The starting pitching for the New York Yankees has been pretty ugly this season. The Yankees are 20th in the majors in team ERA, but that is largely bolstered by a major-league fifth best 2.68 ERA from their bullpen.
Without the relievers, the Yankees’ starters are 26th in the majors with a 4.78 ERA. After a big offseason in terms of improving the starting rotation with the trade for Michael Pineda and the signings of Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, the performance of the starting pitching has been disappointing to say the least. However, the underlying
numbers indicate that the starting pitching has not been as bad as the ugly ERA shows, and that we should expect improvement in the pitching, and therefore improvement for the team as a whole, going forward.
As far as strikeouts and walks go, the Yankees’ rotation has been excellent, with a 7.85 K/9 (good for 6th in the Majors) and a 2.55 BB/9 (9th). These two factors, along with groundball rate (43.2% for 19th in the majors) are the three aspects of pitching that a pitcher has the most control over, and just considering these factors, the Yankees have been excellent. Their xFIP, which estimates ERA given only these three factors, is 3.70, which is 9th best in the majors, a significant improvement from their ERA. SIERA, another ERA estimator, has the Yankees’ starting pitching at 6th in the majors, and 3rd in the AL.
The reasons for the large discrepancy between the Yankees’ xFIP/SIERA and ERA lie in their team BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and HR/FB rate. About 32% of the balls that hitters have put into play against the Yankees’ starting pitching (minus home runs) have fallen as hits, compared to league-average 28.6%. While some of this may be due to poor defense, it is likely that the Yankees have been subject to some bad luck as far as balls in play go.
The other important contributor to the Yankees’ bad ERA has been the percentage of flyballs that have turned into home runs, another factor that is largely luck-based. A whopping 15.2% of the flyballs hit against the Yankees have turned into home runs, which is 2nd in the majors behind only the Twins. While one may think that this is due to the propensity of Yankee Stadium to the long ball, the Yankees’ starters were only slightly below average in HR/FB last year at 10.6%. This year, for whatever reason, balls are flying out of the park, but over time this number will regress closer to league average.
So while the surface-level numbers haven’t looked good for the Yankees’ starting pitching so far, we can fully expect a vast improvement going forward. Sabathia, despite a mediocre ERA, is pitching as well as, or better, than he ever has. Ivan Nova as well has seen a much-improved strikeout rate to go along with better control, and his ERA will soon reflect that. While Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes look like middle-of-the-road starters so far, as long as they keep the team in the game during their starts, the offense should take care of the rest. Freddy Garcia was a large reason for the disappointing numbers so far, but his replacement in Andy Pettitte will surely put up better performances than Garcia did. Although Pettitte‘s start today was disappointing, as long as he can eat up innings without falling apart, he will give the Yankees a change to win, which is all they can ask for out of a 5th starter.