After the New York Yankees lost Masahiro Tanaka, the fourth of five Opening Day starters to go down in 2014, you may not have expected them in the last week of July to be kissing the ground and thanking the baseball gods for their pitching.
The largest irony: The area in which they appear to be the most crippled to the naked eye is the same one where you'll find their biggest crutch—hell, their biggest strength.
The Bombers lost their Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5 arms in CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Tanaka and Michael Pineda. They've played nearly four months of baseball for the first time in two decades without one of their most principal winning ingredients in Mariano Rivera.
Yet the Yankees' true source of perseverance has seemingly materialized out of nowhere, in the mythic form of—somehow—resilient pitching.
Because, look a little deeper at the Yankees, who are right in the thick of the playoff race ahead of August: You'll see a makeshift rotation that has come in all shapes, sizes and velocities, and it hasn't even risen from the ashes—what ashes? Stopgap starters have been called upon from relief duty, called up from the farm and acquired from the far corners of baseball.
You'll find a relief corps that entered the spring and then the season with little to no identity. The sense around the clubhouse and front office probably transformed from a justified reluctance to use the pen to a reality of faith to rely upon them. They've done much more than keep hope alive in spite of lost starting arms: They've successfully picked up the slack despite one of the worst Yankees offenses in the last 50 years.
To give credit where it's due, new additions like Chase Headley have already given the offense a shot in the arm since the All-Star break. But the real story has been, and still is, pitching.
Think of it this way: After 104 games, there are no other teams with a run differential as poor as New York's (-28) who are as close to contending for October baseball. Entering Monday, they're four games out of the AL East lead and one game out of the second wild-card spot.
Among all MLB teams with a negative run differential, only the Pirates (-2) have a better winning percentage (.529). The Yankees' .519 (54-50) is better than eight other teams who have better differentials, including the Mets (+5), Indians (+6), Reds (+8) and Mariners (+51).
Some would go so far as to call it shocking that New York is this much in contention with seemingly so little to work with. Some might even claim a large amount of luck has mixed in—by way of a middling American League and an especially weak AL East division.
No matter the perception, numbers never lie.
Though statistics can conceal some storylines or obscure part of the picture for the success or failure of a ballclub, they are quite elucidating for our purposes in understanding this odd, eyebrow-raising story of resilience in 2014.
Below is a detailed look at how the starting pitching adventure and bullpen experiment have kept the Yankees in contention with just two months of baseball to be played.
Makeshift Rotation Making it Happen: A Monthly Breakdown
Entering the season, it was expected that names like Sabathia, Nova, Tanaka and Pineda would cause the least distress. It didn't seem foreseeable the Yankees could lose five straight games if those four, along with Hiroki Kuroda, toed the rubber each start: An ace, albeit with some doubts around his age, weight and health; a young, healthy stud poised for a breakout; an MLB rookie, though a proven, dominant winner; a comeback story in the form of a 6'7", 265-pound behemoth.
But the Yankees couldn't escape the month of April without losing their Nos. 3 and 5 starters—Nova and Pineda—who pitched their last games on the April 19 and 23, respectively.
Fortunately, with Pineda's injury and absence occurring so late in the month, Girardi only had to use Vidal Nuno for two April starts. Even better, across those games, the young lefty struck out 10 and walked only four while giving up three earned runs on eight hits.
April baseball finished partly stuck in mediocrity: Among all MLB teams, Yankees starters were 16th in fWAR, 23rd in ERA, just 24th in innings pitched and 29th in HR/9.
|Ivan Nova||4||2-2||8.27||6.91||4.54||Apr. 19|
|Michael Pineda||4||2-2||1.83||2.73||4.19||Apr. 23|
But they also showed some early bright spots. Some would prove to be positive premonitions of the underlying threads of success once they lost more from their arsenal: Fifth-best K/9 and MLB-best BB/9 (1.96). Others signified bad luck, poor defense and the room for a turnaround—the 10-highest BABIP (.313), yet the MLB's best xFIP (3.34).
Jump to the 10th of the following month, however, and they'd watched Sabathia pitch his final game of 2014.
What's more, their No. 1 had only given them four wins on the year, an average of under six innings per outing, an ERA over five (5.28) and his worst home run-per-nine rate of his career (1.96).
But the first bout of makeshift machinations kept them afloat, as Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman began pressing all the right buttons.
Nuno made six more serviceable starts (1-2, 5.03). The hittable but reliable David Phelps was called upon for his first six starts of the season (1-2, 3.18), where he was knocked around (30 H) but didn't put too many runners on (10 BB) and did a superb job of keeping it in the ballpark (1 HR). Chase Whitley made his first three big league starts (0-0, 2.57) and gave up no homers, walked only three and surrendered four earned runs.
For a true definition of successful patchwork, reflect on these May rankings among all MLB teams: Without three of their five Opening Day arms, the Yankees starting staff still finished the month with the third-highest fWAR. Despite only the 12th-best xFIP, they put up the third-best BB/9, seventh-best ERA, fourth-fewest earned runs and third-fewest walks.
