With six straight wins and a 39–15 record, the Yankees are the best team in baseball right now. One-third of the way through the season, they have the best record of any team since the 2001 Mariners (42–12) and are just two games off the pace of the 1998 Yankees (41–13). While an offense that leads the majors in homers (80) and wRC+ (117) and is second in the AL in scoring (4.78 runs per game) has been a big part of that success, lately they’ve been dominating opponents thanks to incredible starting pitching.
Even at a time when starter usage is on the rebound from its pandemic-driven trends, what the Yankees have done lately particularly stands out. Consider what the starters have accomplished during this winning streak:
Yankees’ Starters Since May 31
|Jordan Montgomery||5/31/22||LAA||W 9-1||7||4||1||1||4||1||87||25|
|Nestor Cortes||6/2/22||LAA||W 6-1||7||5||0||2||7||0||96||27|
|Jameson Taillon||6/2/22||LAA||W 2-1||8||2||1||0||5||0||101||26|
|Gerrit Cole||6/3/22||DET||W 13-0||7||2||0||0||9||0||102||23|
|Luis Severino||6/4/22||DET||W 3-0||7||1||0||1||10||0||92||22|
|Jordan Montgomery||6/5/22||DET||W 5-4||6.1||5||2||1||5||0||90||24|
That’s a 0.85 ERA, 1.92 FIP, and 27.2% strikeout rate for those starters while holding opposing hitters to a .134/.163/.190 line. The run includes back-to-back perfect game bids by Taillon and Cole, the first time that has happened since at least 1961, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Taillon retired the first 21 Angels he faced on Thursday before Jared Walsh hit a 95.3 mph grounder up the middle that deflected off the glove of a sliding Isiah Kiner-Falefa as he ranged across second base.
Taillon got the next two outs, then allowed an RBI single by Kurt Suzuki before escaping the frame, but even so, it was his second eight-inning, two-hit start in a row.
The day after that, Severino allowed only a second-inning single by Miguel Cabrera, after which he joked to reporters, “I mean, I’m afraid of getting traded if I don’t get to six or seven [innings]. Not good enough.”
No joking: six or seven innings has become standard for Yankees starters lately. Over their past 15 games — a span that began with a May 22 doubleheader against the White Sox — New York starters have thrown at least six innings in 14 out of 15 games, the exception being a scoreless five-inning spot start by call-up JP Sears, the first start of his career. Four times in that span, Yankees starters have gone eight innings, and six other times they’ve gone at least seven. Over that stretch, the starters have a 1.15 ERA, 2.43 FIP, and a 25.4% strikeout rate and have held opposing hitters to a .158/.200/.234 line. That’ll work.
For the full season, the unit as a whole has been the best at just about everything. They have the majors’ lowest walk rate (5.1%) and home run rate (0.79 per nine), and while their 25.6% strikeout rate is only second-best, their 20.6% strikeout-walk differential is also tops. Naturally, they have the majors’ lowest FIP (2.99); their 73 FIP- is a full 11 points lower than that of the second-ranked Phillies. Thanks to a .256 BABIP — yes, also a major league low — and a 5.8% barrel rate (second-lowest), they also have the lowest ERA of any rotation (2.55). Overall, their rotation’s 7.7 WAR is 1.6 higher — that is, 26% better — than the second-ranked Phillies, who for all of the problems that led to Joe Girardi’s firing at least have strong starters. All five Yankees starters rank among the AL’s top 14 in WAR and top 17 in FIP, with Cortes leading the league in the former category:
Yankees’ Starters AL Rankings
While last year’s Yankees rotation ranked second in the AL in WAR (14.8) and fifth in both ERA (3.91) and FIP (4.01), injuries were an issue. That’s hardly surprising given that Severino had been limited to three starts in 2019 due to a strained latissimus dorsi and rotator cuff inflammation and then Tommy John surgery the following February; that Corey Kluber had been limited to one inning in 2020 due to a shoulder tear; and that Domingo Germán missed all of that same season due to a suspension under the league’s domestic violence program. Severino was further beset by injuries in 2021, including a groin strain and shoulder stiffness, and made just four appearances, all out of the bullpen, while Kluber was limited to 16 starts by a shoulder strain. Cole and Montgomery each made 30 starts and Taillon 29, but the Yankees ended up using 12 other starters to absorb the rest of the workload. So far this year, the Yankees have needed just two starts from outside their core five, one from Sears and the other from Luis Gil; alas, in the latter’s next minor league start following his big league cameo, he tore his UCL and has since undergone Tommy John surgery.
