The last two slots in the Yankees’ starting rotation remain up for grabs, but the order of the first three has been officially established.
To the surprise of some, Joe Girardi announced that A.J. Burnett, not Phil Hughes, would follow CC Sabathia in the pecking order. Many have speculated that Girardi’s commitment to Burnett is really about instilling confidence in the enigmatic right hander, but in reality, the decision accurately reflects the current state of the Yankees’ rotation. For better or worse, Burnett is the Yankees’ second best pitcher.
Ten Worst* Seasons by a Yankees Starter, 1961-2010
*Ranked by ERA+. Includes pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
Burnett’s 2010 season was historically bad, but it should also be noted that it was a career outlier. His ERA+ of 81 and WAR of 1.3 were both the lowest totals for any season in which he pitched at least 100 innings. Burnett’s next lowest ERA+ in a full season was 104 in 2008 (the same year he won a career high 18 games). In other words, it would be shortsighted to project Burnett’s 2011 performance based on one extraordinarily poor year.
The other candidate for the second slot in the rotation was Hughes, who seemed like a slam dunk considering his sterling 18-8 record in 2010. Despite the impressive record, however, his ERA+ and WAR were only 104 and 2.4, respectively. Although Hughes may eventually develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter (perhaps as soon as this year), his 2010 season doesn’t yet push him ahead of Burnett, at least not based on the relative length of each pitcher’s track record.
Note: Includes seasons with more than 100 innings pitched.
Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
Girardi’s announcement was really a no brainer. Not only does Burnett deserve the nod over Hughes because of his past performance, but it also seems as if he would benefit more from the vote of confidence. However, the assignment really is much ado about nothing. After the first week of the season, teams’ rotations rarely align, so individual game matchups are basically random. What’s more, the second and third slots are seldom skipped, so the difference in the number of starts for each pitcher shouldn’t be more than one or two.
The much more critical decision for the Yankees will be naming the final two starters. Although GM Brian Cashman has stated that this decision could come sooner than later, the Yankees might not have a settled rotation until well into the season. Of course, the Yankees will need both Burnett and Hughes to pitch well enough to afford them that luxury.
A team’s rotation at the beginning of the season doesn’t matter nearly as much as the one it takes into the playoffs. The reigning American League champion Texas Rangers started last season with a 1-2 combo of Scott Feldman and Rich Harden, but neither even made the playoff roster. The Yankees could find themselves in a similar situation this year. If they are able to make the postseason, only then will the order of the rotation take on real significance.