Yankees' Rotation Built to Rack Up Regular-Season Wins, Not Dominate Playoffs

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 18, 2012

Yankees starters are on fire, but they're far from perfect.
Yankees starters are on fire, but they're far from perfect.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The New York Yankees' starting rotation wasn't supposed to be this good. In fact, it looked for a time like the Bombers' rotation was going to be the team's undoing in the long run.

So much for that. The Yanks have won 13 of 15 and nine in a row in the month of June, and that has everything to do with their starting rotation. So far this month, Yankees starters have an 11-1 record and a 1.97 ERA, both of which are tops in Major League Baseball.

Heck, with starting pitching like this, the Yankees should win the AL easily and then march straight through to the World Series. They simply can't be stopped, am I right?

Um, no. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

No team is ever as good as it looks during an impressive hot streak like the one the Yankees are on. As hot as they were, the 2002 Oakland A's ended up being beatable. Ditto for the 2003 San Francisco Giants, the 2005 Los Angeles Angels, the 2007 Colorado Rockies and the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays. It can never, ever, ever be taken for granted that regular-season success will translate to success in the postseason.

Especially when said regular-season success is occurring in June.

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"Ah yes, but this is different. The Yankees' starting pitching is better than ever!"

For now, yes. But let's not forget that this is a rotation that was a problem as recently as a couple weeks ago. And even despite the rotation's recent hot streak, Yankees starters still have a collective 4.08 ERA that ranks in the middle of the pack in baseball (h/t FanGraphs).

So right now, it's looking like Yankees starters will finish with numbers similar to the ones they put up last season, when they went 71-45 with a 4.03 ERA. Solid numbers, to be sure, but nobody was singing that rotation's praises at the end of the season.

It may sound like I'm bashing the Yankees here, but the fact of the matter is that they'll gladly take 70-plus wins and an ERA in the low 4.00s from their starters. That kind of production led to a 97-win campaign in 2011, and that will be the target yet again this season if the Yankees' current rotation stays intact.

The real problems will begin when the postseason begins. As solid as the Yankees' rotation is, it's not a rotation that is going to scare anybody in a postseason series. This was the case in 2010 and 2011, and it will be the case again this season.

To illustrate the point, we have to take a look at each of the Yankees' five starters individually, starting with the big guy.

CC Sabathia

The strikeouts have been there for Sabathia this season, but that's thanks in part to the fact that he's needed so many strikeouts.
The strikeouts have been there for Sabathia this season, but that's thanks in part to the fact that he's needed so many strikeouts.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

CC Sabathia is doing exactly what the Yankees are paying him to do. He's eating a ton of innings and he's giving the Yankees a chance to win every time he takes the mound.

He just hasn't been dominant. Sabathia has only had one start this season in which he's allowed fewer than two earned runs, and he currently boasts a WHIP of 1.27. He's not putting a lot of guys on base via the walk, but he has a .253 opponents' batting average and a .415 opponents' slugging percentage. He's giving up a lot of hard-hit balls.

As far as the rest of the regular season is concerned, there's nothing to worry about when it comes to Sabathia. He's on pace to win 20 games, and I wouldn't be surprised if he got there.

In the postseason, however, the Yankees will be trusting Sabathia to be their No. 1. He'll be tasked with matching up with other American League No. 1s, with the idea being for him to go out there and allow one or two earned runs over seven or eight innings.

Sabathia has been that guy throughout his career, but not this season. To boot, it doesn't bode well that he's had issues in the postseason each of the last two years.

In the 2010 postseason, Sabathia made three starts and got lit up for 10 earned runs. He gave up 22 hits and seven walks in just 16 innings. He had issues in all three of his starts.

In the 2011 postseason, the big lefty only got to make one real start due to weather complications. In that one true start, he walked six Detroit Tigers and gave up four earned runs in 4.1 innings. Hardly a dominant outing.

When the 2012 postseason finally rolls around, there's a good chance that Sabathia will be the weakest No. 1 starter in the American League bracket next to the Justin Verlanders, David Prices and Jered Weavers of the world.

Hiroki Kuroda

Hiroki Kuroda's season numbers are slightly skewed by his 1.38 ERA and 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in interleague play.
Hiroki Kuroda's season numbers are slightly skewed by his 1.38 ERA and 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in interleague play.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Hiroki Kuroda has been inconsistent this season, but the Yankees should be happy with his 3.43 ERA. To boot, Kuroda has pitched very well over his last four starts.

But just like Sabathia, Kuroka has been hittable this season. He boasts a .260 opponents' batting average (which is skewed by his one-hit performance against the New York Mets), and a .432 opponents' slugging percentage. He's on pace to give up about 30 home runs this season, which would break his previous career high of 24 (which he set last year).

Kuroda is a perfect regular-season pitcher because he's a quality start machine. He already has eight of those this season, in fact, which ties him with Sabathia for the team lead. His M.O. is to pitch to contact, keep his pitch count low and let the Yankees' offense do the rest.

This approach will be fine for the rest of the regular season, but Joe Girardi will be pushing his luck with Kuroda if he decides to use him as his No. 2 starter if/when the Yankees get to the playoffs. His tendency to give up hits in bunches will ensure that his leash will be short, as the last thing the Yankees will want is to put themselves in a position where they could get killed by Kuroda's tendency to give up the long ball.

I for one wouldn't be surprised to see Kuroda used as a No. 4 starter/bullpen guy in the postseason.

Ivan Nova

Ivan Nova's ERA and FIP are just about even, suggesting he's neither underachieving or overachieving this season.
Ivan Nova's ERA and FIP are just about even, suggesting he's neither underachieving or overachieving this season.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Ivan Nova hasn't been as good as his 9-2 record indicates, as he was gifted a bunch of wins earlier in the season due to plentiful run support. 

