’s performed pretty well as a group (it certainly hasn’t been one of the team’s problems). Gerrit Cole has been one of the best pitchers in the American League, and Jordan Montgomery and Domingo Germán are both on pace to throw more than 150 innings at around a league-average ERA+. Even Jameson Taillon, who hasn’t pitched well, is healthy and on pace to make 30 starts this season.

Staff averages are somewhat swayed by Cole’s dominance and a phenomenal May from Corey Kluber, but still, Yankees starters rank in the top third in the AL in average game score, quality starts, ERA, and WHIP. If we were given the above information back in March as an option, I think most Yankee fans would have signed on for it.

However, some extra context is needed when discussing the Yankees’ starting pitching. In March, the Yankees as an organization fully expected to be playing in postseason games and competing for an AL pennant and a World Series this October. With that context, we need to be sure we’re asking the right question when discussing the starting rotation. Whether or not the starting rotation has been “good” to this point in the season is the wrong question. Is it “good enough for a team with high expectations?” is the better question.

To answer that, the easiest thing to do is to look at the starting rotations of recent World Series winners and see how the current Yankees group compares to them. When looking at the starting rotations of the last five World Series winners, something stands out: They all had multiple starting pitchers who pitched at a much better than league average ERA+ for the season. That is to say, none of the recent World Series-winning teams had a staff of average-to-good pitchers, and none had a big-time ace and then some innings eaters. The last five champions all had serious depth in the “very good starting pitcher” column.

For discussion’s sake, we’ll keep things simple and use ERA+ as a barometer and say that an ERA+ of 120 or better is much better than league average. (Quick reminder: ERA+ is adjusted so that league average is 100, meaning an ERA+ of 120 is 20 percent better than average — so unlike traditional ERA, higher is better. It doesn’t tell the entire story of course, but for today’s purposes it’ll do fine.)

Here’s the current Yankees alongside the last five World Series winners and the number of starting pitchers on each team with an ERA+ of 120 or better:

>120 ERA+ club

Team # of pitchers
Team # of pitchers
2021 NYY 1
2020 LAD 4
2019 WSN 3
2018 BOS 3
2017 HOU 3
2016 CHC 4

*All pitchers considered pitched a minimum of 125 innings (prorated for 2020 and 2021) except for Justin Verlander in 2017 and Nathan Eovaldi in 2018 who joined their teams mid-season. They both would have easily qualified if they were with their teams for a full season, so they are included above.

If the Yankees’ lack of depth in the very good starting pitcher department for a team with high expectations isn’t glaring enough, here’s more to consider — the gap in both quality and quantity between the Yankees and the other teams is actually greater than that chart indicates.

The 2020 Dodgers had a fifth starting pitcher with a better than 120 ERA+, but Walker Buhler didn’t pitch enough innings to make the list. The Nationals (Anibal Sánchez; 114 ERA+), Red Sox (Eduardo Rodriguez; 116 ERA+), and Astros (Charlie Morton; 113 ERA+) came close to joining the Dodgers and Cubs with having a fourth starter to make that list. Furthermore, the Cubs and Red Sox had a fifth starter with a better than league average ERA+ in Jason Hammel (109) and Rick Porcello (103) respectively. (If you’re curious, Jordan Montgomery’s 103 ERA+ is the second-best on the Yankees among qualifying pitchers.)

It bears repeating due to the significance of the topic, so even though I’ve written it here before, I’ll remind everyone again: The last four World Series were closed out with starting pitchers on the mound who came out of the bullpen, and it wasn’t because those teams had bad bullpens — it was because of serious talent and depth in their starting rotations. Furthermore, if you were pinning your hopes on Cole’s level of dominance being such that it might move the needle for the Yankees, I have disappointing news for you.

“Cole is so great, his starts are close to automatic wins, and the other guys just need to be OK for the team to reach the postseason or win a playoff series,” is a viewpoint with some holes in it. For starters, the Yankees are only 8-7 in games that Cole has started this season. On top of that, when compared to the aces of the teams listed above, Cole doesn’t really stand out, as odd as that may sound. In fact, his current ERA+ of 179 would rank fourth out of six among the aces of the teams above, only ahead of Jon Lester’s 171 in 2016 and Max Scherzer’s 151 in 2019. The other teams listed above all had dominant number ones, but they needed high-quality depth in the rotation in order to win big.

Does all of this mean it’s impossible for the 2021 Yankees to win a World Series with the current starting rotation? No, but it does mean the odds are long. Unless both the depth and quality of the starting pitching behind Cole improves, the Yankees are hoping to be an unlikely exception to the rule, which is not a great strategy.

However harsh the reality may be, it is the reality right now and it’s hard to be optimistic about it improving significantly this season. Adding a pitcher who’ll make a difference through a trade will be difficult for a combination of reasons. Expecting Kluber and/or Luis Severino to return and be at or near their best is being very optimistic, as is expecting Montgomery or Germán to significantly improve — which again, isn’t a criticism, as they’ve both been good.

Still, “good” and “good enough” are two different issues, and this group is unlikely to be “good enough.”