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The Yankees rolled the dice with their rotation, and it’s coming back to haunt them

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The Yankees pitched well for most of the season, but the lack of depth in the rotation has caught up with them.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees came into the 2021 season with some question marks regarding their starting rotation, to put it mildly. The trio of Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and Jordan Montgomery had combined for only 122 innings over the 2019 – 2020 seasons. When Domingo Germán took the mound on April 4th of this year, it was the first time he had been pitched in an MLB game in 19 months. Although Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman never came out and said it publicly, it certainly looked like the plan was to let Gerrit Cole and the offense lead the team into the front of the AL East, then re-evaluate and perhaps add a starting pitcher at the trade deadline if need be.

At a cursory glance, the results have been mixed: Kluber had two starts in May with game scores of 95 and 87 (Cole has only one game as a Yankee with a game score better than 87 for some perspective) but has a 5.44 ERA in his other 11 starts. Germán had a good seven-start stretch in the spring but wasn’t very good in his other 11 starts. Depending upon how harsh or generous of an evaluator you are, you can certainly say Montgomery has been good and Taillon has provided reason for optimism (we’ll come back to the performances of Montgomery and Taillon in a moment). Of course, it must be noted that Kluber and Germán have missed significant time due to injuries, and Taillon is currently dealing with one.

What a cursory glance overlooks is that due to a combination of factors, they haven’t collectively provided the team with very many innings, and that has created other problems. The result has been that although the team was good at preventing runs through most of the season, they’re struggling with that aspect of the game deep into the season. This is in large part to having to consistently run unproven starting pitchers to the mound and thus having to overtax a bullpen that is struggling to keep up with the demand.

Let’s take a quick look at how the Yankees’ pitchers have done since August 9th. Why August 9th? Because September is only two weeks old and I don’t want to be accused of cherry-picking statistics, so let’s use a bigger sample that includes the 13-game winning streak in August. Below are the Yankees’ American League team ranks in xFIP, ERA, and earned runs allowed from Opening Day through August 8th, then from August 9th through September 13th.

*ER rank is fewest earned runs allowed, so lower is better.

Yanks’ Ranks

Stat 4/1 - 8/8 8/9 - 9/13
Stat 4/1 - 8/8 8/9 - 9/13
xFIP 3rd 7th
ERA 2nd 5th
ER 2nd 6th

(Additionally, their K%-BB% dropped from 18.1% in the first sample, to 15.4% in the second sample.)

They went from top three in the league in each category from April through early August, to a little better than average since, not an insignificant drop.

What if get a little harsher and exclude the Yankees’ 13-game streak– how have the Yankees’ pitchers fared since August 30th? Since then, they’ve allowed the second-most earned runs in the AL, have the ninth-worst xFIP and 13th-worst ERA. As noted on the YES broadcast on Monday, they’ve allowed five or more runs in nine straight games entering Tuesday, one game short of the franchise record.

This can’t be shocking when almost one-quarter of the Yankees’ games this season (24 percent to be exact) have been started by the following pitchers: Andrew Heaney, Luis Gil, Michael King, Nick Nelson, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Asher Wojciechowski, Lucas Luetge, Wandy Peralta, Dan Chaliss and Néstor Cortes Jr. (Seriously, I only made up one of those names.) Of course, Cortes has been very good for the Yankees, but even with his success he’s averaging 5.1 innings per start, so it’s not like he’s been giving the bullpen a break. And to be clear, the pitchers named above may be good and/or dependable pitchers at some point, but they aren’t now – none of them would make Yankees’ fans comfortable if they started a playoff game this October.

Speaking of taxing the bullpen, relievers have worn a path between right-center field and the mound in Yankee Stadium. Jonathan Loáisiga more than doubled his career-high in innings, Lucas Luetge has already surpassed his career-high, and Chad Green is about to blow past his career-high. As a result, three of the top seven innings leaders among AL relief pitchers are Yankees. Not all injuries and not all regressions to the mean in performance level can be explained by excessive usage, but the Yankees bullpen has had plenty of both this season and the workload certainly hasn’t helped.

Even in the cases of Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta, and Joely Rodríguez, we may need to temper our enthusiasm. There’s no question that all three have been great as Yankees in small sample sizes. But if two or three of them have to pitch every day to get the Yankees out of a jam, one of three things is likely to happen: A) They’re going to continue to pitch light’s out, B) they’ll show why they were so easily acquired in trades, or C) they’ll be injured. I’m not a betting man, but if I were I’d say “A” is the least likely scenario.

Let’s return to what we mentioned a minute ago: How we judge Montgomery and Taillon is only relative to our expectations. For a pitcher who hasn’t had a full season since 2017, Montgomery has had a very strong season. Taillon has been up and down, but given his health history, we all would have signed on for close to 30 starts and 150 innings, which is what he’s done.

That doesn’t mean they’re good enough to be the numbers two and three starters on a team that intends to win the World Series, which were certainly the Yankees' intentions in April and presumably still are. We’re happy with Montgomery and Taillon because of the context of their histories and our tempered expectations. But no one around the Yankees would be confident entering a seven-game series with them pitching four of the seven games. We don’t have time for a thorough discussion today, so you’re just going to have to trust me: When compared to the number two and three starters on the last five World Series winners, saying Montgomery and Taillon fall far short of those levels is an understatement.

What makes this situation frustrating from the fans’ perspective is that none of this comes as a surprise. I’ve written about it before here – recent history strongly suggests if you plan on winning a World Series, you’re going to need multiple very good starting pitchers. One great starter, and let’s hope four others exceed our expectations (which probably wouldn’t be good enough anyway) was a flawed plan from day one. Whether you’d lay the blame on Brian Cashman for poor roster construction, or on Hal Steinbrenner for being unnecessarily frugal is irrelevant. It was a careless and unnecessary roll of the dice for a team with World Series aspirations.