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Maybe we were all wrong about the Yankees rotation

(Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire)

Nobody expected the Yankees to compete in 2017.

Oh sure, they would probably be better than most rebuilding squads; that’s what a $200 million payroll and one of the best farm systems in baseball, of which three elite young talents were now unblocked and major league-ready, will get you.

Be that as it may, everyone, including GM Brian Cashman, knew that a .500 record would be respectable, while the big guns would come out firing in 2018 and 2019.

It may be time to move the clocks forward a bit. The Bombers recently went on an eight-game winning streak. They’re half a game back of the Orioles for top billing in the American League East. Chase Headley has hit like an MVP. Aaron Judge does things like this on the regular now. By third-order winning percentage, which adjusts a team’s record for their underlying stats and their strength of schedule, the Yankees have been the best team in baseball through the season’s first 19 days.

It’s not just their bats that have gotten them here. In fact, a great deal of the engine driving the Yankees’ victory train has been what many thought to be their weakest link: the starting rotation.

Before the season began, it seemed as if Masahiro Tanaka was the only arm that could be trusted among Yankees starters, and he still carried a partially torn UCL in his right elbow. CC Sabathia was a year older; Michael Pineda was a wild card; as many as five guys were competing for the last two spots, and none looked very promising. If the Yankees were going to finish with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 1992, the rotation would be the main culprits.

The Yankees have now played 15 games, and we could have all been wrong about that. By the most advanced measurements available, the Yankees rotation might actually have been the best in baseball so far.

The two tools we’re going to use to evaluate the Yankees rotation thus far are Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) and Deserved Run Average (DRA). SIERA is FanGraphs’ park-adjusted metric of more precisely measuring batted-ball data along with strikeouts, walks, home runs, and hit batters. In essence, it gives a pitcher credit for producing lots of groundballs.

DRA is Baseball Prospectus’s metric that does something similar, but in an even more sophisticated way. It adjusts a pitcher’s results for not only park effects and groundball rate, but also for defense, pitch selection, velocity and movement, strike zone control, catcher framing, quality of opposition, control of the running game, and other critical contextual factors. It is the most precise publicly-available metric to isolate a pitcher’s actual performance.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda (35) delivers a pitch during the MLB regular season game between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays on April 5, 2017, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

DISCLAIMER: It’s April. Stats are mostly meaningless. DRA is especially unstable this early in the season. What it and SIERA do offer, however, are the most precise methods of understanding what has already happened. So don’t necessarily buy into these numbers telling us much about what is going to happen, at least not yet.

With a 3.23 SIERA, the Yankees have had the third-best rotation in baseball. By DRA, the Yanks’ 2.26 mark tops all 29 other teams.

Individually, this group stands out, and in places where you might not expect. Tanaka has certainly been better than his garish ERA, but by both SIERA and DRA, he’s a solid but comfortable fourth. Sabathia is over-performing his peripherals by a large amount, so don’t expect his success to continue.

It’s the three question marks who seem to be answering everything sent their way. Young rookie Jordan Montgomery’s strikeout and walk rates are both on the right side of league-average, and while he’s been a bit susceptible to the long ball, his high ERA is being driven mostly by some bad luck on balls in play.

Pineda has also let a few balls leave the park, but given how much he missed locations last year, this year’s home run rate really does seem flukier. Pineda took a perfect game into the last out of the 7th inning in his second start of the season. He made it to the 8th inning for the first time in almost two years. In his last start–on Sunday Night Baseball, no less–he had 6 strikeouts to just 1 walk in 7 innings of work. Pineda has given up weak contact aside from the home runs, and the home runs are tempered by early-season weirdness and the vagaries of Yankee Stadium. He has improved his command and control by big margins over last year, harnessing that lethal slider in ways he never has before.

The numbers bear out Pineda’s success, too. He is currently fifth on the DRA leaderboard among starters with at least 10 innings pitched, and fourth by SIERA.

I must confess something, however: This piece was merely a pretense to discussing Luis Severino. The 23-year-old Dominican fireballer made his major-league debut in 2015, and looked every bit the future ace prospect analysts thought he could be. A year later, he lost his command. He couldn’t locate his slider or that 97-mph fastball. He stopped trusting his changeup. Despite my admonitions to the contrary, Cashman and Yankees skipper Joe Girardi stopped trusting him, too. Severino spent time in Triple-A, and then ended up in the bullpen. He appeared a bust.

But then he won one of those back-end starting jobs out of spring training. He hasn’t looked back since. His command has improved exponentially, much like Pineda’s. Even more astoundingly, he’s pounding the zone, getting all three of his pitches over for strikes. He’s throwing his changeup a lot more again, giving him the third weapon he so desperately needed last year.

The results have been astounding. Severino’s 35.5 percent strikeout rate is tied for third among major-league starters with at least 10 innings pitched. His 2.6 percent walk rate is ninth. Combine the two and his 32.9 percent K-BB rate is second only to the Red Sox’s Chris Sale. Severino has absolutely dominated hitters in his first three starts.

Spector | Future can still be bright for Severino as a starter

Severino is also getting groundballs on half of the contact made against him. He’s cut down on hard contact, and shaved about half a mile per hour off his average exit velocity from last season. He’s pretty much doing everything right.

Well, almost everything. Severino has given up 4 home runs against only 76 batters faced. That’s not a good look. In fact, if there’s a weak link in the Yankees rotation so far–especially among surprise breakouts like Severino, Pineda, and Montgomery–it’s been the long ball.

A few things about that: One, the Yankees play in a very home-run-happy park. Two, Clayton Kershaw gave up 3 home runs in one game recently. Home runs are driven by skill, but they are also weird and not consistent over time.

Stats like SIERA and DRA know this. DRA especially does an excellent job of controlling for the high variance in home run rate, especially in such a small sample as 15 games. Odds are Severino is going to be fine in the long run.

SIERA and DRA agree that the home runs haven’t dampened Severino’s overall value. To the great shock of all who wrung their hands over him last year, Severino has been the best starting pitcher in baseball by both metrics over the first 19 days of the season.

DRA might be the most precise pitching stat, but it can also appear to give credit to factors people might not fully buy into. With Severino, however, it’s hard to deny that he has earned the top spot. Yankee Stadium has actually played fairly neutrally so far this year, so he hasn’t gotten credit for its usual hitter-friendly tendencies. Furthermore, he is actually getting knocked a bit by the fact that Gary Sanchez and Austin Barnes have both been excellent framers this year, and that the Yankees have been playing great defense. Yankee Stadium digs the long ball, however, so that’s still the one area where DRA’s adjustments are helping Severino out.

Severino is still doing almost all of this on his own. His stuff is nastier than it’s ever been. He’s finding the strike zone. The strikeout and walk rates are absurd. The contact profile is sterling. If he keeps this up, Severino may yet turn into the ace Yankees fans have been dreaming about for years.

And what if he does keep this up? What if Pineda keeps this up? What if Montgomery adjusts to the eventual adjustments and hangs in there over the full season? What if Tanaka stays as steady as he’s been for the last three years? Suddenly, the Yankees look like a force. It’s not just the young sluggers and lights-out bullpen arms that are going to make headlines in the Bronx; the rotation may be the ones filling the back pages with ink day in and day out this summer. Get ready.

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