Mar 7, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda (35) throws a pitch during the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

How Much Has the Yankees' Pitching Improved This Year?

Mar 1, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia (52) throws a warm up pitch during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ pitching staff was a total mixed bag last year. They finished eighth in ERA and seventh in ERA+ in the American League. Their starters had a collective 4.08 ERA, ninth in the Junior Circuit. They had some guys totally underachieve (C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes), some old guys perform exceptionally (Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera), and some pleasant surprises like Ivan Nova. With the retirement of Mo and Andy and the departures of Hughes and Joba Chamberlain (good riddance), pitching was a must in the offseason.

So, not only did they retain Kuroda for at least one more go, they got the best pitcher on the free agent market: Masahiro Tanaka. The number one issue for the Yankees in 2014 is for Sabathia to bounce back after a horrible season. They also need a strong back-end anchored by Nova, David Phelps, and perhaps a resurgent Michael Pineda. If, (big IF) everything goes right, the Yankees could actually end up having a pretty damn good rotation this year.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the projections and who’s who on the club.

2014 Projections from FanGraphs.com (FANS) and the use of wins above replacement (WAR) and 2013 stats are from Baseball-Reference.com.

Ace:

2013: CC Sabathia- 211 IP, 4.78 ERA, 85 ERA+ 1.37 WHIP, 1.2 HR/9, 2.7 K/BB

2014: CC Sabathia- 216 IP, 3.75 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 3.4 K/BB

At 33-years-old, it’s unlikely that CC will be the beast he was from 2006 to 2012, when he put up a 140 ERA+. Still, you can definitely bet on him being much better than last year. He’s slimmer, he changed his arm angle to where it used to be, and he should be stronger than he was last year. He gave up home runs at a significantly higher rate than ever last year (1.2 per nine and 13% HR/FB compared to career norms of 0.8 per nine and 9.1% HR/FB), so if those rates come down, he should be a lot better and it will be a boost for the Yankees’ chances this year.

Number Two:

2013: Hiroki Kuroda- 201.1 IP, 3.31 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 0.9 HR/9, 3.5 K/BB

2014: Hiroki Kuroda- 196 IP, 3.55 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 1.21 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 3.3 K/BB

Kuroda was definitely the Yankees’ best pitcher last season, and he’s definitely performed like Andy Pettitte as a seasoned veteran in terms of reliability. At 39, you have to be very concerned about his workload, as in the last two years, he’s flamed out a bit in the last few weeks of the season. Last year he lost his last six decisions, putting up a 6.56 ERA in his last eight starts. The key for this season is for the other four starters to be more reliable so the Yankees won’t have to live and die by Kuroda.

Number Three:

Mar 6, 2014; Clearwater, FL, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (19) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

 

2013: Andy Pettitte- 185.1 IP, 3.75 ERA, 108 ERA+, 1.33 WHIP, 0.8 HR/9, 2.7 K/BB

2014: Masahiro Tanaka- 197 IP, 3.53 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 1.21 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 3.3 K/BB

With Pettitte retired the Yankees had to sign a starting pitcher, and they got the best one of the market. Granted, there’s no telling how good Tanaka will be, and it’s likely he will experience the typical growing pains while adjusting to Major League hitters and less days of rest between starts. Darvish and Dice-K had their problems in their first year in the states, so Tanaka probably won’t be THAT good yet, but no doubt he could be in time. But hey, he has looked pretty good in his first two outings this spring, and his splitter is everything it was advertised to be. You can at least expect him to be as good as Pettitte was last year.

Number Four:

2013: Ivan Nova- 139.1 IP, 3.10 ERA, 130 ERA+, 1.29 WHIP, 0.6 HR/9, 2.6 K/BB

2014: Ivan Nova- 186 IP, 3.72 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 1.27 WHIP, 0.8 HR/9, 2.8 K/BB

Who is the real Ivan Nova? In his rookie year he won 16 games and put up a 116 ERA+ but  had rates of just 5.3 K/9 and 1.7 K/BB. In 2012, he started missing more bats but gave up 28 homers as he put up an 84 ERA+. After a trip to the minors last year, he came back up and was the Yankees’ best pitcher, putting up a 2.59 ERA in his last 104.1 innings. The key for him is to keep the ball low. In 2011 and 2013, over 52% of the balls put into play against Nova were grounders. In 2012, that rate fell to 45%, thus Nova gave up more fly balls and homers. He has the potential to be one of the Yankees’ top pitchers for years to come, but he has to keep his composure and confidence

Back-End

2013:

Phil Hughes- 145.2 IP, 5.19 ERA, 78 ERA+, 1.46 WHIP, 1.5 HR/9, 2.9 K/BB

David Phelps- 86.2 IP, 4.98 ERA, 81 ERA+, 1.42 WHIP, 0.8 HR/9, 2.3 K/BB

2014: Michael Pineda/David Phelps/Adam Warren

Once the top pitching prospect in baseball seven years ago, Phil Hughes was such an epic disappointment for the Yankees. Michael Pineda has also disappointed, as he has yet to even pitch for the Yankees two years after being traded for Jesus Montero. The fifth starter spot is his to lose and he has a ton of upside if his stuff gets close to what it used to be. If he can’t go, Phelps is a good enough #5, as he tends to miss bats (175 strikeouts in 186.1 career innings). If you take out two awful and brief outings he had last year (4 earned in 1/3 inning on May 29th vs the Mets and nine runs in 2.1 innings June 29th in Baltimore), his ERA is a much more respectable 3.76.

The fate of the Yankees in 2014 mostly lies on the performance of their rotation, as with just about any team in baseball. Nothing is a given or guaranteed for this team; it could easily become a total, unmitigated disaster. It could also be a booming success. Heck, if everything works out: Sabathia reinvents himself and becomes great again, Kuroda is consistent as always, Tanaka is everything they say he is, Nova has another good season, Pineda is finally healthy and returns to what he was in 2011, the Yankees could have one of the best rotations in the game this year.

 

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Tags: CC Sabathia David Phelps Hiroki Kuroda Ivan Nova Masahiro Tanaka Michael Pineda New York Yankees News

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