In 2015, a Yankees starting rotation with several question marks had some pretty questionable results. Masahiro Tanaka struggled mightily with home runs, while Nathan Eovaldi and CC Sabathia kept pushing through their own kinds of developmental stages. Michael Pineda flashed ace potential, but fell off a cliff after the All Star Break. Finally, coming off Tommy John surgery, Ivan Nova experienced a great deal of difficulty, forcing the Yankees to shop him over the offseason.
It is no secret that the Yankees like pitchers who keep the ball on the ground. Pitchers like Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia both rely primarily on sinkers to get outs, while Nathan Eovaldi throws a upper 90's fastball with armside run. Michael Pineda turns to a rare mix of cutters and a very heavy four-seam fastball. All in all, Yankees starters had a 48.3% groundball rate in 2015, which put them at fourth in Major League Baseball.
In an era of extreme specialization, the Yankees grounder-happy staff provides a ray hope for 2015. The same question marks exist for the Yankees, as no one on the staff can truly say they have a clean bill of health over the past couple of years. But if they can continue to keep the ball on the ground, they should in the very least give themselves a fighting chance.
After a somewhat underwhelming 2015 season, infield defense figures to be a point of strength in 2016. After a slow start on both sides of the ball, shortstop Didi Gregorius put up a tremendous defensive campaign, with a UZR of 7.4 and five defensive runs saved. Chase Headley, widely considered to be a Gold Glove caliber third baseman, should theoretically come to spring training free of whatever caused him to make so many throwing errors in 2015.
In a much too small sample size, incoming second baseman Starlin Castro was below average by UZR measures, but had two DRS. Being a former shortstop and having more reps at second bodes well for his defensive upside. Castro, who annoyed Cubs fans to no end with his mishaps at shortstop, will be moving to a position that doesn't rush him to throw the ball as much. In fact, he said as much in his interview with Meredith Marokavits of the YES Network:
"We have to be a little bit rushed at shortstop because it's a longer throw to first," he said. "At second base, you just try to make every play and first base is right there."
Finally, Mark Teixeira is a very highly regarded defensive first baseman, and was positive in both UZR and DRS in 2015. Meanwhile, in the outfield, Carlos Beltran has been a massive defensive liability for the last three seasons. While they possess great speed, both Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are considered to have lost a step last season. Both outfielders are 32 years old and will be dealing with diminished range as they get older.
For pitchers on the Yankees staff, news of a solidified infield defense is more than welcome. Here is how hitters fared against Yankees starters last year on groundballs, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
The league-wide average on grounders was .236 in 2015. While factors like speed and Pull% are sure to have an effect on a hitter's groundball production, opposing batting average against starting pitchers, who face all kinds of hitters, should theoretically regress to league average over a large sample size. For Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia, this could mean an end to the abnormally high BABIP's. But for Masahiro Tanaka, a new season could mean his luck is running out.
The Yankees' starting rotation definitely has its holes going into the 2016 season. But Larry Rothschild and Company can at least take comfort in knowing that the defense is tailored towards the imperfect pitching staff. With a three-headed monster now residing in the bullpen, pitchers like Sabathia and Nova could benefit from being told to simply lay everything on the line over five or six innings. With a revamped infield defense and a bit of luck, the Yankees rotation might just end up doing okay in 2016.
Data is courtesy of Baseball Savant and Fangraphs.