After a slow start to the season, the Yankees have climbed back to .500 following a convincing sweep of the lowly Tigers. While it has been far from pretty, the team finds itself just 2.5 games behind the division-leading Red Sox one month into the season.
The offense, which has started to show signs of life in recent weeks, is still struggling to reach the standard expected in the Bronx. But the pitching staff has been phenomenal to start the year, highlighted by a two-hit shutout of the Tigers yesterday. Over the course of the series, the Yankees staff pitched two shutouts, allowed just four runs on 13 hits, and struck out 43 batters over 27 innings.
And while the Yankees unfortunately won’t be able to face the putrid Tigers offense every night, the opening 28 games have given fans a lot to get excited about when it comes to the team’s rotation and bullpen. Pitching has plagued the Yankees for several seasons now, with the team failing to break into the top 10 ERAs in the league since 2017. Last year, the Yankees 4.35 team ERA and 4.39 FIP placed 17th and 12th in the league respectively. So far this season they rank 3rd in ERA (3.02) and 2nd in FIP (3.20).
But many fans, myself included, will surely be skeptical that the early success can continue and, most importantly, be sustained in the playoffs. In order to get a sense of the numbers behind the Yankees hot start, I analyze some of the key members of the staff to see whose strong starts seem likely to be maintained over the course of the year.
On a team filled with strong performers, two pitchers have stood above the crowd to establish themselves as among the best in the league. I am talking, of course, about Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman, two guys building on already sterling careers to raise themselves to new heights so far this year.
Cole has quickly made himself a favorite for the AL Cy Young, pitching to a 1.43 ERA and 0.72 WHIP in 37.2 innings. He has posted an absurd 62 strikeouts and 3 walks, good for a 14.81 K/9 and 0.72 BB/9. His 1.57 xERA, 0.48 FIP and 1.57 SIERA all highlight his complete dominance through his first six starts. There’s not much more that needs to be said about Cole. He’s the ace the Yankees have desperately needed since CC Sabathia began to decline in the mid-2010s, and he looks up to the challenge with each start he makes.
Chapman has, amazingly, been even better in his work out of the bullpen. He’s yet to allow a run through 10 innings, striking out 24 batters and allowing just five baserunners thus far. The addition of a nasty splitter to complement a fastball that has gained velocity since last year makes him look just as unhittable as he’s been to begin the season. He’s been so good that his FIP is literally negative, sitting at -0.79 to go along with a 0.77 xERA so far.
The Bullpen Aces
Besides Chapman, the most consistent bullpen arm for the Yankees in recent years has been Chad Green. He shows no signs of slowing down in 2021, pitching to a 1.08 ERA, 3.11 FIP, and 2.05 xERA through 16.2 innings. While his strikeouts are down somewhat to 8.64 K/9, so too is his walk rate which is currently at a career low 1.08 BB/9. He’s throwing more pitches in the zone without allowing harder contact, and has been generating more swings and misses on pitches out of the zone at least in part due to increased curveball usage. He looks set to be the key weapon for Boone out of the bullpen again this year.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa have thus far joined Green as versatile arms in the late innings. In 16.1 innings, Loaisiga has pitched to a 1.10 ERA, 2.87 FIP, and 1.76 xERA, placing in the 90th percentile or above in nearly every Statcast pitching category. While his stuff has always been excellent, he’s managed to improve his command resulting in a career best 1.65 BB/9. Interestingly, he’s not throwing more pitches in the strike zone than he used to. Instead, it’s his elite ability to get hitters to chase outside the zone driving his improved walk rate and overall performance thus far.
The story is similar for Cessa, who is using his slider more than ever in what has been a breakout season to this point. His 1.42 ERA, 2.08 FIP, and 1.74 xERA are all easily the best of his career, driven largely by a huge spike in his strikeout rate to 12.08 K/9. Cessa’s slider has always been by far his best pitch, and by throwing it more often and with better command he’s generated far more whiffs and produced softer contact this year. Though an increase in walks is a slight concern, his overall ability to make hitters miss bodes well for his ability to make a leap and become a key bullpen arm in 2021.
