Sharing the co-AL East lead with Baltimore at 15-8, the New York Yankees top the list of baseball’s surprise teams at the 1/7th mark of the season. Projected by most media pundits to finish a distant third or fourth in the AL East to the “shoe-in” divisional champs Boston and always competitive Baltimore, the Yankees have surpassed expectations in spades to this point. While the team has been firing on all cylinders, the performance of a pitching staff consisting of Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery has been the central cog in the well lubricated wheel that has propelled their season.
Tanaka, Pineda, Sabathia and…?
The most maligned aspect of the projected Yankees’ 2017 squad was their patchwork starting pitching staff. Outside of Masahiro Tanaka, who has been pitching with a partially torn UCL in his right elbow for over two years, the Yankees didn’t boast a another legitimate top three starter entering spring training. The only other surefire MLB starters on the staff were Michael Pineda, a live arm with tantalizing swing and miss ability but prone to home runs and mental meltdowns, and CC Sabathia, a 36-year old, 300-pound man with a balky knee and diminishing performance. Luis Severino won the fourth spot out of spring training, while the cadre of Luis Cessa, Chad Green and Jordan Montgomery proved ineffective enough for the Yankees to decide against naming a fifth starter prior to opening day.
Fast forward four weeks into the season and basically everything has gone right with the pitching staff: Outside of a rough first two outings, Tanaka has looked like his vintage self. Pineda, though still homer prone, has corralled his emotions and cut back on the big innings. Sabathia has been serviceable. Severino has pitched like one of the best starters in the game from an advanced metrics standpoint. Montgomery has cemented himself as the fifth starter with his diverse and effective arsenal.
The stats back it up
From a numbers standpoint, the Yankees’ starting rotation sits fifth in the AL and ninth in the MLB with a 3.76 ERA. Indicators such as ERA are prone to wild fluctuations in small samples, and the presence of mediocre pitching staffs from Texas, Kansas City and Tampa with lower ERAs than New York underscore that point. However, the the Yankees’ staff might be even better than their ERA suggests, with a 3.53xFIP that ranks second in the AL and fourth in the MLB.
The strong xFIP is backed by a host of other promising peripheral indicators. The staffs’ strikeout rate minus walk rate of 17.1% is 3rd in the AL and 4th in the MLB. Their swinging strike rate against is 13.0%, sitting atop the MLB by a fairly wide margin (second place is the Diamondbacks at 11.9%). Not only that, but the rotation is keeping the ball on the ground, an important component to success in the band box that is the new Yankee Stadium.
Severino and Montgomery are anchoring the ship
While the health and success of Masahiro Tanaka and the maturation of Michael Pineda is imperative to the Yankees’ success, the development of Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery has proven vital to extending the depth and skill of the Yankees’ pitching staff.
Severino has been one of the best starters in baseball thus far by most metrics. His 3.00 ERA is in the 74th percentile of MLB starters, while his 2.95 FIP is 88th and 2.19 xFIP is a sterling 99th. These statistics are backed by a strikeout minus walk rate of 28.7%, good for 98th percentile.
When opponents have made contact Severino has limited the damage. Ground ball and hard hit rates in the 90th+ percentile ensure that the Yankees’ fielders have an easier time recording outs. The one blemish on Severino’s profile is an inflated HR / 9 rate of 1.33, however that is expected pitching in Yankee Stadium. If Severino can maintain his elite strikeout and walk rates while continuing to limit hard contact, the occasional homers he gives up will be solo shots more often than not.
The distribution of Jordan Montgomery’s statistics is a bit more haphazard, but there is still a lot to like. Montgomery’s 4.15 ERA, 3.62 FIP and 4.34 xFIP are nothing to write home about, but they are perfectly serviceable figures for a back end arm getting his feet wet in the majors. Montgomery’s strikeout rate is in the 76th percentile of starters, and his strikeout minus walk rate is in the 63rd percentile.
Montgomery will need to work on keeping the ball on the ground, as a 37.9% ground ball rate will spell problems in Yankee stadium over the long run. However, his 24.1% hard contact rate is elite, signifying that he induces a decent amount of soft fly balls and pop ups.
Severino trending down, Montgomery up?
The aforementioned statistics are extremely favorable to Severino, but there is some cause for concern embedded in Severino’s plate discipline profile.
Luis’ swinging strike rate of 11.8%, good for 79th percentile, is a strong metric. However, looking at the distribution of contact paints a less illustrious picture. Hitters are only swinging at 60.4% of pitches thrown within the strike zone. There is skill to knee-buckling a batter with a backdoor curve on the outside corner, but some of this is simply hitters taking fast balls in generous locations, which can’t be expected to persist.
Moreover, hitters are only swinging at 26.8% of the pitches Severino throws out of the strike zone. And while they are whiffing on over half of them (Out Contact % of 45.6%), the low incidence of swings on outside pitches implies that hitters are reading Severino’s breaking balls well and holding off. Smart money is on hitters making more contact on Severino’s outside of the zone pitches going forward, however his blazing fastball velocity and strong breaking pitches will likely ensure sustainable outside zone swing and miss ability.
Conversely, Montgomery’s plate discipline metrics are outstanding. A swinging strike rate of 15.0%, good for 97th percentile, is in Scherzer/Bumgarner territory. Hitters are biting on Montgomery’s breaking pitches with a 34.9% chase rate (94th percentile), and they are having difficulty making contact on them as well, although not to the unsustainable level of Severino.
Montgomery’s zone contact rate of 78.1% is likely to regress given that he does not have an overpowering fastball to blow by hitters, however his diverse five pitch arsenal will continually keep hitters off balance.