Grading the 2017 Yankees: Pitching

Grade: A-

As we move further into the MLB offseason and closer to the busy part of the offseason, we’re going to take one more look back at the 2017 Yankees’ season. Last season was a very exciting time for us as fans and it will hopefully only get better in the seasons to come. A major part of the Yankees’ success last season was the growth and evolution of their pitching staff as the season progressed. Although the group had ups and downs throughout the year, the pitching staff emerged as a surprising strength of the team and helped to spur on their playoff run. With an exciting mix of young talent and veteran experience, this Yankees’ pitching staff was different from years past, but it may have been the most exciting in recent memory. Let’s take a look back at last years’ staff.

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By far the most promising and exciting development of the 2017 season was the performance of Luis Severino. After showing flashes of greatness for parts of two seasons as both a starter and a reliever, Severino would start and complete the 2017 season as a member of the rotation and his performance was spectacular. His overall numbers were very good, making 31 starts and pitching to a 2.98 ERA with a 14-6 record, 230 strikeouts, 51 walks and a 1.04 WHIP in 193.1 IP, but simply by the eye test Severino was amazing to watch night after night. Start after start, he finally put together the electric stuff he had showcased in the past. As the season wore on, Severino was treated more and more like the ace of the staff, repeatedly being matched up with opposing aces including multiple match-cups against Chris Sale down the stretch of the season. His performance was rewarded by being a Cy Young Award finalist and finishing third.

The respect he had earned was further evidenced in his second career playoff start at Yankee Stadium against the Cleveland Indians. Coming off a disastrous postseason debut against the Minnesota Twins, Severino took the mound in a must win Game 4 and turned in arguably his most impressive effort of the season. Severino allowed three runs in seven innings, striking out nine and after approaching 100 pitches to finish the sixth inning, most people including myself figured Joe Girardi would opt to make a move to the loaded Yankee bullpen. Instead, Joe let Sevy go out and pitch the seventh inning, allowing him to go well over the 100 pitch mark to complete it. That departure from the Girardi norm showed how much Severino had grown over the course of the season and coming off just his age 23 season, the sky remains the limit for Sevy.   

Another promising development for the long-term health of the starting rotation was the emergence of Jordan Montgomery. Monty made the rotation by winning the spring training battle for the fifth rotation spot and held the spot all season until he ran up against an innings limit in August and ceded the spot to Jaime Garcia. Overall for his rookie year Montgomery pitched to a 3.88 ERA in 29 starts with a 9-7 record, 144 strikeouts and 51 walks in 155 IP. He was very solid overall and turned in some impressive efforts. He allowed more than four earned runs in a start just twice all year and improved on pitching deeper into games as the season went along. Coming off an increase of less than 20 innings from 2016 to 2017, Montgomery will hopefully be able to improve on his rookie season and pitch deeper into the 2018 season. Before last season it had been a while since the Yankees’ farm system had produced a promising young starter, now it seems they may have produced two in the same year.

The emergence of the Yankees’ young starters played a key role in the success of the group, but the team had veterans in house the played an important part as well and they were led by CC Sabathia. Simply put, CC was awesome this year and turned in his best work in probably a few years. This seemed to be the first season where CC really learned to pitch with diminished stuff and he repeatedly came up huge when the team needed him. For the season he pitched to a 3.69 ERA with a 14-5 record, 120 strikeouts and 50 walks in 148.2 IP. CC has been a fan favorite since he arrived, but he definitely struggled the last few years with injuries and ineffectiveness as he aged, so it was one of the feel-good stories of the season to see the big guy get back to pitching well. He was given the ball in important games in the playoffs and did what he always does, he pitched effectively, and he battled and gave the team all he could. He has stated that he wants to keep pitching and the Yankees have already contacted him. Hopefully we get to see the big guy in the Bronx for at least one more year and give him a proper send off.  

While things were going pretty well for CC Sabathia, things were not going so well for another veteran starter. Masahiro Tanaka has been the team’s ace for the last few seasons and was expected to continue pitching at the high level he has since he arrived. Tanaka did not get off to a good start and struggled badly for the first half. Every now and then he would have a good start and make us think he was starting to turn it around, but it never held up and the struggles continued. He also had major problems with giving up home runs, setting a career high in home runs allowed with 35. For the season he pitched to a 4.74 ERA in 30 starts, with 194 strikeouts and 41 walks in 178.1 IP. Tanaka’s overall numbers were not great, especially for your ace who is getting paid upwards of $20 million a year but he was able to rebound slightly in the second half and in the playoffs. Tanaka allowed 56 earned runs through the first three months of the season and lowered that number to 38 over the final three.

Despite his regular season struggles, the Tanaka that Yankee fans are familiar with arrived just in time for the playoffs, turning in a dominant performance in his final start of the season. In that start against the Rays he pitched seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and striking out 15. He would go on to make three postseason starts and allow just two earned runs in 20 innings while striking out 18 and walking just three. Shortly after the season was over Tanaka announcedthat he would not be opting out of the final three years of his contract. If Tanaka can fully return to form next season the Yankees will have a very solid foundation to continue to build their rotation on for the next few years.

