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Projecting the Yankees’ starting rotation

Innings counts matter; what can we expect from the projected rotation?

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

We’ve talked a lot about how good the 2021 Yankees’ pitching staff was, and indeed, it carried a lot of the freight in a year when the lineup was awfully disappointing. The whole squad was fourth in fWAR and K-BB% across all of MLB, and lest you think this was just the strength of a great bullpen, the starters were sixth and fifth in baseball in those metrics respectively.

The one thing the Yankee rotation wasn’t elite at, merely okay, was cumulative innings count. 12th in baseball at 829.1 IP, the rotation was a solid example of elite performance in a modest sample, compared with a team like Houston that paired lesser performance — almost two full wins less — over 60 more innings. Starters innings were down across baseball in 2021, with only four teams posting 850 innings and just one averaging more than 5.5 innings per start, compared to 15 and 6 in the last full MLB season, 2019. So part of that innings lag probably was expected at the start of the season, that the Yankees wouldn’t be among the leaders in innings pitched.

Looking ahead to 2022, the question around the rotation is once again whether the surplus of arms is enough to overcome a potentially-lower-ceiling. Gerrit Cole is still as good as it gets in the game, but there’s no Max Scherzer, Lucas Giolito or Brandon Woodruff behind him. Instead, the arms range from the solid-if-not-workhorse Jordan Montgomery, question marks in Luis Severino, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo Germán, once-prospects like Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt, and a 2021 wunderkind Nestor Cortés Jr., who despite his excellent season doesn’t have much track record.

The Yankees went into 2021 with pretty much that same collection of guys — offseason acquisition Corey Kluber was expected to be the #2, but only threw 80 innings — and it worked great. The team proved that they could rely on ten or so different guys churning in and out of the rotation, some exceeding expectations, others subbed out when they didn’t, and still have a great pitching staff.

In 2022, that could very well happen once again. If you take those eight pitchers listed above, the eight that will likely form the core of the rotation, they’re projected to combine for 853 innings over 149 of the team’s starts, or, about 5.7 innings pitched per start, which frankly would be extraordinary. I think it’s fair to poke some holes in those projections here and there, however.

First, Depth Charts, FanGraphs’ blend of Steamer and ZiPS, pegs Luis Severino for 136 innings, about two-thirds of his workload for the year coming in the starting rotation. I’m going to be the low man on Severino for the time being, no matter how inspirational his late season return was. Going from 18 innings since 2018 to 130+ this season is something that I will believe when I see it. I have similar thoughts around García and Schmidt, guys who for one reason or another have seen their development stall — even though their combined projection of 22 IP is pretty marginal.

The real question, independent of poking holes in projections, is whether the Yankees would be better off committing to the rotation as it currently stands — a rotation that would probably be pretty good, with those eight guys projected for 14.6 fWAR, virtually identical to the rotation’s 14.8 fWAR a year ago — or is the prudent move to bring in a real #2 to follow Cole, pay the resulting prospect price, and even if your overall projections don’t change much, the ceiling of the team and its playoff odds would?

The Yankees probably aren’t going to be able to get someone like Woodruff, or Nola, but even that solid second tier of pitchers changes the outlook of the rotation. Tyler Mahle, for example, is projected to be as good as Luis Severino, but has thrown 358 innings over the past three seasons, a little bit of a better track record to rely on going forward and I would argue shorter error bars around his performance. Additionally, where raising the ceiling with a real #2 helps is in the postseason.

Being able to pair Scherzer and Walker Buehler, or as we’ve seen Houston do with Cole and Justin Verlander in past seasons, just makes your job running and managing a team much easier. The Yankees have a collection of solid pitchers behind Gerrit Cole, who I really think give them a pretty high floor, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if we see them in the top 10, or better, rotations again in 2022. The lack of a clear cut follower though, a guy that you can give the ball after Cole, crimps down on its ceiling and makes them less dangerous, in my opinion, in the postseason.