How are the Yankees doing this? The answer is simple: Volume. The team is third in the majors with 27 starts of at least six innings, behind only San Diego (33) and Houston (28). They’re averaging 5.69 innings per start, a whisker behind the top-ranked Padres and 0.61 innings ahead of the major league average, which is up slightly (0.06 innings per start) from last year. Projected over a full season, that’s an extra 99 innings that the rotation is soaking up instead of the bullpen — a big deal for a team that has lost Chad Green (and, last year, Zack Britton) to Tommy John surgery and is currently without Aroldis Chapman due to Achilles tendinitis.
In truth, it’s not so simple, but what the Yankees have done is tread where few teams dare to go, and do it successfully. As Lindsey Adler recently reported for The Athletic, the starters have been vocal about their desire to work deeper into games and to protect the bullpen. That means facing hitters a third time, a point at which performances tend to deteriorate markedly; this year, major league starters have been hit at a .263/.322/.440 clip (.333 wOBA) the third time through the order, compared to .242/.307/.396 (.310 wOBA) the second time through and .235/.310/.375 (.304 wOBA) the first time. Yankees starters are only 10th in the league in batters faced a third time through, but their OBP allowed is 16 points lower than that of any other team, and their wOBA allowed is 20 points lower:
Starting Pitchers vs Batters, 3rd Time Through Order
Last year’s scramble for starters did lead the Yankees to discover what they had in Cortes, who in his third stint with the team initially looked like little more than organizational depth. Now the crafty 5-foot-11 Cuban emigré is — dare I say it? — a Cy Young contender, not to mention a master of deception with his variety of arm angles, variations of timing, and active spin. Even with his modest velocity, he gets nearly as much rise on his fastball as Cole, whose heater averages 97.6 mph:
Cortes’ four-seam/cutter combo, which accounts for over 75% of his pitches thrown, utterly bedevils hitters. They’re batting .184 and slugging .211 with a 22.8% whiff rate against the former, and that’s on merit; his .218 wOBA and .225 xwOBA on the pitch are essentially the same. Batters are hitting .149 and slugging .286 against the cutter, with a bit of a wider deviation from expectations (.222 wOBA versus a .268 xwOBA). Cortes’ version of what the Yankees call their “whirly” slider (elsewhere often referred to as a sweeper) has been less successful, as batters have hit .310 and slugged .552 against it, with just a 14% whiff rate, but his overall numbers speak for themselves. Beyond the aforementioned rankings above, he’s got the circuit’s fourth-highest strikeout rate (29.7%) and strikeout-walk differential (23.6%), and the eighth-lowest home run rate (0.6 per nine). Additionally, his Statcast xBA (.200), xSLG (312) and xERA (2.19) all range from the 93rd to 97th percentiles, and his 4.1% barrel rate is in the 88th percentile.
Cortes has allowed more than two runs in just one of his 10 starts (three runs in five innings on May 21 against the White Sox), and like Taillon and Cole, he’s had nights of unhittability. On April 23 against the Guardians, he allowed just one hit in six innings: a fifth-inning two-run homer by Josh Naylor. On May 9, he held the Rangers hitless for 7.1 innings before Eli White singled, the team’s deepest no-hit bid of the season.
