The rotation was supposed to be the weak link of the 2017 New York Yankees team. Sure, Masahiro Tanaka was the unquestioned ace of the staff, but every other starter was a major wild card. CC Sabathia was good in 2016, but was another year older. The only thing consistent about Michael Pineda and Luis Severino had been their inconsistency to date, and the fifth starter’s spot wasn’t even confirmed until after the first week of the season (the spot went to unproven southpaw Jordan Montgomery).
But as the Yankees sit in first place on the morning of June 8, 2017, it’s fair to say that the team’s rotation has not gone according to plan at all. However, this is a good thing. Even though Tanaka has struggled mightily this year, the performance of his fellow starters has made up for his poor play. Sabathia, Pineda, Montgomery, and especially Severino are no longer question marks on the 2017 Yankees, but rather exclamation points: something special that the Yankees can brag about.
Let’s start with the big fellow, CC Sabathia. It is safe to say that no one expected the veteran southpaw to bounce back from a rough stretch that dogged him from 2013-2015 in the way that he has in recent years. After dealing with chronic injuries, a bout with alcoholism, and a loss in velocity, Sabathia has become a much smarter pitcher.
On the field, Sabathia was dealing with the same problems that affect every veteran starter after many years on top of the world. Sabathia took it upon himself to seek out his close friend, Andy Pettitte, to help him learn how to pitch into his late thirties. Under Pettitte’s tutelage, CC has roared back over the past two years.
Much like Pettitte, Sabathia has made use of pinpoint location over velocity. He is busting righties inside with cutters before changing their eye level with changeups and sliders away. Sabathia has been the most consistent pitcher on the Yankee’s staff over the past two seasons, and he has had a knack for being a “stopper” of sorts; following a Yankee loss, Sabathia always seems to step up his game and get the Yankees back on the winning track. And somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, Andy Pettitte is smiling at his television screen.
No Yankee starter has better pure stuff than Michael Pineda. His mid-90’s fastball has excellent movement and control, his slider is a devastating strikeout weapon, and his developing changeup has become a viable third offering for the big right-hander.
Yet no Yankee starter was more maddening from start to start than Pineda. He struck out over 200 batters last season, but finished 6-12 on the season and struggled to get the third out of innings. This year though, Pineda has looked nothing like the pitcher who struggled last season.
The stuff is never the question for Pineda, who is striking out over a batter per inning. This year though, his walk rate is significantly lower than it was last year, and he seems more aggressive on the mound. Instead of not knowing what to expect when Pineda’s on the mound, Yankee fans have been able to count on a quality start from Pineda every time he gets the ball.
The story for Luis Severino is similar to that of Pineda’s. Severino too has excellent stuff but struggled with command and putting batters away last season. A former top prospect, Severino was a hot mess for the Yankees last season, pitching to an 8.50 ERA in his 11 starts last year. Still, the Yankees remained high on Severino’s potential, and gave him the fourth starter’s spot to open this season.
Severino has been even better this year for the Yankees than he was in his dominant 2015 rookie year. Through 11 starts, he has been everything the Yankees could have asked for and more. His velocity is at an all-time high, he is striking out over a batter per inning and walking fewer than ever, and he looks like he has finally found himself out on the mound. He may be the team’s best pitcher this season.
The fifth starter’s spot was up for grabs throughout all of Spring Training, as youngsters Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Jordan Montgomery fought for the coveted spot. The other three pitchers didn’t even pitch poorly (and they have all seen ample time in the Bronx this year), but Montgomery was so untouchable in all of his Spring games that he simply had to open the season with the big club.
And so far, Montgomery has not disappointed. There have been some rookie hiccups along the way, but Montgomery has been significantly better than the average fifth starter for the Yankees. He may walk a few too many, but arguably no Yankee pitcher is better at escaping jams than Montgomery, who pitches to contact and lets his defense take care of business. He has a deceptive over-the-top delivery and throws five distinct pitches, providing hope that he will remain in the club’s rotation for years to come.
The Yankees look like they’re well on their way to the playoffs this season, and for the first time in many years, they look like they have a legitimate postseason rotation at their disposal. Tanaka will hopefully rediscover his form soon, but the Yankees are going to keep giving him the ball no matter how long it takes. Sabathia is a dependable Game 2 starter, and Pineda and Severino look to have finally put it all together. Montgomery can either make a spot start or work out of the bullpen in October.
Make no mistake about it: the success of the 2017 Yankees still largely depends on the right arm of Masahiro Tanaka. We have analyzed his struggles before, and unless he can bounce back, the Yankees will face adversity. However, no club has done better when the chips are down than the Yankees, who have the rotation depth to make up for Tanaka’s inconsistencies. The Yankees will always be involved in trade rumors for big-name starting pitchers, but if the back end of the rotation keeps things up at this rate and Tanaka figures things out, the Yankees will have nothing short of the best rotation in all of baseball, something that seemed little more than a pipe dream when the season first began.