The New York Yankees came into the 2022 season with expectations of a top 10 starting rotation. Sure, most thought that the Yankee staff would perform well, but the phrase “Gerrit Cole followed by a bunch of question marks” was uttered more times than one could count.
Of course, the club has blown past those expectations in the first half. The rotation in the Bronx leads the American League in WHIP (1.05), K-BB% (19.4) and ERA (3.15). There have been no weaknesses, with all five starters not skipping a beat. Each one has topped 15 starts, and at least 84 innings pitched.
Health has been a major factor in the rotation’s performance, with a nearly spotless first half injury-wise enabling these five pitchers to perform at their best. But looking back, we may have taken for granted how much of the Yankee staff’s success would’ve ultimately been a matter of health.
This MLB.com article from prior to the season had the Yankees as the ninth-best rotation in baseball and not even the best one in the AL East. The Toronto Blue Jays had that distinction, sitting inside the top-three, at third. Anecdotally, that opinion seemed to be reflected in most corners of MLB fandom. The perception for the Yankees was that Cole found himself surrounded by a lot of uncertainty.
Although that was true to some extent, taking aside the injury risk, the other four members of the rotation were underrated. In fact, even before the year, one could have sampled FanGraphs’ positional power rankings and found the Yankees entrenched in the top projected spot:
Basically, to some extent, we should have seen this coming. Looking at it right now, who in the Yankees rotation is having that Tony Gonsolin year? That Tyler Anderson year? Or, to sample other surprise performance from a lesser rotation, that Tyler Wells year? Unlike players like Wells or Anderson, who have excelled in 2022 despite track records featuring nothing close to this level of play, Yankee starters have not actually pitched at significantly higher levels than they’ve shown in previous years.
Jordan Montgomery and Jameson Taillon are both having strong campaigns, and Taillon in particular has improved on his 2021 campaign. But neither is pitching outside of his capability. Montgomery ran 116 and 117 ERA+ figures in his first two seasons, a dead match for his 118 mark in 2022, and his 19.6 K% this season is actually below career average (22.6).
Jameson Taillon had a 3.82 ERA coming into this year and currently sits at 3.63. His 103 ERA+ is actually worse than in his early-career seasons, though, and the only stat that has he’s shown a huge improvement in is walk rate. Even with his recent struggles, Taillon leads baseball with a 1.1 BB/9.
Luis Severino was a perennial Cy Young candidate when healthy. It’s hard to determine what a pitcher will be able to do following multiple years away from the mound, but a healthy Severino in 2022 has shown he still has it. Sure, that he’s been as healthy as he has in 2022 is a surprise, but it should not come as a shock that a healthy Severino can shove.
Gerrit Cole was the straw that stirred the drink, which only left Nestor Cortes as an unknown commodity heading into the year, health or no health. It is true that Cortes was an integral part of the Yankees' pitching staff in 2021, with a 2.90 ERA in 93 innings. Beyond that, the track record wasn’t there, and nothing in his profile truly hinted at what he’s done in 2022.
Take a look at Ranger Suaréz for instance. A lefty starter for the Phillies, Suarez came out of nowhere to for a 304 ERA+ in 103 innings last year. A year later, he’s come back to earth and has posted below league average numbers across the board.
Right now, it looks like Cortes is building on a strong 2021. He was the only unknown in the Yankees’ rotation before the year. Severino has thus far answered the health questions. Montgomery and Taillon have thrived by limiting free passes and otherwise have stayed within their skillset, and Cortes has proven himself legit after a successful 2021.
In the end, the main factor that has propelled this rotation is health. Even Cortes, the main question mark entering the year, had shown he could play at a high level in 2021. For the most part, Yankees starters in 2022 have simply made good on their promise. None are playing over their heads; they’re playing just as well as should have expected a talented group of starters to play. The challenge now will be to keep it up through the second half.