NEW YORK — Before Wednesday, the Yankees were in dire straits. The Philadelphia Phillies, MLB’s worst team, had marched in to the Bronx and posted 22 runs in two games for two disheartening victories. Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ ace, surrendered five runs in five innings to the Tigers on Sunday. Michael Pineda gave up eight runs to the Phillies Monday. C.C. Sabathia took another loss Tuesday, and saw his ERA balloon to 5.65. The only starter who looked any decent was the one who spent last season throwing out of the bullpen, a destination he’s likely to return to this season (Adam Warren).
Questions about the Yankees’ starters were raised. Should C.C. Sabathia move to the bullpen? Do the Yankees need to make a trade? Does this team have any legitimate shot at the playoffs with the way these guys are performing?
On Wednesday, Ivan Nova brought peace.
The 28 year-old returned after a 14-month layoff due to Tommy John surgery and threw six and 2/3 scoreless innings as the Yankees took the final game of their three-game set with the Phillies in commanding fashion, 10-2.
“I almost cried when I was walking by the tunnel,” Nova said. “When I first walked onto the mound, I didn’t believe it.”
He threw 92 pitches, hitting 95 MPH with his fastball, and reported afterwards that “it didn’t feel like I threw 92 pitches.”
Yankees fans joined in Nova’s rejoicing. The most unlikely man, one they hadn’t seen in over a year, had finally caught the Yankees and saved them from this miniature three-game freefall. That’s really all the skid was.
To the untrained eye, the Yankees’ starting pitching staff is somewhat unattractive. Warren, far from a household name, is the owner of the second-best ERA (3.62) on the team behind Tanaka (3.17). After that, the rest of New York’s starters are all well over four. Their staff ERA, collectively, ranks 22nd, and the batting average against them 27th.
And yet, the team doesn’t feel that way.
“I think it’s been a strength all year,” said catcher John Ryan Murphy. “I think our starters have done a great job going deep into games. [Nova] is just another guy who every five days he’s gonna go out there and you know what you’re going to get. It’s going to help the team.”
Using the brand-new DRA (Deserved Run Average), we can see the ERA that Yankees’ starters truly deserve to wear – 4.18, which would make them baseball’s 11th-best rotation. Opponents this season have a .307 BABIP, the eighth-highest mark in baseball. Just 24.4 percent of the batted balls against the Yankees have been line drives – the second-lowest mark in MLB. There are certainly reasons to believe their problems appear a bit worse than they really are.
When you really think about the situation the Yankees are in with their starting pitching, things aren’t so alarming. C.C. Sabathia is essentially the wild card of the staff. He’s been able to pitch into the sixth without surrendering more than three runs seven times in 15 starts this season. When you mix that in with the few disastrous performances he’s had, he is the prototypical wild card.
That’s all the Yankees need, truly. Tanaka and Pineda are proven at this point, and Warren and Eovaldi have kept afloat at the back end of the rotation. It just so happened that some of their worst outings of the year were jumbled together.
While the Yankees’ rotation has been somewhat unlucky, and isn’t necessarily bad, are they good? Can they win the AL East?
“I do believe it’s there,” said Joe Girardi. “Obviously you have to pitch your potential, but I am convinced. You put our team together and as we continue to get healthier as times goes on – we’re going to get Jacoby [Ellsbury] and [Andrew] Miller back – I do believe we have it in us.”
(Photo: Andy Marlin-USA Today Sports)