The Non-Cole Starters
It’s fair to say the rest of the starting rotation has been a mixed bag, at best, to start the year. Six guys besides Cole have made starts so far, but only three of them seem likely to remain in the rotation throughout the year if they remain healthy. Those three starters are Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and Jordan Montgomery.
Kluber comes off his best two starts of the year, which follow four very uneven and even sloppy outings to begin the season. Like many other fans, I thought perhaps his best days were behind him, but his starts against the Orioles and Tigers demonstrate there’s still a piece of the guy who won multiple Cy Youngs tucked away in there somewhere. His peripherals are somewhat average thus far, with a 3.03 ERA masking a weaker 4.19 FIP and 3.91 xERA. His biggest issue has been an inability to put guys away, manifesting in a 8.80 K/9 and 4.25 BB/9. But his uptick in form has directly coincided with an increase in both command and putaway stuff, as he’s struck out 15 and walked just 2 over his past two starts. Since he still is able to limit hard contact relatively effectively, increased consistency in his K/BB ratio could bode well for a resurgence this year. The jury is definitely still out as he seeks to re-find some semblance of the masterful pitcher he was in his prime.
The story with Taillon is almost the opposite, with an ugly 5.24 ERA obscuring the fact that there are some highly encouraging signs in his peripheral statistics. He has 11.69 K/9, a huge jump from his career average of just over 8 K/9 in Pittsburgh. This has been a common trend with pitchers who leave the Pirates, and tracks with an increase in four-seam fastball usage so far this year. His batted ball profile has also been quite strong, grading out above the 75th percentile in most of the key Statcast metrics and resulting in a very solid 2.90 xERA. But he’s been burned by home runs through his first few starts, allowing an elevated 2.01 HR/9 and leaving his FIP at a mediocre 4.23. I’m optimistic about Taillon, and see his high strikeout and low walk rates despite two years away from the game as proof of why he was once a top pitching prospect. If he can learn to limit home runs in the small confines of Yankee Stadium, an admittedly tough task, he has the stuff to be a solid starter for the Yankees as the year progresses.
Lastly we have Jordan Montgomery, who has been disappointing since I wrote a piece highlighting his importance to the team early last season. His calling card has always been an ability to limit hard contact, but he’s struggled to do so pretty much since that article came out. Since he lacks high velocity and a knockout pitch, Montgomery has to succeed by missing barrels, limiting walks, and grinding through his outings without turning to strikeouts. Through five starts his strikeout rate is down to 8.10 K/9, below his career average, and he’s not limiting hard contact very effectively. His Barrel%, average exit velocity, and xwOBA are all currently below league average, culminating in his 4.39 ERA, 4.87 FIP, and 4.31 xERA. There’s not a ton to get excited about with Montgomery so far in 2021. Maybe this article can be an effective reverse jinx since the last did just the opposite.
It’s still extremely early in the season, and it’s hard to say anything with certainty besides the fact that Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman look poised to have monster seasons. But there are lots of encouraging signs behind the great topline numbers the Yankees staff have put up so far, and more help is on the way in the form of Zack Britton and, later in the year, Luis Severino.
In addition to the guys listed here, Darren O’Day, Lucas Luetge, and Michael King have had solid if unremarkable starts to their 2021 campaigns. Justin Wilson is a veteran lefty with a solid track record, and the front office clearly sees something they like in Wandy Peralta after trading Mike Tauchman for him last week.
This Yankees pitching staff has perhaps the greatest amount of uncertainty of any in the past few years, but looks like it has the highest upside as well. In particular, I recommend keeping an eye on Loaisiga, Cessa, Kluber, and Taillon in coming months. In the case of Loaisiga and Cessa, I’m looking to see if their hot starts are as real as the peripheral stats indicate. For Kluber and Taillon, I’m hoping they can continue to build strength, confidence, and form as the weather warms up and they get back into the flow of a full MLB season.
And, of course, I’m hoping that as many of the key arms as possible can stay healthy through the year, since injuries are always the fastest way to derail a promising start. But if the team can stave off the injury curse and successfully add Britton and Severino to an already strong core, the Yankees have the potential to have their best pitching staff in recent memory in 2021.