How far can Yankees rotation carry their title hopes in 2023?

Cole and Cortes, the two mainstay of Yankees rotation, are with Aaron Judge.

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The Yankees’ offense failed to live up to their expectation in the 2022 playoffs. This has pivoted their focus on their rotation and expectations are high for 2023 with Carlos Rodon joining them. Cashman and co may be looking for the rotation to empower their title push. But will that help?

In 2002, the Yankees played nine playoff games, five against Cleveland and four against Houston to end up with 103 strikeouts. This 11.4 per-game average is an MLB record in itself. Their offense also cut a sorry figure .173/.255/.324 and 3.2 runs every game. After the ALCS debacle, there was discussion on how their lineup was completely neutralized and how they needed to get better in the offseason. Andrew Benintendi and DJ LeMahieu were out with injuries, and the Yankees considered their absence as a big reason for the fizzled offense. Oswaldo Cabrera and Josh Donaldson, who played as replacements for the two premium contact hitters, led to 28 of the team’s 103 strikeouts.

But now Benintendi has moved out to Chicago. LeMahieu is training hard to come back. With the left field competition remaining wide open, Cabrera, Aaron Hicks, Estevan Florial, or Rafael Ortega, are seen as options. The bottom half, with Donaldson, Harrison Bader, Peraza, and Jose Trevino, doesn’t look too threatening. LeMahieu, Bader, and Giancarlo Stanton, who have been hurt a lot over the past few seasons and are getting older. As the Yankees saw in the playoffs and during the regular season, Aaron Judge is also a big part of their offensive success. He had a hard time in the playoffs, which hurt the team as a whole.

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections on FanGraphs show that Judge has a big gap between projection for his 80th and 20th percentile. What happened in the 80th percentile? More than nine wins above replacement, which would have been the most in the league last year. So, pretty much a repeat. But what makes him so great is that he could have a 20th percentile year next year and still be worth more than five wins, which is “just” top 20 in the big leagues.

Other projections with a lot of uncertainty tell a similar story, but none of them come close to Judge’s upside. Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, and Harrison Bader all have about average weaknesses for their positions. Even Anthony Volpe’s 20th-percentile prediction is close to two wins, which is the league average. His best-case scenario is 4.4 WAR, which is an All-Star if you win four games.

The Yankees’ lineup remains too right-handed heavy, which is one of their biggest problems right now. This makes them easy to beat in a series. It is also top-heavy. During the regular season, the Yankees topped the American League in runs scored and came fourth in wRC+. But the lineup still seems to be missing a left-handed bat. As of right now, the Yankees are hoping that a respite from injury can fix their past problems in the playoffs.

With a wholesale change of their offensive power is ruled out, the Yankees have pinned their hopes for a title push on their rotation. With Carlos Rodon, their biggest offseason addition, they are pivoting to the pitching side. The Bombers gave the former Giants’ star pitcher a six-year deal. Based on his report card last year, Rodon and Gerrit Cole make up one of the best teams in the sport.

Cole just broke the Yankees’ record for most strikes in a single season. In terms of the strikeout percentage, he was No. 1 among qualified starters in September, No. 3 in the second half of 2022, No. 3 for the whole season, No. 1 for the last two seasons, and No. 2 for the last three years. He gets a lot of people out and doesn’t walk anyone. He gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings in 2019 and had a WAR of 7.5. He gave up 1.5 home runs per nine innings and had a 3.3 WAR in 2022. Carlos Rodón hit the fewest home runs of his career last year, and for the first time, he had more than five WAR.

The ups and downs in this rotation are likely to come from home runs, which is interesting because pitchers’ home runs allowed may have the most noise of all their base statistics. You need almost three seasons of data to know a pitcher’s true talent and ability to give up home runs. During those three seasons, the pitcher changes, as their pitch speed changes and their pitch mix change. The environment around them can also change, like when the sticky stuff law is enforced. It’s hard to say exactly how well a pitcher can stop home runs.

The volatility of Yankees rotation is a concern

In the playoffs, the Yankees had no trouble with their pitchers. But the volatility of the team’s co-aces could make or break their chances of winning a championship.

Again, Rodón and Cole’s worst-case scenario is that they are just above-average starters. Overall, the Yankees have one of the most unpredictable rotations of pitchers who are expected to make at least 20 starts.

It would be easy to blame injuries. The Yankees have one of the most injury-prone rotations in baseball. Some of the inputs are information about past injuries, past arm injuries, and the speed of the fastball. They rank fourth in starting pitcher injury percentile.

Cardinals73.4
Reds69.8
Rays69.6
Yankees69
Giants66.4

The projected No. 3 starter, Luis Severino, hasn’t made more than 20 starts in a season since 2018, and he’s been hurt a lot since then. Brian Cashman, the team’s general manager, is worried about Severino’s health and has already said in public that he won’t let him pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

When Severino is healthy, he has shown that he has the skills of an ace. I think everyone should watch what he did against Texas in his last regular-season start last year to remember how good he can be. The Yankees have just had a hard time putting him in the rotation every fifth day.

Nestor Cortes Jr. is coming off a breakout year in which he had a 2.44 ERA, the best for a Yankees pitcher with at least 150 innings since Ron Guidry’s 1.74 ERA in 1978. In 2021, when he became a reliable starter. Cortes had his busiest season in the major leagues so far this past year, and it will be interesting to see if he can do anything close to that again. ZiPS’s 80th percentile projections put Cortes as a top-30 starter, which he was last season, and his 20th percentile projections put him below the top 75.

Frankie Montas will miss at least the first month of the season because of inflammation in his shoulder. Montas’s shoulder has been sore since before he was traded from Oakland to New York. He also missed time at the end of the regular season because of the same shoulder soreness. Domingo Germán and Clarke Schmidt are probably the two most likely candidates to fight for the fifth spot in the rotation. Because of the trades they made at the end of last season, the Yankees don’t have much depth after Schmidt. Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez are on the 40-man roster, so if they needed to, they could start games in place of other players.

If the Yankees’ top four pitchers stay healthy, they should be in good shape to win their division again. But every year, the Yankees try to win a championship and this year they look to their pitchers.

Aaron Bonne summed up this on Sirius XM Radio:

“On paper, certainly it’s the best rotation since I’ve been here. The potential is there for them to be really special. If we can keep [them] all healthy and making 25, 30, 30-plus starts, we feel like we’ve got a chance to have something really special.”

What do you think? Leave your comment below.

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