Projecting the 2011 Yankees: Part 3 – The Starting Rotation

C.C. Sabathia

2010 Stats: 21-7, 3.18 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 7.46 K/9, 2.66 K/BB, 50.7% GB, 5.1 WAR

2011 Projection: 18-8, 3.26 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 7.54 K/9, 3.03 K/BB, 51.3% GB, 5.3 WAR

2011 Bill James: 17-9, 3.32 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 7.70 K/9, 3.11 K/BB

2011 Marcel: 16-7, 3.30 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 7.57 K/9, 2.83 K/BB

With a slimmer frame to go along with a devastating five-pitch arsenal, C.C. Sabathia appears poised to put together another outstanding season in 2011. His fastball velocity is firmly entrenched in the 91-96 MPH range (although he occasionally touches 97-98 MPH), and he posted above average whiff rates with his change-up (16.6%), slider (16.0%), and curveball (15.5%) last season. Recently, Sabathia started throwing his sinker (3.2% usage in 2009 vs. 14.3% usage in 2010) more frequently, mostly at the expense of his four-seam fastball. While this contributed to a few of Sabathia’s key performance indicators (strikeouts, walks, contact rate) trending in the wrong direction, he’s made up for it by improving his ground ball rate. Typically, as ground ball rates increase, home run rates decrease. As a left-handed pitcher who makes half of his starts in a ballpark that favors left-handed power hitters, we should consider this to be a welcome development. While the demise of the Yankee rotation has been grossly exaggerated, there’s absolutely no doubt the club will need a big season out of the big-and-tall lefty. Luckily for the Yankees, Sabathia is probably the most reliable, consistent starting pitcher in baseball. He’s an easy lock for another 5-6 WAR, 230 inning season.

Phil Hughes

2010 Stats: 18-8, 4.19 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 7.45 K/9, 2.52 K/BB, 36.1% GB, 2.4 WAR

2011 Projection: 15-9, 3.67 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 8.42 K/9, 2.78 K/BB, 37.8% GB, 3.5 WAR

2011 Bill James: 12-7, 3.56 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 8.44 K/9, 2.77 K/BB

2011 Marcel: 12-7, 3.80 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 7.85 K/9, 2.67 K/BB

In his first season as a full-time starting pitcher, Phil Hughes got off to a blazing start, going 10-1 with a 3.17 ERA and 78/25 K/BB ratio in 82-1/3 innings through his first 13 starts. His last 16 starts (and two relief appearances) were more of a struggle as he posted an 8-7 record, 5.07 ERA, a 68/33 K/BB ratio in 94 innings. While there’s no way we can pinpoint the exact reason for his downturn in performance, it’s likely we can partially blame his second half performance on hitting the innings wall. As anyone who watches baseball can tell you, this is a pretty common phenomenon for young pitchers; especially those who spend most of the previous season pitching out of the bullpen like Phil Hughes. After looking a little deeper at his pitch selection/result statistics (compliments of, it appears part of Hughes’s problem was that he relied more on his inconsistent curveball (worth -5.9 runs in 2010), and less on his “plus” cutter that garnered him a higher whiff rate (11.8%) than any other pitch in his arsenal. Going forward, the good news for Hughes and the Yankees is that the right-hander is only 24 years old. The bad news is that he’s trends heavily toward the fly ball end of the batted ball spectrum. In a park that favors left-handed power hitters, Hughes will be susceptible to giving up home runs to batters of opposite-handedness unless he can neutralize them with his cutter or change up. If he can make the commitment to throw his cutter more frequently, while putting his change-up to greater use (a more effective pitch than his curve over an admittedly smaller sample), Hughes should become a much more effective pitcher during the upcoming season.

A.J. Burnett

2010 Stats: 10-15, 5.26 ERA, 4.83 FIP, 6.99 K/9, 1.86 K/BB, 44.9% GB, 1.3 WAR

2011 Projection:  14-11, 4.04 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 8.08 K/9, 2.24 K/BB, 45.3%, 2.4 WAR

2011 Bill James: 11-10, 4.01 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 8.34 K/9, 2.30 K/BB

2011 Marcel: 10-11, 4.53 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 7.66 K/9, 2.06 K/BB

To be perfectly honest, there’s not a whole lot else I can add that wasn’t already said in the IIATMS collaborative piece on the Yankee “X-factor”. Still, I’ll try. Like Hughes, Burnett was cruising along over the first couple of months. Through May 31st, he’d posted a 6-2 record with a 3.28 ERA and a 53/24 K/BB ratio in 71-1/3 innings. After that date? The weak in the stomach should probably avert their eyes for this one…4-13 with a 6.48 ERA, a 92/54 K/BB ratio in 115-1/3 innings. Yeah, that’s about as bad as you can possibly get. This excerpt from our X-factor piece says it all:

