The Yankees starting staff has exceeded expectations in the early goings this season. Even without their two best pitchers in Luis Severino and James Paxton, the team is currently tied for 4th in WAR (4.0) and 5th in ERA (3.54), while also ranking well in stats like K/9, BB/9, and xFIP.
But where these starters continue to struggle overall is in giving the team depth. The starting pitching staff currently ranks 16th in the majors with 216 innings pitched. Not the worst in the world, but also not what you want to see from a team that should be jockeying with one of the best records in baseball. While one of the big strengths of this team lays in its bullpen, the last thing Aaron Boone and company should be trying to do is overworking his relievers.
This Past Weekend
For a good example, look at what happened on Saturday when the starters of the previous games couldn’t give length. J.A. Happ pitched five innings on Thursday, followed by an inning each from Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman in the team’s 3-1 victory over Seattle. On Friday, Domingo German gave the Yanks five innings, with the same relievers all pitching an inning each for another win. And so, on Saturday when CC Sabathia pitched, you guessed it, five innings, Boone had to go to Jonathan Holder and Nester Cortes Jr. for a combined three innings because the team refuses to use relievers three days in a row (and who can blame them). The results from those two relievers were 7 hits, 1 walk, and 5 runs: the difference in the game.
So you can see where the domino effect occurs. If the starters on Thursday or Friday had been able to pitch even just an extra inning, the Yankees would have had higher leverage relievers rested for a close game in the middle innings on Saturday. And those are basically the options they have: either overuse your high leverage relievers or turn to lower tier arms to finish out games. Both spell eventual disaster for New York.
Pitch and Innings Breakdown
On average, Yankee starters are pitching just 5.4 innings per game. That’s not a recipe for success, no matter how good the bullpen. None of the starters have even had to pitch on short rest so far, while every starter has had at least three instances where they’ve been given more than four days of rest. So fatigue isn’t the issue here.
What’s more interesting is how few pitches they’ve thrown, or perhaps been allowed to throw, per game. Starters are averaging just 87 pitches per game. In fact, they’ve only thrown over 100 pitches in 4 of their 40 games. That’s just 10% for those counting at home. And three of those games were from Paxton, who’s been on the IL (the other came from German).
Now you could argue that pitch count isn’t necessarily indicative of how deep a starter goes into a game. An effective starter, like Tanaka this past Sunday, needed just 73 pitches to get through 7 innings.
But that’s the exception, not the rule. Tanaka has pitched seven innings twice in nine starts so far. He hasn’t pitched out of the 6th inning four of those times, including two starts where he only pitched four innings. Happ has actually been a little worse. While he also pitched seven innings twice in his eight starts, he didn’t get through the 6th inning in five starts, including his first three starts where he couldn’t get through the 5th.
German hasn’t pitched seven innings in any of his starts this season. CC Sabathia has been the biggest culprit, pitching five innings in five of his six starts (with the other start being 5.1 innings). These guys just aren’t giving length.
When you start to add things up, you can see where the bullpen stress comes into play. So far they’ve held fairly strong with a 2.0 WAR, which ranks towards the top in baseball. But the middling bullpen ERA of 4.26 ranks 16th in baseball (though a much better 3.75 xFIP), which means it’s only a matter of time before they start to become overworked. The return of two of their better pitchers in Severino and Paxton should help add length to games, but in the meantime, the current starters need to figure out a way to pitch deeper into games.