Despite a rotation littered with question marks, the Yankees have refused to add any semblance of starting pitching help. One of their major moves this offseason actually involved dealing away a key cog in the staff's depth, when Adam Warren was swapped for Starlin Castro. Yet, even with concerns attached to all of their names, the starters left have considerable potential. In fact, if things fall New York's way, it's not too hard to envision an elite starting staff emerging in 2016.
Even with the many questions, the baseline expectation for the pitching staff is fairly strong. The group is coming off a solid season in which they ranked 11th in MLB by FanGraphs, and 9th in baseball by Baseball Reference. Forecasts for the upcoming year put the rotation in a similar tier. FanGraphs' depth charts project the rotation to be 8th in baseball, with 14.8 WAR. Likewise, Baseball Propsectus pegs the Yankees' starters as 4th best in the American League.
The rotation, even with its problems, can reasonably be expected to be pretty good next year. So, what would a best case scenario look like? To get an idea, let's enlist the help of Baseball Propsectus' projection system, PECOTA. For each player, PECOTA generates percentile forecasts. If a player receives a 30th percentile projection of 2.0 WARP, that suggests there is a 70 percent chance that he performs as good or better than the 2.0 WARP projection. Conversely, there's a 90% chance a player falls short of his 90th percentile forecast, and so on. For this exercise, let's look at each pitcher's 70th percentile outcome, and compare it to his normal projection.
|Pitcher||Proj. ERA||Proj. IP||WARP||70th ERA||70th IP||WARP|
The table above presents PECOTA's actual projected ERA, innings pitched, and WARP for the Yankees' main starters, as well as the 70th percentile forecast for each respective category. The jump from the median projection to the 70th percentile includes a near 50 inning leap, a decrease in staff ERA from 4.05 to 3.66, and an increase of 5 WARP, which, based on PECOTA, would give New York the top rotation in the AL.
At first glance, none of the optimistic projections look particularly unreasonable. Starting with Tanaka, the Yankees' most likely opening day starter (health provided) essentially needs only match his production thus far in his career in order to hit his 70th percentile forecast. That forecast calls for a 3.37 ERA and a 4.6 strikeout to walk ratio, neither of which would best his career figures.
New York's young hope, Severino, also appears to have his 70th percentile forecast within reach. A 3.72 ERA and 8.1 K/9 seems eminently reachable after Severino acclimated to the majors with ease, posting a 137 ERA+ during his 62 rookie innings. PECOTA likely sees his less impressive 4.37 FIP as reason to be more pessimistic.
Eovaldi also looks like a decent bet to land closer to his 70th percentile than to his median projection. The effects of something like upping the velocity and usage of a splitter, as Eovaldi did last season in route to second half success, is probably a bit of blind spot for a system like PECOTA. While Eovaldi's 3.67 second half ERA is no guarantee of a 2016 continuation, a 3.81 ERA and 2.2 WARP certainly seem attainable.
Sabathia's projection is where things start to feel more murky. The old workhorse paced the Yankees with a team-high 167.1 innings last season, but he hasn't topped 200 since 2013. After suffering numerous injuries over the past two seasons, expecting him to log 182 innings, at what amounts to about league average production levels, seems rather ambitious.
Pineda projects as the Yankee with the highest potential, in spite of Tanaka's nominal title as the staff's ace. His 70th percentile forecast involves his run prevention numbers regressing almost exactly to his underlying peripherals. Pineda's 70th percentile ERA of 3.24 lines up nicely with his 3.26 career FIP. In the rosier 70th percentile scenario, PECOTA basically sees Pineda as a player who was victimized by a high BABIP last year, and in line for some positive regression. However, much of Pineda's BABIP struggles seemed to stem from yielding plenty of hard contact, so unless he ceases that trend, turning in a near 4 WARP season will be difficult, but still possible.
At the bottom of the list is Nova. Even in the more cheerful projection, PECOTA deems it unlikely Nova will be able to achieve the high level of play he demonstrated before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Still, both his median and 70th percentile forecasts call for him to perform much better than he did during his dreadful 2015. Predicting what version of Nova shows up in 2016 is quite a challenge, so there's really no telling whether his 70th percentile projection is truly within reach.
Should the Yankees on the whole achieve this best case scenario, it would, obviously, greatly impact their playoff chances. PECOTA currently projects the team to finish 85-77, in fourth place in the tough AL East, but just one game out of the wild card playoff. The five win boost that this scenario would represent could vault them directly into the wild card, and possibly toward the division title.
What are the odds of such a scenario? Well, if there's only a 30 percent chance that each pitcher will match or exceed their 70th percentile forecast, then straightforward probabilities dictate that the chances of all of them doing so at once are less than one percent (hence the phrase "best case scenario"). The odds don't sound great. However, looking at each projection individually, it does seem likely that at least some of the Yankees' starters will hit or surpass their 70th percentile forecast. Even if they don't, the rotation should still be competent, and if they do, well, the Yankees could be true contenders.