Kluber and Taillon are showing what's possible for this Yankee rotation

 

We are now firmly underway with this 2021 MLB season. At 34 games in, we are a little bit past “it’s still early” territory and at this point we can start to discuss some of what we’ve seen with a more meaningful sample size behind it. The Yankees did not get out of the gates strongly this season and while they have played better and strung together wins the past few weeks, their performances have been uneven. While several key names are still worth being concerned about offensively, the Yankees have managed to not lose a series since the Tampa Bay series from April 16th-18th. The obvious strengths of the team to this point of the season have been 1) Gerrit Cole, 2) The bullpen and 3) The recent white hot hitting streak of Giancarlo Stanton. While the Yankees starting rotation and offense had both been inconsistent to start the season, it is the rotation that is leading this Yankees charge back into solid baseball and series wins. Specifically, it is the stabilization of Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon that have shown that this Yankee rotation could be a deeper and more versatile group than the limited groups of recent years.

Credit: Brad Penner USA Today Sports

When the Yankees acquired Kluber and Taillon this offseason, the obvious concern was injury history. With Kluber at 35 years old and coming off a shoulder injury and Taillon coming off his second career Tommy John Surgery, there was plenty of reason for such concerns. Thankfully, nothing has come of those concerns to this point, both have been healthy. It stands to reason though, that the Yankees would bring both along slowly and that is exactly what they’ve done. Kluber didn’t surpass 90 pitches in a game until his fourth start and Taillon didn’t surpass that mark or pitch into the sixth inning until his most recent start against Washington on 5/7. While the Yankees managed these players with their long-term goals in mind, they still needed them to perform well in the early goings, and both had some rocky moments early on.

 

While Kluber has a more extensive track record in terms of success, he is 35 and coming off a season in which he pitched just one single inning due to a shoulder injury. Coming back from a shoulder injury, control was going to be a concern, and it has been a bit of an issue so far, with Kluber issuing two or more walks in six of seven starts. Now a part of this may be due to getting the feel back for his pitches, which have had tremendous movement. With inconsistent control and feel, Kluber’s first four outings of the season were all short ones in which he failed to pitch into the fifth inning. His low point thus far was his April 9th start against Tampa Bay in which he allowed five ER and didn’t make it out of the third inning.


Since about the middle of April after his third start, his outings have been getting slowly and steadily more consistent. He has allowed two or less ER in each of his last four starts and pitched through the fifth in three out of the four. While it may be asking too much for the two-time Cy Young winner to regain that past form, Kluber is a seasoned veteran and the most tenured and arguably the most accomplished member of this rotation. He is currently their number two starter but he does not need to be Gerrit Cole and pitch 7+ innings each time out. He just needs to be steady and get the ball to a very strong bullpen. He’s definitely on the right track but we’ve seen flashes of how he can dominate a lineup when he goes to that level. On May 2nd, he turned in eight dazzling innings with just two hits and 10 Ks against the Tigers. While it was against a weak opponent, it was a sign that the old Kluber is still in there. Kyle Higashioka gushed about Kluber's arsenal and what its been like to catch him recently. 


“Really fun, It’s kind of like as a kid when you play the video game, you kind of just randomly choose … Obviously I’m not randomly choosing pitches to call, but you can throw any pitch, any spot, any count. That’s kind of how he’s working right now and it’s really fun.”


The Yankees will continue to manage him with health and lengthy postseason in mind, but he has gone over 100 pitches in his past two starts, a sign that he is getting close to a level with minimal to no restriction. Corey has already earned a Player of the Week award, turning in two stellar outings in late April/early May. They will look to keep him going in the right direction towards those lofty goals.


 

The case with Taillon is a little different. While he was a top prospect and had some success at the big-league level, he also did turn in some mixed results on an often subpart Pittsburgh Pirates squad. On top of that, he had not pitched since early 2019 due to his TJS surgery. The Yankees were looking to tap into that talent and turn this reclamation project into another piece of a rebuilt rotation. Where does that stand so far? Well the results have been promising if not mixed. Like Kluber, his first several outings of the season were short ones but unlike Kluber walks have not been an issue. He has only allowed more than one walk in one of his six starts. He also talked this offseason about how while he was out rehabbing his injury, he completely revamped his throwing motion to make it more efficient and reduce risk of injury. So far, he has showed promising stuff, with a fastball sitting in the low and mid 90s along with a nice curveball and changeup. His primary issue thus far has been missing bats. He has given up 26 hits in 28.2 IP and has also allowed seven home runs in his six games. It does take a while to get your feel and groove back after TJS surgery, but that home run number is concerning, and we will look for that to come down as the season goes on.


 

While he hasn’t been able to consistently miss bats, the results overall have been getting better. His two starts in May have been perhaps his best two outings of the season. In his most recent outing against Washington, he pitched into the 7th inning for the first time this season, allowing only three hits and three runs in the process. While two of those hits were home runs, it was encouraging to see him pitch deeper into a game. The three hits he has allowed in his past two starts ties his season low in a game, which is a promising development after some tough April outings. Like Kluber with Detroit, you might want to think less of it because of the opponent, but this is all a part of what has been a very long road for Taillon. On May 1st, he notched his first win in exactly two years and he sounded relieved and grateful following that performance

 

“There were times when I wasn’t 100% sure whether I would be back in a big league uniform, let alone be on a team like the Yankees and contribute to wins throughout the year, so it’s definitely meaningful. There’s a lot of people that played part in it to get me back to this point.”


There will be more “First since” events to come with Taillon but he along with Kluber were the keys of Brian Cashman’s reconstruction of the rotation this offseason. Fan favorite Masahiro Tanaka was left to walk in free agency, as was veteran JA Happ. While it was a gamble, it was a gamble that the Yankees needed to take after a few years of disappointing results from starting pitching. 


We are seeing flashes of it now, but the Yankees are hoping these two pitchers can help lead their rotation to a level it hasn’t been able to go to in the playoffs. In fairness, Domingo German and Jordan Montgomery have played a role in stabilizing after a rocky start for starters not named Gerrit Cole, and we all remain hopeful that Luis Severino will have a role to play this season as well. All of these and more figure to play a role as starters for the Yankees this season as the Yankees hope to not wear out what looks to be a strong bullpen prior to the playoffs like they did last season. While Kluber and Taillon are new in town, they will not have to bear any burden of expectations. They don’t have to be the man like Gerrit Cole or be the next great Yankee prospect to turn into a star like we hope for Sevy. They just have to keep improving, keep the line moving and keep turning in steady results. They may not have that pressure, but they possess the keys to bringing this Yankee rotation to a level is has not been able to go to in recent years. So far we've only seen flashes but, after rocky starts for both, they have both started to improve. As they have, the Yankees results have improved with them.    


Article by Matt Graziano

 

Comments

  1. Nice Article Matt! Many Yankee fans wanted Trevor Bauer at all cost. The Yankee budget wasn't even in that stratosphere so what Cashman did was aquire not one, but two High risk high reward pitchers for about the money it would have taken to bring back Tanaka.

    I loved the strategy at the time & so far it looks like a really good move. The Yankees also had German staging a comeback of his own & Garcia as a depth option - Not to mention Severino potentially being able to contribute at some point.

    Supposing Cole, German, Kluber, Taillon & Monty all keep chugging along. Suddenly that's a rotation with a lot more upside than last year's.

    Sexy most likely will require quite a bit of time to build up so I imagine he'll be used in a bullpen role, which just makes the team all the stronger.

    Not to mention, Britton will return at some point. Yankee pitching has much more upside this year & it's all anchored by a resurgent Chapman.

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