Playoff teams are built on starting pitching. Starting pitching wins championships. Someone needs to tell Masahiro Tanaka's New York Yankees rotation mates.
The Yankees improbable run into legitimacy in a crowded American League East and AL Wild Card race has little to do with the starting rotation, beyond the enormous efforts of Tanaka. In order for the Yankees to stick in the race over the final 20 days (19 games) of the regular season, the club needs Tanaka to continue his ace-like efforts, but the team must also receive better efforts from the rest of the starting staff.
Tanaka has been a stud since the All-Star break, but quite frankly he has kept the Yankees in the hunt for the entire season. New York is 22-7 in Tanaka's starts this season and 54-60 in starts made by others in the rotation. Tanaka owns a 13-4 record, 3.04 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 160 strikeouts and just 31 walks in 186 2/3 innings. Here are the rest of the Yankees' starters cumulative seasons statistics - 626 1/3 IP, 33-50, 5.04 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP.
The Yankees have suffered injuries in the rotation - all teams go through bumps and bruises - but the team has struggled to get consistently positive efforts from four-fifths of the rotation all season. The Yanks have received spurts of favorable results from starters not named Tanaka, and a two-month resurgence from CC Sabathia, however much of the production has been mediocre at best.
Since Aug. 1, the Yankees have a 24-15 record, seeing Tanaka go 6-1 (the team is 7-1) with a 2.77 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 52 strikeouts and four walks. However, the starters outside of Tanaka own a 7-11 record with a 4.98 ERA and 1.38 WHIP during the span. The Yankees' offense has averaged 4.8 runs during the span, while the collective bullpen ERA is 3.50. Something needs to change with the rotation because it is insufficient to rely solely on the offense and what is becoming an overused bullpen.
The Yankees are using two rookies, Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell, as well as two veterans, Michael Pineda and Sabathia, to round out the rotation after Tanaka and not a single one of them illicit warm, fuzzy feelings.
Beginning with the rookies, we have seen exactly what you would expect from inexperienced starters - inconsistency. Cessa has made five starts for the big league club with varying results (two quality starts). Cessa, obtained this offseason from the Tigers in a trade with Chad Green for Justin Wilson, was 6-3 with a 3.03 ERA in 77 1/3 innings with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes/Barre this season.
Mitchell was set to become the Yankees swingman as the team readied to head north from spring training when he broke a toe. The recuperation and rehabilitation from surgery took over four months, but Mitchell has returned to New York, finding himself in the rotation due to an elbow injury to Green. Like Cessa, Mitchell has both good and bad performances, though the latter only has two starts under his belt after just 21 innings of minor league rehab innings.
Pineda is the club's enigma. The 27-year-old right-hander owns a career-high 10.3 K/9 rate this season, which typically portends to very good results. However, Pineda sports a 6-11 record with a 5.07 ERA (3.81 FIP). Pineda's control is still good (2.5 BB/9), but he has been victimized by the home run ball for the second straight season (1.4 HR/9).
Pineda's inconsistencies extend from the season to each game. Pineda has been unable to avoid the big inning and the rest of his work in the game is electric. At times, the blowup occurs at the beginning of the game, and other times toward the end of his outing. There is little rhyme or reason to Pineda's struggles.
Finally, Sabathia has endured two different seasons within one. The 36-year-old left-hander seemed poised to compete for the American League Comeback Player of the Year award after accumulating a 5-4 record with a 2.20 ERA in his first 11 starts (65 1/3 innings). Since June 26, Sabathia has allowed home runs at a staggering pace (1.8 HR/9) and he has pitched to a 5.79 ERA in 88 2/3 innings.
As I said, none of these pitchers inspire a whole lot of confidence or seem ready to step up to aid Tanaka and the club. I do not believe it is fair to rely on rookie pitchers who have never been touted as elite prospects to carry the load, especially under the pressure of a playoff chase. At this point, Cessa and Mitchell need to supply innings and try not to allow games to get away from them. That said, one or both of the veterans has to figure out how to turn it around, and for a short-term spurt, both pitchers are fully capable.
Pineda has shown the ability to get hot for small stretches during his career - doing so as recently as this June - when he had a six-start span in which he generated a 2.76 ERA in 36 innings. Pineda is scheduled to make four more starts before the regular season ends and that type of production could help push the Yankees into the playoffs. If Pineda can somehow stay out of his own head and trust his talent, he possesses exactly what the Yankees require.
As for Sabathia, he performed exceptionally well earlier this season and while he is not the same work-horse pitcher he was when he came to New York in 2009, he still displays the drive to compete. So long as Sabathia is not playing hurt, he has four starts to alleviate some of the burden as he did when the season commenced and he has done in the past.
Leaning on Tanaka over the next few weeks might be OK for the Yankees, and he may very well continue to produce, but we are talking about just four starts left for the team's ace to affect the season. The Yankees need much more in order to squash a potential losing streak (with Sabathia and Pineda on the hill for the next two games) and more importantly complete a comeback no one saw coming.