- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Batten down the hatches. Hide the women and children. The panic button is on high alert, and the New York media is about to stoke the fires.
That's right: The New York Yankees have had back-to-black blow-up starts! On Sunday, Masahiro Tanaka gave up 10 hits and seven runs in five innings in a 12-4 loss to the Tigers, which prompted one columnist to write, "Close your eyes and listen, and you could hear how poorly Tanaka was pitching." Never mind that in his three previous starts since returning from the disabled list, Tanaka had allowed just four runs in 21 innings with 21 strikeouts and no walks, one bad start apparently was proof the Yankees can no longer count on the Japanese right-hander.
Michael Pineda followed that with an even worse start Monday, as the punchless Phillies knocked him around for 11 hits and eight runs in 3 1/3 innings, and the Yankees lost 11-8. So much for that fantasy guarantee of the day. Pineda's slider was flat all night -- he didn't record a strikeout -- and the Phillies scored in double digits for the first time all season. Pineda flirted with a no-hitter in his latest outing, but since striking out 16 batters May 10, he has gone 3-4 with a 6.10 ERA and 52 hits allowed in 38 1/3 innings pitched. He has been a strike-throwing machine with just 12 walks in 14 starts, but maybe he's throwing too many strikes -- or at least a few too many hittable pitches. Imagine the consternation that will appear in Tuesday's tabloids.
Should the Yankees be worried about their rotation? After all, the group ranks 12th in the American League in ERA. CC Sabathia has a 5.31 ERA and owns the third-worst batting average allowed among qualified major league starters. Nathan Eovaldi has the worst batting average allowed among qualified starters. Adam Warren has pitched well (3.62 ERA) but ranks just 81st out of 102 qualified starters in strikeout rate.
My take: There's no need to panic and make an ill-advised trade.
The concerns over Tanaka should be about not his Sunday performance but his elbow, but those concerns existed when the season started. One rough game doesn't change that view. The Yankees have always had to consider a backup plan for Tanaka, whether it's Chris Capuano, currently in the bullpen, or Ivan Nova, who has made three rehab starts in the minors so far as he returns from Tommy John surgery and will start for the Yankees on Wednesday.
Pineda's inconsistency is frustrating, but his latest seven-game trend hasn't been all that different from his first seven starts, in which he had a 2.72 ERA.
First seven: .339 BABIP, .129 well-hit average, 29.5% K rate, 1.6% BB rate
Next seven: .365 BABIP, .133 well-hit average, 18.9% K rate, 5.1% BB rate
Take out that 16-strikeout performance, and the strikeout rate dips below 25 percent over the first seven starts. Pineda certainly hasn't been as effective, and much of that is attributable to what hitters are doing against his slider:
First seven: 37.5% K rate, 0% BB rate, .215 average, 2 HRs
Next seven: 26.7% K rate, 8.0% BB rate, .174 average, 4 HRs
The home run Maikel Franco hit on Monday came off a 1-2 slider. That slider is often described as a feel pitch. However, I don't see Pineda's recent struggles as a sign to panic. Rather, they're simply a good pitcher going through a bit of a rough patch.
But there are three other reasons the Yankees shouldn't overreact and make a panic trade to upgrade the rotation.
1. Have you seen the rest of the AL East? The Yankees are 38-32 and still just one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays, the only team in the division receiving good work from its starters. The Yankees rank second in the AL in rotation ERA, while the four other teams rank 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th. The Blue Jays and Orioles could arguably use rotation upgrades even more than the Yankees, given that neither of those teams have starters I'd put in the same category as Tanaka or Pineda. (Orioles Opening Day starter Chris Tillman is 5-7 with a 6.22 ERA.)
2. You can improve the pitching by improving the defense. Remember those high averages against Sabathia and Eovaldi? Sabathia, Pineda and Eovaldi rank 98th, 100th and 103rd out of 104 starters in BABIP (batting average on balls in play). That's not all on the defense -- Eovaldi led the NL in hits allowed last year -- but at the same time, the Yankees' defense hasn't been good. Entering Monday, only the Phillies and White Sox were credited with a lower Defense Runs Saved total than that of the Yankees.
The biggest problem areas have been right field, second base and third base. Chase Headley has had positive defensive metrics in the past, so he should improve, but Carlos Beltran and Stephen Drew have been the primary culprits in right and second. They've combined for 18 home runs, but Drew has a .258 OBP and Beltran a .306 OBP. Beltran should be a DH at this point in his career, but he's mostly locked into right field with Alex Rodriguez around (and hitting). Still, the Yankees could look to upgrade their defense to help their run prevention.
3. There's no guarantee the big names likely available -- Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels -- will help. Cueto just had his upcoming start pushed back from Tuesday to Friday for "extra rest," and earlier, he missed a couple starts with general stiffness and elbow soreness. Hamels has a 2.96 ERA and has dominated the weak lineups in the NL East the past few seasons, but it's worth noting he has a career 4.61 ERA in 30 interleague starts. I'm not sure you want to give up a couple of your best prospects for him.
That's perhaps the most important thing to consider. I'm not trading Aaron Judge or Luis Severino for what would be a risky upgrade. You have to balance the present with the future, and considering Didi Gregorius is the only position regular younger than 30, the Yankees can't afford to trade young talent. They can win the division with this rotation, as shaky as it has been.
Take your hands off that panic button. For now.