The big story of the 2019 New York Yankees so far has been Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman and DJ LeMahieu and Cameron Maybin doing amazing and wondrous things. Heck, Urshela and Tauchman each hit five home runs last week, and Urshela homered again in Monday’s doubleheader. LeMahieu is an MVP candidate (non-Mike Trout division). Maybin entered the season with a career OPS+ of 91, which means he had been a below-average hitter, but he began the week at 144 — which happens to be the career mark for Giancarlo Stanton.
The story of the 2019 Yankees — the ending to the final chapter, anyway — likely will rest with the starting rotation and how it performs in October. There is much angst among Yankees fans these days about that rotation, even after Masahiro Tanaka tossed eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday. As the fans will quickly point out, that was Tanaka’s first good start in a while. In his previous seven starts, he allowed 36 runs in 31⅔ innings and had the worst ERA of any starter in the majors with at least five starts since the All-Star break.
It’s not just concern about Tanaka. Going back to the beginning of July (through the first game on Monday), the Yankees’ rotation has a 5.56 ERA, 23rd in the majors. Since July 1, Yankees starters have allowed the most home runs in the majors — yes, even more than the Baltimore Orioles.
OK, maybe it has just been a bad month and 12 days? Well, since June 1, the rotation has a 5.63 ERA, 25th in the majors. For the season, the Yankees have the worst road rotation ERA in the majors.
All that is bad news, and there’s no sense sugarcoating it — thus, all the extra love for Urshela & Co. these days. It’s easier to love those who love you back.
The Yankees, however, can win the World Series with this rotation. Despite the struggles, there is obvious upside to each starter:
— Tanaka: He actually hasn’t been as bad as his 4.64 ERA indicates, as two awful starts against the Boston Red Sox have ruined his ERA (six runs in two-thirds of an inning in London, then 12 runs in 3⅓ innings). Plus, in five career playoff starts, he has a 1.50 ERA. That doesn’t automatically mean he’ll pitch well in October, but at least he has a history of stepping up in big games.
— James Paxton: He has a 4.40 ERA after Monday’s win. That’s actually better than that of the average American League starter, who has a 4.60 ERA, and Paxton has done it in a hitters’ park. His stuff obviously remains above average, and he has 137 strikeouts in 108⅓ innings. He has allowed two or fewer runs in seven of his past 11 starts. There’s no reason he can’t reel off several good starts in October.
— Domingo German: Overall, his season has been solid, with a 4.05 ERA, 19.7% SO-BB rate (same as Clayton Kershaw‘s) and a .232 batting average allowed. He has been homer-prone (23 allowed in 109 innings), and his .298 wOBA allowed is one point worse than that of Madison Bumgarner and better than that of Aaron Nola, Trevor Bauer, Kyle Hendricks and Robbie Ray. Yankees fans wanted Bumgarner or Ray at the trade deadline, but are they really any better than German?
Yes, I’ve spun a positive side to all those guys. It’s just as easy to spin the negative. It’s true that they will have to pitch better in October than they have of late. Here’s how the rotations of the past five World Series winners fared in the postseason:
2018 Red Sox: 3.80 ERA, 5.1 innings per start, 1.14 HR/9 IP
2017 Houston Astros: 3.33 ERA, 5.4 innings per start, 0.65 HR/9 IP
2016 Chicago Cubs: 2.60 ERA, 5.5 innings per start, 0.77 HR/9 IP
2015 Kansas City Royals: 4.97 ERA, 5.2 innings per start, 1.30 HR/9 IP
2014 San Francisco Giants: 3.38 ERA, 5.6 innings per start, 0.56 HR/9 IP
Of course, the 2015 Royals stand out: Their rotation did not pitch well, and they went all the way, relying on a deep and wonderful bullpen. What do the Yankees have? An even deeper bullpen than those Royals had. Plus, you’ll note the average innings per start. Not even the Giants, with Bumgarner’s magnificent run in 2014, in which he started six of the Giants’ 17 postseason games, cracked six innings per start.
Not only did the Royals’ rotation pitch relatively poorly in the postseason, but they also weren’t that great in the regular season, with a 4.34 ERA and 8.5 cumulative WAR (according to FanGraphs) that ranked 21st in the majors. In fact, check out some of the regular-season rankings for rotations of recent World Series winners:
2015 Royals: 4.34 ERA, 8.5 WAR
2014 Giants: 3.74 ERA, 8.3 WAR
2013 Red Sox: 3.84 ERA, 11.6 WAR
2012 Giants: 3.73 ERA, 9.7 WAR
2011 St. Louis Cardinals: 3.81 ERA, 11.4 WAR
2006 Cardinals: 4.79 ERA, 6.6 WAR
The Yankees currently are 17th in the majors, at 7.2 WAR.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone will have the added luxury of his great bullpen. Knowing that starters barely average five innings per game in the postseason these days, expect an even tighter leash on the starters, especially with eight or nine relievers on the roster. No doubt Boone learned his lesson in last year’s division series against the Red Sox. In Games 3 and 4, he left Severino and Sabathia in too long, and they gave up big innings, though even then the criticism felt a little unfair, as both were pulled after three innings (and J.A. Happ lasted just two innings in Game 1). The lesson: Don’t let a big inning get out of hand, even early in a game, and have the bullpen ready ASAP.
What we don’t know yet is how creative Boone will get — or might have to get. The Yankees have used Chad Green as an opener 10 times this season, and that should be an option in the postseason as well, though it’s worth noting that Boone has done that only in “bullpen” games. Of his five main starters (including Happ), only German has made a relief appearance this season.
Boone also could consider tag-team outings, such as Paxton for two or three innings and Severino or German for two to bridge the gap to the bullpen. All the off days in the postseason mean more rest for the relievers, as the only time teams play three days in a row (barring rainouts) are Games 3, 4 and 5 of a seven-game series.
Plus, there’s this: The Yankees can score runs. They won’t need six innings of one-run baseball every game from their starters as long as Gio and friends keep mashing. Still, it would be nice — at least for Yankees fans — to see the rotation pitch a little better between now and the start of the postseason.