They played 27 games in June, with the only remaining Opening Day starters, Tanaka and Kuroda, taking the hill in just 10 of them (4-4), while Phelps, Whitley and Nuno started the other 17 (6-6).
This time, the absences showed in the June rankings, however. New York's starting fWAR dropped dramatically, finishing the month 19th in MLB. They fell to the middle of the pack in BB/9 (10th, 2.35) and xFIP (18th, 3.89) and descended to the bottom in ERA (25th, 4.30) and FIP (26th, 4.25).
But quite simply, they did enough where it counted the most: relative to the rest of their division. They bested half of their AL East opponents in a few major categories: They weren't worse than third in the division in eating innings (3rd), fWAR (3rd), FIP (3rd), xFIP (2nd), HR/9 (3rd), BB/9 (2nd) or K/9 (2nd).
Thinking in terms of that second wild-card spot, here were the Yankees' rankings relative to the rest of the AL in June: they finished in the top eight in IP (7th), xFIP (8th), K/9 (8th), BB/9 (5th), WHIP (4th) total walks (3rd) and total hits (7th).
Tanaka's last start came soon after on July 8, and now, at the end of the month, the Yankees have gotten five starts from Kuroda (2-1, 3.27), four more from Phelps (2-0, 2.22), three more from Whitley (0-1, 4.97) and their last from Nuno (0-1, 5.40).
And Girardi and Cashman perfectly—poetically—have caught lightning in a bottle: They've received four outstanding starts from call-up Shane Greene (2-1, 3.33) and four from acquisitions Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano.
McCarthy, who was 3-10 with a 5.10 ERA and 3.82 FIP for Arizona this year, has gone 2-0 with a 1.45 ERA, striking out 17 and walking only three. Capuano, who had tossed just 31.2 innings to a 4.55 ERA and 4.05 FIP with Boston, allowed five hits and two runs in his first start for the Yankees on Sunday.
|Nuno||1||0-1||5.40||2.93||4.71||July 2 (Traded to ARI)|
With this month seeing what is easily the most makeshift Bronx rotation of the season, here's how they've (nearly) concluded among all MLB teams: The eight-most innings pitched, 12th-best fWAR, 14th FIP, 11th xFIP, ninth-fewest earned runs, eighth-best ERA, fifth-best BB/9 and fourth-fewest walks.
Bullpen Persevering and Shining
By far the biggest blessing—and surprise—has been the fortitude and consistency of the Yankees bullpen.
There were question marks and lingering doubts just about everywhere entering the season.
David Robertson was the closer, but he'd have to prove it with no extension signed as he awaits his future after this season. Matt Thornton was the lefty specialist, but red flags related to health and underperformance out of camp made things a bit uneasy. Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren maybe, or maybe not, were to become the setup and seventh-inning men, respectively.
Dellin Betances, the converted reliever, proved himself in Triple-A Scranton in 2013 and showed his mettle and potential value in the spring, but he was nonetheless bringing a 6'8" frame and lightning arm to the Bronx with few expectations and no concrete ceiling.
Entering play on Monday, Yankees relievers lead all of MLB in fWAR (4.7), K/9 (10.49), K% (27.1) and total strikeouts (378).
They have the third-most saves (34) and eighth-most holds (57).
New York's relief corps have posted the seventh-lowest contact percentage (75.8) and the seventh-highest WPA (3.50) in baseball.
In the seventh inning or later, the Yankees have the most strikeouts of any team and the fifth-lowest opponent average in the AL.
Roberston has done more than step into his new role. His 26 saves are third in the AL, and he's blown only two of his opportunities. He's also sixth in MLB in strikeouts and, among MLB relievers with at least 30 innings, he's third in K/9, second in strikeout percentage, seventh in contact percentage and seventh in total strikeouts.
Betances has gone well beyond a breakout season. He was selected to the All-Star game in his rookie season and has compiled the most strikeouts of any reliever. Among relievers with a minimum of 50 innings, his 93 strikeouts are the most by 47, his 15 holds are the third-highest and he has the highest K/9 and strikeout percentage, too, to go along with the third-lowest HR/9, second-lowest BABIP and lowest opponent average.
And Warren and Kelley have performed beautifully, threatening to put up their best seasons to date.
Warren's fWAR is 1.1 after 52.1 innings; last season he compiled a 0.1 in 77 innings. His 8.60 K/9, 2.58 BB/9 and 0.52 HR/9 are all improvements over his 2013 numbers of 7.48, 3.51 and 1.17. He also has a stellar 15 holds and 50 strikeouts to his name. What jumps out further is his HR/FB percentage, which has decreased emphatically from 13.2 last year to 6.7 this season.
And Kelley's fWAR of 0.7 is already better than his career best. His K/9 and BB/9 are just off his benchmarks from 2013, and he's on pace for his lowest HR/9 by far.
Peter F. Richman is a Yankees featured columnist and expert, and a Bleacher Report copy editor. For more NYY opinions, discussion, debate and analysis, feel free to reach out via Twitter: Follow @Peter_F_Richman