He's actually been earning his wins recently, though. He's allowed just two earned runs over 22.2 innings in his last three starts. He's done a much better job of keeping the ball down, forcing hitters to hit it on the ground instead of in the air.

When opponents have gotten the ball in the air against Nova this season, it's tended to carry. His 15.2 HR/FB rate is one of the highest in baseball, and he also boasts a .526 opponents' slugging percentage.

That latter figure is the highest in baseball among all qualified pitchers. It's also worth noting that opponents are hitting .287 off of Nova.

That number is coming down and will continue to go down, but only to an extent. Nova's career record of 26-8 is impressive, but he's yet another hittable pitcher who will be on a short leash in the playoffs.

You know, kinda like he was in Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS.

Phil Hughes

Hughes is currently working on a career-high 13.6 HR/FB rate.
Hughes is currently working on a career-high 13.6 HR/FB rate.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Phil Hughes has been better recently, as he's given up just four earned runs over his last three starts, striking out 23 and walking seven in the process.

But everyone already knew before that Hughes has it in him to have a stretch like the one he's currently on. What nobody knows is whether or not he can maintain it.

To that end, shoot, who knows? Hughes looked like he was on the right track for a period of a couple weeks back in May, and then he got lit up by the Los Angeles Angels in his final start of the month.

On a given day, Hughes either has it or he doesn't. The tricky part is that he's still beatable even on days when he does have it.

Hughes does a decent enough job of keeping his hits and walks in check, but he's yet another guy with a tendency to leave pitches up in the zone. This season, hitters have had little trouble making him pay. Hughes has already given up 15 home runs this season, putting him on a pace to give up about 35.

What's concerning is that, unlike Nova, Hughes is a fly-ball pitcher. He's going to give up fly balls, and some of those fly balls are going to leave the park. Not exactly a good guy to have on the mound in October when every run counts.

When the postseason rolls around, Girardi should move Hughes to the bullpen. He's a decent starter, but he's been a truly excellent reliever throughout his career.

Andy Pettitte

Pettitte is benefiting from an elevated 57.4 percent ground-ball rate.
Pettitte is benefiting from an elevated 57.4 percent ground-ball rate.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Andy Pettitte has been better than the Yankees could have dared to hope when he got the bug and decided to un-retire during spring training. He's sitting on a 2.77 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP after seven starts.

There's very little to complain about where Pettitte is concerned. He still has good stuff, and he still mixes it up as well as he always has. He mastered the art of keeping hitters guessing a long time ago, and he hasn't lost his edge.

The question concerning Pettitte is how long he can possibly hold up. He's 40 years old and he still has quite a few starts left to make this season. He broke down once the dog days rolled around in 2010, and the dog days are once again going to be a tough test for him this season.

If he holds up, however, there's no question Pettitte should be Girardi's No. 2 starter in the postseason. He may be old, but he's more trustworthy than anybody in the Yankees' rotation outside of Sabathia. His experience and pitching savvy are things that will come in handy in October.

I view Pettitte as the wild card in the Yankees' rotation. If he holds up, he has the potential to be a difference-maker in October.

In fact, of the five, I trust him the most.

The Thing About the Yankees' Rotation Is...

The Yankees' offense makes life easy for the team's starting staff.
The Yankees' offense makes life easy for the team's starting staff.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I won't go so far as to say that the Yankees' rotation is unique in and of itself, but the fact that the Bombers are strong both offensively and in the bullpen means that their starters are allowed to take the mound with a certain sense of security that other starters around the league would kill to have.

Yankees starters know that they're going to get run support, and they know they have a bullpen that can clean up whatever messes they may cause. So all they have to do is keep it simple, throw strikes and eat innings. There's very little pressure on Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Hughes and Pettitte to dominate every time they take the mound.

This has been the case with Yankees starters for years, and it's worked to perfection over the last couple seasons. Yankees starters have won over 70 games each of the last two years, and they're likely going to end up with over 70 wins again this year.

But the win, as we all know, is the second-most misleading pitching statistic in baseball (after the save). Yankees starters are going to win a ton of games this season, but nobody should view those wins as an excuse to mistake the Yankees' rotation for one of the league's elite rotations.

In the postseason, Yankees starters will be asked to do more than they usually do. They'll be tasked with both eating innings and keeping crooked numbers off the board. That will mean limiting hits, and gopheritis will not be tolerated.

And that's the thing with this Yankees starting staff. Only three starting rotations in the majors have surrendered more hits than the Yankees', and only one rotation has allowed more home runs. 

Yankees starters are more hittable than most, and they'll be beatable as long as that's the case.

Why The Yankees Can Still Win in October

In discussing the hittability and general mediocrity of the Yankees' starting rotation, the point of this article was to rationally outline why Yankees starters are bound to run into trouble once the playoffs begin.

At no point did I say that this means the Yankees themselves are doomed. 

It's possible to get away with subpar starting pitching in the postseason. Heck, just last year the Rangers damn near won the World Series despite the fact their starters went 4-6 with a 4.47 ERA in the postseason. They were able to get as far as they did because they clobbered the baseball on offense and because their bullpen did a fine job of holding up its end of the bargain.

This Yankees' offense is very much capable of clobbering the baseball, and the recent success of the starting rotation has obscured how good the Yankees' bullpen has been all season.

So assuming the Bombers do make it to the postseason, all they'll have to do is what they do best: hit home runs and shorten the game to six innings or so. If they can do that, they'll have as good a shot of going to the World Series as any team in the AL.

All I'm saying is that nobody should confuse the 2012 New York Yankees with the 2010 San Francisco Giants. In case you haven't noticed, there's a lot of that going around.

Note: Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for the stats.

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