CC Sabathia CC Sabathia

Which Yankees starter will step up with Sabathia and Pettitte going down?


The New York Yankees received bad news yesterday when CC Sabathia was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained groin. The news went from bad to worse when Andy Pettitte took a liner off the left ankle in the fifth inning of yesterday’s 5-4 win over the Cleveland Indians resulting in a broken ankle and will be out a minimum of six weeks. The one-million dollar question is which starter will the Yankees ride while the top two starters are down? My answer may surprise you.

This is a crucial time of the season as the Yankees face the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox, the always tough Tampa Bay Rays and the quickly improving Boston Red Sox in the next three series. If Sabathia is back at the end of the 15 days he will only miss two starts thanks to the All-Star break. Provided he comes back at the same level as he left, the Yankees will still be looking for someone to take Pettitte’s number two spot in the rotation. The candidates are Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil HughesFreddy Garcia and Adam Warren.

The loss of both Sabathia and Pettitte cannot be understated. See the tweet below from ESPN Stats and Info.

Nova would be the choice of many if asked because of his record, not only this season, but also last year’s breakout performance. Nova is 9-2 with a 4.25 ERA on the season and has won 25 games since being called up last year.

Hiroki Kuroda is playing his first season with the Yankees after four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers after several successful seasons in Japan. He is 7-7 with a 3.40 ERA in 2012. In his seasons with the Dodgers, he was never provided much run support so victories did not come as often as suspected with ERAs in the low to mid 3’s.

Phil Hughes has been going through a reincarnation over the last several outings. He has not been great in every effort, but he’s turned in a much better showing recently, greatly differing from his efforts earlier in the season. He is 8-6 with a 4.48 ERA. He has won 7 out of his last 10 starts.

I don’t want to write off anyone so we’ll discuss Garcia and Warren here briefly. Garcia was a surprise last season and was kept around for pitching depth and he has provided some nice relief appearances of late. However, his starts early on left little to be desired and once Pettitte came on board Freddy was shipped to the pen.

Warren was 5-5 with a 3.86 ERA at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It should be noted that if David Phelps was completely stretched out he would have been recalled. He is not, so Warren will get the spot and we can assume if Sabathia comes back without issues Warren will be back in the minors, unless maybe Garcia implodes and Phelps is not ready.

Let’s look at two charts side by side; one with full-season stats and another with the last 30 days from the three players I realistically feel have a chance of locking down the role of the #2 starter once Sabathia returns. For a primer on some of the stats below, check out Matt Hunter’s sabermetric primer.

Despite the fact that Phil Hughes is on a good streak and I fully believe he can continue improving, he is being outperformed by the other two pitchers. Right now, he’s benefiting from a low BABIP and his strand-rate is ridiculously high and unsustainable. He is allowing too many homers and even in his recent stretch his xFIP is over a full-run higher than his ERA which indicates a bump in the latter is likely. The other part of eliminating Hughes is that he is not ready to take on the role of a number two starter as he’s just now coming around to being an effective starter. He shouldn’t have to worry about carrying a team at this time and probably cannot.

In my eyes the battle will be between Kuroda and Nova. While many will point to Nova’s win/loss record, I believe that Kuroda is the pitcher the Yankees will lean on and a look at the stats above explains why. First, reviewing the full-season chart, both pitchers are extremely close in walk rate, LOB%, GB% and xFIP. Overall Nova strikes out more batters per nine while Kuroda’s ERA is close to a run better. We can discount the ERA because of the xFIP reading.

Turning to the last 30 days, both pitchers have been extremely successful. But, there are items to note which I think sways the argument toward Kuroda’s side. Kuroda’s strikeout rate is up and Novas is down, each by almost two per nine innings. Nova’s BABIP is very low when compared to his full season showing he was being hurt by balls in play early on and may be going through a correction now. Both men have registered ERAs in the low two’s during the span, but another look at xFIP shows Nova’s performances do not match probable outcomes which in turn suggests a change.

As far as intangibles go, Nova exudes confidence each time out and this is a good trait. Kuroda is quiet but no less confident in his stuff on the mound. He just demonstrates it differently than Nova. Kuroda holds a profound edge in the experience department in so far as being relied on as a top of the line starter both during his time in Japan and MLB. Is he the prototypical number two man? Probably not, but I don’t think Nova is either. In my mind, both men have the ability to work in the number slot of the rotation for a short period of time, but Kuroda has an edge due to consistency and being the better pitcher right now when it is needed. The immediate future is what this discussion is about, and Kuroda seems to be on the right path to carry the load.

Stats courtesy of