2011 AL Playoff Rotations: New York Yankees

Yesterday, I tackled the Tigers rotation, and when writing these sorts of pieces, I begin to appreciate Jim Leyland just a little bit — he keeps thing simple. Joe Girardi is anything but simple — there are several options on the table for the Yankees as they set up their postseason rotation. The way the American League schedule lines up, teams technically don’t need a fourth starter until Game 4 of the ALCS, provided they are willing to throw their Game 1 ALDS starter on three days rest in Game 4 of the ALDS (should such a thing be necessary, that is). Since we know that CC Sabathia is not one to shy away from such assignments, there is a good chance that the Yankees could roll with just three starters in the Division Series.

But who will that third starter be? Freddy Garcia seems to be the odds-on favorite at the moment, but Girardi could very well stand by A.J. Burnett. The decision could boil down to who the Yanks face in the Division Series, as Garcia has some impressive superficial numbers against the Tigers. At the moment though, those seem to be the only two candidates, as a back injury to Phil Hughes and the decreased velocity from Bartolo Colon seem to have relegated them to bullpen candidates at best. Nothing is set in stone, but it appears that Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Garcia and Burnett will be the Yankees’ four horsemen of the playoffcalypse, so we’ll focus on them.

CC Sabathia: 3.00 ERA, 3.02 xFIP, 75 xFIP-, 3.77 K/BB, 0.64 HR/9, 7.0 WAR
Since his rookie season of 2001, only one pitcher that has thrown more innings than Sabathia (Mark Buehrle) and only one pitcher has been more valuable (Roy Halladay). Simply put, Sabathia is the cream of the crop, and this year has been no different, as he has posted career bests in FIP, xFIP and SIERA. He has worked his curveball back into the mix this year, throwing his fastball and changeup a little bit less. He’s also been more efficient this year, getting to 0-1 more frequently, upping his K% and lowering his BB%. Neither of the latter percentages are career bests, but they are his best marks since coming to the Yankees. He has been better at home than on the road, but A) he’ll make most of his starts at home, and B) any pitcher would kill for Sabathia’s road numbers — his 3.26 road xFIP this year ranks 13th in the game.

Ivan Nova: 3.70 ERA, 4.16 xFIP, 103 xFIP-, 1.72 K/BB, 0.71 HR/9, 2.6 WAR
Let’s be clear — Nova’s here because of a little help from his friends. Of the five Yankees pitchers who tossed more than 100 innings this year, Nova’s RS/GS and RS/IP are the highest, and it’s not all that close either. In fact, only three pitchers in the game had a better RS/GS than Nova — Tim Wakefield, Derek Holland and John Lackey — and only Holland, Lackey, Jon Lester and Wakefield had a better RS/IP. Having said that, Nova has taken advantage of the opportunity his shiny wins total has afforded him. In the second half, he has kept the ball on the ground while cutting his walk totals. If there is one concern with Nova, it’s that he’s been much better on the road (3.51 ERA, 3.39 FIP, 3.92 xFIP) than he has been at home (4.19 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 4.45 xFIP) in his two years in the Majors, so I’m not sure the Yankees are set up to get optimal value out of him by pitching him in Game 2 (and potentially Game 5) of the ALDS, which will/would both be in the Bronx.

Freddy Garcia: 3.62 ERA, 4.35 xFIP, 108 xFIP-, 2.13 K/BB, 0.98 HR/9, 2.1 WAR
Garcia doesn’t do anything terrible impressive. Among Yankees’ starters this season, the only thing that he has been the team leader in is HR/FB, and he leads in that category by the slimmest, essentially non-existent margin. But what he has been is reliable. In comparing him to A.J. Burnett, we see that Garcia has only produced a negative WPA in 38% of his starts, whereas Burnett stands at 59%. Burnett has also been torched more frequently, as he has had eight starts this season with a -.200 WPA or worse, compared to just four times from Garcia. When you have a killer offense, you don’t necessarily have to have a three-hit shutout, you just want the game kept within reason. Garcia has shown he can do that with greater regularity than has Burnett, and as such is the leader in the clubhouse for the Game 3 nod.

A.J. Burnett: 5.16 ERA, 3.86 xFIP, 95 xFIP-, 2.08 K/BB, 1.47 HR/9, 1.4 WAR

I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles. — Homer Simpson

Yes, A.J. Burnett would be Homer’s kind of pitcher. Virtually any kind of performance is on the table when Burnett pitches, but after his strikeout rate bottomed out last year, it looked like we may have seen the last of the dizzying highs. However, he has rebounded nicely this season, posting an above-league average 20.7%. He has also brought his GB/FB ratio back to the level it was at in his last season north of the border. And that’s what makes his home run totals so head-scratching — he’s permitted fewer fly balls than he has each of the past two seasons, but has been tagged for more homers anyway. This has been especially troublesome in the second half. In the first half, Burnett was carrying a high but not quite string-of-obscenities high 14.3% HR/FB, but in the second-half, he has been tuned up for a truly mystifying 22.2%. Fortunately for the Yankees, it’s a pace that simply isn’t sustainable. There will be regression coming for Burnett — the question is will it come in time.

Let’s not forget Colon in all of this. As of this writing, Girardi has not ruled him out for the postseason rotation, and while his velocity has decreased while his ERA has increased in the second half, his FIP and xFIP over the past 30 days are both better than that of Burnett or Garcia, and his xFIP is better than Nova’s. He has still been efficient with his pitches in that timeframe too, as his 5.00 K/BB is better than any other Yankees’ starter, Sabathia included. Still, signs point to him not being in the mix at this point. We’ll see if his start in Tampa tonight changes things.

The Yankees rotation is not as dominant as Detroit’s, but Sabathia, Nova and Garcia have been a healthy mix of good and dependable, and a fourth starter — be it Burnett, Colon or Hughes — may not be needed in any of the Yankees’ first eight postseason games, giving Girardi the luxury of putting off his decision for nearly two weeks. The composition of the Yankees’ rotation has been a complex thing all season, and remains so now, but chances are that once they make up their minds, it will be effective.

Tomorrow: Texas Rangers

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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11 years ago

3.86 xFIP….

Tom B
11 years ago
Reply to  Jose

xFIP normalizes HR rate.

Burnett (17% HR/FB) is the worst among qualified starters.

Starting him in Detroit doesn’t sound terrible… just walk Miggy every single at bat.

11 years ago
Reply to  Tom B

You say that like Burnett has the ability to not walk Miggy every single at bat.

Tom B
11 years ago
Reply to  Tom B

Surprisingly Miggy is not one of Burnett’s 108 walks. 1-5 double no k’s no walks.

11 years ago
Reply to  Tom B

But still, with fewer fly balls, maybe the Yanks will have more to remember Burnett than only his game 2 of the WS start