Cole is no slouch himself. Last year’s AL Cy Young runner-up struggled early, allowing eight runs and three homers in 11.1 innings over his first three starts and exiting the last of them after just 1.2 innings and five walks on April 19. Since then, he’s pitched to a 2.03 ERA and 1.74 FIP in 53.1 innings, striking out a third of all hitters and allowing three homers. His 31.5% strikeout rate overall is third in the league, and his 25.7% strikeout-walk differential is second. What’s helped is that Cole has done a better job of preventing hard contact this season than last. His 45% groundball rate is his highest since 2017, and his 0.84 homers per nine is his lowest since ’16. His barrel rate has dropped from last year’s 9.8% to 6.9%, and his xERA has fallen from 3.10 to 2.74.
Severino, after throwing a grand total of 18 innings from 2019 to ’21, is not quite back to his ’17–18 form, a two-season run during which he struck out 550 in 394.1 innings en route to 11.0 WAR. Still, his return has been encouraging. He’s averaging 96.3 mph with his fastball, which while down 1.3 mph from his pre-injury peak is still plenty to work with, putting him in markedly better shape than Noah Syndergaard, another hard thrower who’s coming back after two lost seasons. Batters have hit just .180 and slugged .360 agains Severino’s fastball and .150/.300 against his slider, which is generating a 45.8% whiff rate.
Taillon, who himself missed most of 2019 and all of ’20 due to Tommy John surgery (his second), has adopted a much more contact-focused approach than last year, cutting back on his four-seam fastball usage from 49.5% to 33.3% in favor of his sinker (from 5.5% to 12.9%) and cutter (from 3.7% to 14%); his 44.3% groundball rate is 11 points above last year’s mark. He’s using fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.64, down from last year’s 3.93) than all but six AL qualifiers, and while he’s striking out just 19.2% of hitters, his 2.2% walk rate is the majors’ lowest among qualifiers.
Montgomery is the AL’s most efficient starter in terms of pitches per plate appearance (3.55, down from last year’s 3.87). Like Taillon, he’s adopted a more sinker-heavy, contact-centric approach that has paid dividends in the form of a higher groundball rate. In his case, that’s meant cutting back on a cutter that was hit for a .377 wOBA last year; where he threw it 13.8% of the time then, he’s down to 4.7% this year, with his sinker usage rising from 21.9% to 33.2% and his groundball rate from 42.7% to a career-high 47.1%. His strikeout rate has dropped (from 24.5% to 19.4%), but his 4.2% walk rate is the AL’s fifth-lowest. Meanwhile, his 5.6% barrel rate places him in he 73rd percentile overall and second among the Yankees’ starters behind Cortes.
It’s worth noting that the rotation’s improvement owes something to its defense, starting with catcher Jose Trevino, whose 3.6 framing runs rank second in the majors and is well ahead of that of predecessor Gary Sánchez (-2.5); the team’s 4.6 framing runs is tied for the major league lead, where last year’s tandem (Sánchez and Kyle Higashioka) was 12th at 3.0. Thanks to a remade infield featuring Anthony Rizzo, Josh Donaldson, and Kiner-Falefa, the team also owns an AL-best .724 defensive efficiency, up from last year’s .698, and is fourth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved (25), miles beyond last year, when the Yankees were second-to-last in the majors (-41).
For as strong as they’ve been and as deep as they’ve worked, the rotation faces some concerns regarding sustainability, particularly given the team’s championship aspirations. Cortes threw just 108 innings last year between the minors and the majors, and Severino 16.2; pushing them even to 150 innings and then expecting them to sparkle in October is probably unrealistic. Taillon (147.1 innings last year) and Montgomery (157.1) also need their workloads monitored. Germán, who’s working his way back from shoulder impingement, is the most obvious candidate to eat some innings, and Michael King and Clarke Schmidt, both of whom have worked well in multi-inning roles out of the bullpen, could fill in as well. Neither of those two have had much success as major league starters so far, though, and the likelihood that their outings could be shorter in length will only put more stress on a bullpen that’s missing them. Particularly with the loss of Gil and the continued struggles of Deivi García (now sporting a 10.38 ERA in Triple-A), they’ll probably need some reinforcement. Still, as problems go, starters pitching too well for their own good while building up a big division lead and chasing the 1998 Yankees is a nice one to have.