John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Yankees have been searching for an ace since CC Sabathia's last truly dominant season, 2011, when he went 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA and pitched 237 innings. Along the way they were foiled by Masahiro Tanaka's elbow ligament tear and then Luis Severino's curious inconsistency/shoulder injury.
Into that void steps Gerrit Cole, the $324 million man, and if he delivers the greatness expected of him, he not only could get the Yankees over the championship hump, but his presence as the No. 1 starter raises an intriguing question:
How high is the ceiling on the 2020 rotation?
And where might it stack up with the best in team history? Relatively recent history, anyway.
Just for fun I decided to go back 50 years, a period that covers seven championship teams in three distinctly different eras, and rank the Yankees' top five starting rotations, then try and predict where the Cole-led rotation will slot in with its performance this year.
Perhaps most surprising, I didn't find as much dominance or depth as I thought I remembered. The Yankees have had a lot of good rotations since 1970 but few that were great or exceptionally deep.
They've also had only two Cy Young winners during that time, Ron Guidry in 1978 and Roger Clemens in 2001.
On their best teams they've relied heavily on the bullpen, from Goose Gossage's 134 lockdown innings in 1978 to Mariano Rivera's 107 brilliant innings in 1996 to Phil Hughes shifting to the pen and riding shotgun for Rivera in 2009.
Even the fabled '98 team had Ramiro Mendoza as something of a wild card as both fill-in starter and reliever, in addition to the late-inning quartet of Graeme Lloyd, Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, and Rivera.
All of which means that with its potential depth and high ceiling, the 2020 rotation has a strong chance to slide in near the top.
I'll save the prediction for the moment and rank my top five rotations of the last 50 years.
No. 1: 1998. Team record: 114-48.
A look back is a reminder of how inflated offensive numbers were in the midst of the steroid era, as the ERAs aren't terribly impressive. But David Wells and David Cone finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Cy Young voting, El Duque Hernandez produced the most dominant stats of any starter after debuting in June.
What sets this rotation apart was its performance in the post-season on the way to a championship, as Wells, Cone, and Andy Pettitte were rock-solid, and El Duque delivered that ALCS-saving start in Cleveland with the Yankees down 2-1 in the series.
Here are the numbers, including ERA-plus, a significant stat because it adjusts for a pitcher's ballpark, setting the league average at 100:
Andy Pettitte, 16-11, 4.24 ERA, 216 innings. ERA-plus of 104.
David Wells, 18-4, 3.49 ERA, 214 innings. ERA-plus of 127.
David Cone, 20-7, 3.55 ERA, 207 innings. ERA-plus of 125.
Hideki Irabu, 13-9, 4.06 ERA, 173 innings. ERA-plus of 109.
El Duque, 12-4, 3.13 ERA, 141 innings. ERA-plus of 142.
Ramiro Mendoza, 10-2, 3.25 ERA (14 starts). ERA-plus of 137.
No. 2: 2002. Team record: 103-58.
This team was stunned by the Angels in the ALDS, but over 162 games the starting pitching was stronger and deeper than the World Series teams of either 2001 or 2003, even if they didn't place anyone in the Cy Young Award voting.
Mike Mussina, 18-10, 4.05 ERA, 215 innings. ERA-plus of 109.
Wells, 19-7, 3.75 ERA, 206 innings. ERA-plus of 118.
Clemens, 13-6. 4.35 ERA, 180 innings. ERA-plus of 102.
El Duque, 8-5, 3.64 ERA, 146 innings. ERA-plus of 122.
Pettitte, 13-5, 3.27 ERA, 134 innings. ERA-plus of 135.
Ted Lilly, 3-6, 3.40 ERA, 76 innings. ERA-plus of 130.
No. 3: 1978. Team record: 100-63.
This was Guidry's season for the ages, as he won the Cy Young Award in a unanimous vote, raising the bar for the entire rotation. For that matter, Guidry and Ed Figueroa did most of the heavy listing, with Goose Gossage providing the secret sauce with 134 innings of outstanding relief, finishing fifth in the Cy Young voting.
Reflective of the era before steroids, the ERAs are lower, but so are the strikeout numbers, as hitters prioritized making contact, quite the opposite of today's launch-angle swingers. Gosssage, the most fearsome reliever in the game, had only 122 strikeouts, or less than one per inning.
Guidry, 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 273 innings. ERA-plus of 208.
Figueroa, 20-9, 2.99 ERA, 253 innings. ERA-plus of 122.
Dick Tidrow, 7-11, 3.84 ERA, 185 innings. ERA-plus of 95.
Jim Beattie, 6-9, 3.73 ERA, 128 innings ERA-plus of 98.
Catfish Hunter, 12-6, 3.58 ERA, 118 innings. ERA-plus of 102.
No. 4: 2009. Team Record: 103-59.
Sabathia paid immediate dividends in his first year as a Yankee, elevating a rotation that was otherwise no better than solid. With Chien-Ming Wang injured for most of the year, in fact, and Hughes converted to a reliever during the season, Joe Girardi needed Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin to cobble together a full season of starts from the No. 5 spot.
The disappointment was Joba Chamberlain, putting up a 4.75 ERA in his first and only full season as a starter, after all that initial success as a reliever.
Sabathia, 19-8, 3.37 ERA, 230 innings. ERA-plus of 137.
A.J. Burnett, 13-9, 404 ERA, 207 innings. ERA-plus of 114.
Pettitte, 14-8, 4.16 ERA, 194 innings. ERA-plus of 111.
Chamberlain, 9-6, 4.75 ERA, 157 innings. ERA-plus of 97.
No. 5: 1996. Team Record: 92-70.
You can make a case for the '99 or '01 or '03 rotations in this spot, but I'll give it to the group that got the dynasty started, largely because Pettitte, Cone, and Jimmy Key were so clutch in the post-season.
During the season Cone and Key each missed time with injuries, Cone rather famously so with an aneurysm in his shoulder, but I was still surprised to be reminded that Kenny Rogers and Doc Gooden finished second and third in innings pitched that season. And though Pettitte finished second in the Cy Young voting, the team MVP was probably Rivera, who finished third in the Cy Young race after his 107 innings of complete dominance as set-up man for John Wetteland.
Pettitte, 21-8, 3.87 ERA, 221 innings. ERA-plus of 129.
Rogers, 12-8, 4.68 ERA, 179 innings. ERA-plus of 107.
Gooden, 11-7, 5.01 ERA, 170 innings. ERA-plus of 100.
Key, 12-11, 4.68 ERA, 169 innings. ERA-plus of 107.
Cone, 7-2, 2.88 ERA, 72 innings. ERA-plus of 175.
Now, projecting the 2020 rotation. I believe Cole will be superb, as expected, and I think James Paxton will pitch with more of the dominance we saw late in the season.
Tanaka is Tanaka at this point, pretty much a league-average starter in the regular season who manages to raise his game in the post-season, so the key should be whether Severino can come back healthy and pitching somewhere near the form that made him one of the best pitchers in baseball half of the 2018 season.
Either J.A. Happ (if he's not traded) or Jordan Montgomery will be a solid No. 5 starter, with Domingo German potentially raising the bottom end of the rotation when he returns from his domestic-abuse suspension.
Add it up and I think Cole & Co. should have the depth and dominance to crack this list of top Yankee rotations of the last 50 years. And with good health I'll predict they could slot in as high as No. 2, behind only the '98 group that had such a knack for winning.
That and a championship shouldn't be too much to ask for $324 million.