clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Yankees are finally prioritizing command for starting pitchers

After several failures, it looks like the Yankees have found a winning formula for putting a starting rotation together.

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Since the turn of the century, the Yankees have been all too familiar with pitching acquisitions who did not pan out. Between Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright, Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano, Jeff Weaver, Randy Johnson, Esteban Loaiza, A.J. Burnett, Vazquez again, and Sidney Ponson twice, a lot of bad memories come back to mind. But out of the pitchers who have succeeded in pinstripes, one thing has remained relatively constant (Tanaka's Japan stats are from Baseball-Reference, everything else is from Fangraphs):

Player Year Before NYY Team Before NYY K/BB Before NYY ERA- w/ NYY FIP- w/ NYY
Mike Mussina 2000 BAL 4.57 87 80
Jon Lieber 2002 CHC 7.25 95 84
CC Sabathia 2008 CLE/MIL 4.25 85 82
Michael Pineda 2011 SEA 3.15 48 70
Masahiro Tanaka 2013 Japan 5.72 71 78
Hiroki Kuroda 2011 LAD 3.29 84 90
Brandon McCarthy 2014 (Partial) ARI 4.65 74 83

To explain the significance of this trend, some historical context is needed. During the early/mid 2000s, the cause of the Yankees' rotational woes was believed to be the newer pitchers' lack of mental toughness. The correlation was definitely there. Anyone who has read The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci knows how much of a role the former Yankees manager thinks mental toughness played during his career. He often cited Mike Mussina, David Cone, and Andy Pettitte as being unfazed regardless of the situation at hand. In comparison, Carl Pavano allegedly did not have any drive, Randy Johnson was supposedly consumed by the notion that he was tipping his pitches, and Kevin Brown was apparently a complete mess.

But then came the trio of pitchers deemed to be the future of the Yankees: Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy. Yankee fans had just seen groundball machine Chien-Ming Wang serve as the team's ace, then proceeded to watch Hughes's high flyball rate lead to an ugly tenure in pinstripes. This led many to believe that a high groundball rate virtually guaranteed success at Yankee Stadium. However, A.J. Burnett and Sidney Ponson would probably disagree (data from Fangraphs):

Player K/BB w/ NYY GB% w/ NYY HR/9 w/ NYY ERA- w/ NYY FIP- w/ NYY
A.J. Burnett 1.99 45.6% 1.25 111 107
Sidney Ponson 1.23 51.3% 1.31 151 124

Even though both pitchers had solid groundball rates as Yankees, they actually ended up getting burned by home runs at a Hughes-like level. Obviously, walking a few batters here and there never really hurt anyone. But if a pitcher walks a lot of batters because pitches aimed at the corner of the strike zone become balls, there is also a good chance that he is missing towards the middle of the plate. Serving one down the middle is probably even worse for pitchers who rely on sinkers and two-seam fastballs, especially at Yankee Stadium. To further illustrate this point, look at the Zone Profile for Burnett on the 2011 Yankees (49.2 GB%, 5.15 ERA) vs. his 2012 data when he went to the Piratescourtesy of Brooks Baseball.

In 2011, hitters put up an insane .564 ISO against pitches down the middle. Moving to the wild expanses of PNC Park in 2012 probably helped him bring that number down to reasonable levels.

It is well-known that the key to pitching in Yankee Stadium is mitigating of "mistake" pitches. While pitching to groundball contact undeniable helps limit mistakes, location is as--if not more--important. With this in mind, it is clear that the wheels are in motion when it comes to putting together a command-oriented rotation for the future. Newcomer Nathan Eovaldi put up a career-best 3.30 K/BB ratio in 2014, which should be enough if he consistently hits the high 90s with his fastball. After all, there really is no such thing as a 99-mph "mistake" pitch. Domingo German, the other pitcher to come from the Marlins trade, put up a K/BB ratio of 4.52 last season. Given the Yankees' resources and greater emphasis on defense, it might not be long before the Yankees finally get over the starting pitching hump.