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Exploring the Yankees’ early use of their starting pitchers

The starters haven’t been going very deep, but there’s generally been perfectly good reasons for it.

Texas Rangers v. New York Yankees Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

One of the primary talking points across MLB during the shortened spring training and the first days of the season was how managers would use their starting pitching in April. Despite some injury risks in the Yankees rotation, so far the unit has been healthy and put up great numbers. It’s possibly a best-case scenario for how the season could have started, and unsurprisingly, Aaron Boone has not used his starters in the same way.

Already, and justifiably, it seems like the reigns have been taken off of Gerrit Cole. While he was limited to about 70 pitches on Opening Day, his pitch counts were in the low 90s by the end of April, and in his last start against Texas he was allowed to throw 114 — perhaps a few too many, considering the late home run he gave up. Part of Cole’s appeal to the Yankees was that he’s one of the few remaining aces who can throw over 200 innings per season and throw around 100 pitches per start. This is how the Yankees have to use him.

Interestingly, there have been fewer restraints on Severino than one might have expected. Even though he missed missed almost three entire seasons, there is no version of the Joba Rules happening these days. In his May 10 start against Toronto, Sevy threw 97 pitches, after being pulled after 93 in his start before that.

Letting their previously injured pitchers have at it is not something we’re used to seeing from the Yankees or in MLB overall. And, to be fair, they did use their two rainouts over the weekend of May 6 to push Severino back and give him more time off. I’s also important to point out that Severino has been building up a high pitch count earlier in games — so pulling him after 80 pitches might mean pulling him after only 4.0 innings pitched, which is way too much strain to put on the bullpen.

But the Yankees have told their players that the days of set innings limits are gone, and the strength and conditioning team instead will monitor their range of motion and other factors and perhaps give a player more time off once they see an issue forming. So far, it seems like they like what they see out of Severino.

Also interesting to me is the team’s usage of Jordan Montgomery, but for the opposite reason as Severino — they’re pulling him quickly, even when he’s put up good results. Despite staying healthy throughout 2021 and into this season, he’s being treated more gingerly than Severino.

For example, Monty was pulled by Boone out of his last start against Texas after only having thrown 71 pitches. He’d been allowed to start the seventh inning, but was replaced by Michael King after allowing a leadoff double. It was only his fourth hit allowed, but King had been basically automatic up to that point. And Monty has been at his worst facing the opposing batters for the third time, as you’d generally expect, with a BAA of .313 compared to .170 the second time through.

Still, it would be nice to see Montgomery make it longer than five or six innings on a more regular basis. A mid-rotation starter getting that deep into games can be a huge boost for a bullpen, especially when a team is in a long stretch without a day off, like the Yankees currently are. So far, I’m surprised Boone isn’t giving him that chance.

Taillon is in a similar boat, generally being allowed to throw about 80 pitches per game so far. Considering his ankle injury and the way he built up to more consistent length last season, I find this a lot less surprising. It was such a boost in 2021 when he was able to give around six innings consistently — hopefully he reaches that point soon.

Nestor Cortes is a bit of a wild card — he’s already a third of the way to his MLB high in innings, but no one seems interested in keeping Nasty Nestor down. Boone said he was not going to pull him from his May 9 no-hitter bid unless he started walking batters, even though his pitch count was steadily rising over 100. Maybe the team thinks his low velocity style puts less strain on his arm; most likely, they just can’t turn down the dominant innings he’s providing.

Overall, unless a start is being truly in control, the Yankees have been content to pull the starter and let the strong bullpen take over. It’s possible that the shorter outings from some of the starters are a feature, not a bug. It’s certainly been a winning strategy so far. Cole and Cortes are apparently trusted to get outs later in the game even if they allow baserunners, Severino would seemingly be allowed to go deep if he could keep his pitch count down, while Boone seems to want to pull Montgomery and Taillon at the first signs of trouble, even if it means more work for the bullpen. Despite the stability we’ve seen so far, as the season wears on, how Boone manages the starters not named Cole will be worth keeping an eye on.