(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)
The early season angst of most Yankees’ fans has been focused upon the offense’s perceived inability to “get the big hit”. However, despite some lackluster numbers with men in scoring position, the team is still averaging 5.31 runs per game to go along with an OPS+ of 114. It’s a testament to the strength of the Yankees’ offense that even when it appears to struggle, the lineup still produces at a nearly league leading rate.
If the Yankees have had an Achilles heel in the early going, it has been the starting rotation. Entering action on Friday, the team’s starters had combined for a 5.59 ERA, which was the fifth worst in the majors. And, it’s not as if the damage has been confined to one or two bad outings. Over the first 13 games of the season, Yankees’ starters turned in three quality starts, or just 23% of the total, placing them ahead of only the Minnesota Twins. What’s more, the staff’s average game score of 44 ranked third from the bottom. By just about every measure, the Yankees’ rotation has been one of the worst in baseball.
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
Had the Yankees’ rotation struggled at the beginning of the last season, no one would have batted an eyelash. The 2011 starting staff was widely viewed as an exclamation point in CC Sabathia followed by a series of question marks. However, most of those questions were answered in the affirmative, as Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, and Bartolo Colon all pitched well above average.
During this spring, most people viewed the Yankees’ rotation as a decided strength. In fact, some thought the team had too much pitching. Instead of worrying about who would be in the rotation, the bigger concern was who could possibly be left out. Unfortunately, only two weeks into the season, the question marks have returned. Can Hiroki Kuroda adapt to the A.L. East? Will Phil Hughes ever turn the corner? Can Garcia repeat his improbable success from 2011? Will Michael Pineda be healthy enough to contribute? All of a sudden, Andy Pettitte’s return has been transformed from a luxury to a necessity, but considering he hasn’t pitched in over 18 months, the veteran lefty’s ability to pick up where he left off must also be viewed with some doubt.
Is the 2012 Yankees’ rotation really the questionable bunch most people expected in 2011? Although some of the concerns mentioned above are legitimate, there are also mitigating factors. As a group, the Yankees’ rotation has an astounding BABIP of .353, which easily ranks as the highest in all of baseball. At the same time, the team’s starters also rank first in strikeouts per nine innings. Throw in an inordinately high HR rate and one could make the case that the Yankees rotation has simply been unlucky. According to xFIP, a measure that seeks to determine what a pitcher’s ERA should be based on his peripheral numbers and a normalized HR rate, that’s exactly the case, as the Yankees’ starters rank sixth best with a reading of 3.64.
Granted, measures like xFIP are highly theoretical, but some of the peripheral factors are so stark that they are hard to ignore. So, even though it may be a little naïve to suggest the Yankees’ struggles in the rotation are solely attributable to bad luck, it’s also hard to believe all five starters will continue to surrender hits and homeruns at such elevated rates. Most likely, the truth rests somewhere in the middle, which, quite frankly, is plenty good enough. With an offense and bullpen that are among the best in the game, the rotation doesn’t have to be great. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t be, but maybe that’s too positive of a spin.