Although 4 rotation spots were held down by the same people for most of the season, one of them underwent a pretty dramatic change and that underscored the dramatic changes that Brian Cashman brought to the pitching staff overall. Michael Pineda had been a member of the Yankees’ rotation for several years and often brought frustratingly inconsistent performance and his body of work for the 2017 season was largely the same. Unfortunately for Big Mike, he partially tore his UCL and had Tommy John surgery in July. With Pineda set to be a free agent and with other options in house, we have likely seen the last of Big Mike as a Yankee.

Credit: Howard Simmons/ New York Daily News
Pineda’s injury created a need and that need was ultimately filled by the acquisition of Sonny Gray. His numbers for the 2017 between the Oakland A’s and the Yankees were solid, pitching to a 3.55 ERA in 27 starts with 10-12 record, 153 strikeouts and 57 walks. Gray had been the ace for the A’s for the last few years and although he had some good starts down the stretch for the Yankees, he struggled badly at times, including his first postseason start against the Indians. Still, he has good stuff and his career numbers are good as well. He is under contract for two more seasons and with an offseason to prepare and fully adjust to being a Yankee, I think Gray will come back next season and be an important member of the rotation. The Yankees have the potential to have a very scary three headed monster at the top of their rotation and Gray is a big part of that possibility.

Although the rotation was a big factor in the Yankees’ success last season, the bullpen was arguably just as big if not a bigger factor. The bullpen was totally transformed due to some deals made by Brian Cashman and that bullpen group gave them an advantage on most nights. After departing via trade last season, Aroldis Chapman was brought back to shore up the the back of the bullpen as the closer. Despite the potent combination of Chapman and Dellin Betances, the struggles of guys like Tyler Clippard, Bryan Mitchell and Tommy Layne would eventually force the team to make a move for reinforcements and they showed up in a big way.

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Cashman’s blockbuster deal with the Chicago White Sox brought bullpen help in the form of two familiar faces, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. When Robertson departed the Yankees a few years back it was to pursue opportunities to be a closer but after returning to his first team, he vowed to contribute in whatever way the team needed him. This was a huge boost to the team down the stretch as Robertson closed some games and pitched as early as the third inning in others. Adding a player with that level of experience and flexibility was a huge boost to the team and Robertson was able to act as a rock for the group when others fell on hard times throughout the season. Kahnle was similarly versatile and provided the Yankees with a lot valuable innings down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Although the bullpen was very good overall, multiple key members of the bullpen went through rough stretches during the season. Tyler Clippard was supposed to be a valuable part of the back of the bullpen, but his prolonged stretch of struggles and blown games resulted in his demotion and ultimately his getting traded away. Tommy Kahnle had an ERA over five in the month of August before righting the ship in September and the playoffs. Aroldis Chapman missed a month with an injury and struggled badly after he returned. After imploding for four straight outings in August he was removed from the closers role although he was ultimately able to right the ship and return to form.

His replacement, Dellin Betances, assumed the closers role at multiple points last year and put up mixed results. Everyone knows that when Betances is right he has dominating stuff but he is also prone to losing his control and getting wild. Betances was lights out while Chapman was on the DL in May but he became erratic later in the season and was basically unusable in the postseason. While the other members of the bullpen were able to overcome their struggles and return to form, this is definitely a troubling development for Betances. With some recent bad blood between Dellin and the Yankees in addition to these struggles, he may be someone to look out for as a trade chip this offseason.

Brian Cashman’s work to fortify the bullpen allowed the Yankees to ride out the struggles of multiple key contributors throughout the season and with basically all of the key members of the pen under contract through this year, this unit should remain a strength of the team moving forward. There are also young members of the staff that should continue to contribute moving forward. Chad Green emerged as a huge weapon out of the pen this year. The team would like him to work as a starter moving forward but based on his work this past season, if that doesn’t work out he’ll have a spot on the roster. We should also be on the lookout for good young arms like Ben Heller, who spent some time on the major league roster this year, and Chance Adams who spent most of the season starting in Triple A.

The Yankees pitching staff was overhauled dramatically as this season progressed, with numerous high-profile additions to the team’s existing core of players. Adding pitchers like Sonny Gray, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to groups that already contained Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Aroldis Chapman really stabilized these units and allowed them to grow into real strengths for the team. With four out of five starters under contract and most key bullpen arms signed as well, these units should remain strong points for the team heading into next season. Add in some new young arms from one of baseballs best farm systems and the Yankees should have a pitching staff ready to lead a team with dreams of a World Series run in the near future. The Yankees pitching staff has come a long way in just a few years, hopefully this year is the just the start of things to come. Still, this was a pretty darn good year regardless of what comes next and that’s why I believe they earned this A-. Do away with some of the struggles and have a few bounce back seasons and we’ll get into A+ range really soon.  

Article by Matt Graziano


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