“During the month of June alone, Burnett allowed an obscene 22% line drive rate (versus a 17.6% rate for the season). Furthermore, after posting a groundball heavy GB/FB ratio in April and May, his batted ball rates reversed course in June, trending slightly toward fly balls. Not coincidentally, Burnett’s home run rate skyrocketed: he allowed a whopping 27.3% HR/FB ratio in June (versus 11.6% for the season). Adding further insult to injury, Burnett’s control completely betrayed him in June, when his BB/9 rate jumped from 3.03 in April/May to 6.65. These three factors combined to create a perfect storm that derailed Burnett’s once promising season.

So what happened to cause Burnett’s 2010 season to fall apart? If we knew the answer, we’d be coaching pitchers and not writing blogs. But figure that at this stage in his career, Burnett relies primarily on two pitches: his fastball and his curve ball. According to Fangraph’s pitch type value scale, Burnett’s fastball has been a below league average pitch for the last three years, but his fastball was no less effective in 2009 than it was in 2010. It was Burnett’s curve ball that failed him in 2010: this pitch went from 16 runs above league average in 2009 (4th highest in baseball) to 3.9 runs below league average in 2010. No pitcher is going to survive a major league season by relying on only two pitches, both of them below league average.”

Going into 2011, the good news for Yankee fans is that Burnett can’t possibly be worse. Well, that’s not entirely true, but it’s highly unlikely. While some age-related regression with regards to Burnett, now 34-years old, should be expected, his performance was beyond mere age-related regression. Based on everything I’ve read, seen, and analyzed, it appears that a mechanical misalignment derailed his 2010 season. During June, in particular, his curve ball went from a tight 11-5 offering to a slow, long, and loopy pitch that hitters sat on to pound. Despite this, he was still able to get batters to swing-and-miss at his curve ball offering, which means that a physical issue (i.e. soreness, inflammation, injury) was unlikely. If Burnett can make the appropriate adjustment, and regain the feel for his “plus” dominant curve ball, he should be able to produce a 2.5-3.0 WAR season. While a 3.0-win season may not sound sexy, it’s a huge step up from what he produced last year.

Ivan Nova

2010 Stats: 1-2, 4.50 ERA, 4.36 FIP, 5.57 K/9, 1.53 K/BB, 51.4% GB, 0.5 WAR

2011 Projection:  11-8, 4.36 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 6.16 K/9, 1.74 K/BB, 53.1% GB, 1.9 WAR

2011 Bill James: 6-7, 4.62 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 6.42 K/9, 1.58 K/BB

2011 Marcel: 3-4, 4.06 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 6.59 K/9, 2.00 K/BB

??? Those three question marks sum up my projection for Ivan Nova going into the 2011 season. I’m not really sure what to make of him just yet. While he doesn’t really strike a lot of batters out, he exhibited an ability to induce whiffs at a high rate using his curve ball and change-up (albeit in small sample sizes). I don’t know if his strikeout rate would change too much if he used his secondary pitches more frequently, but it does make me wonder how his performance would look if made some adjustments. Nova’s control leaves little be desired, as he walked too many batters last season (3.64 per nine innings). Given his career minor league walk rate (3.0 per nine innings), I’m going to guess that his 2010 rate wasn’t an aberration. While I’m not saying he can’t improve, it’s probably safe to say we probably won’t see a marked improvement this season. One area in which Nova really excels is his ground ball rate. After posting solid GB% rates in the minors, he followed it up with a 51.4% rate with the big club. If Nova is going to have success at the major league level, his ability to induce ground balls will likely be his calling card. This season, I think Nova will experience some growing pains. That said, he should prove to be productive overall, provided the Yankee infield defense doesn’t betray him.

Freddy Garcia

2010 Stats: 12-6, 4.64 ERA, 4.77 FIP, 5.10 K/9, 1.98 K/BB, 40.7% GB, 1.3 WAR

2011 Projection: 9-7, 4.55 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 5.17 K/9, 2.13 K/BB, 39.8% GB, 1.1 WAR

2011 Bill James: 8-9, 3.89 ERA, 4.57 FIP, 5.90 K/9, 2.26 K/BB

2011 Marcel: 9-7, 4.44 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 5.69 K/9, 2.07 K/BB

After struggling with one injury after another between 2007 and 2009, it’s pretty safe to say that we likely won’t see the Freddy Garcia of old for extended stretches this season. Still, he should prove to be a fairly productive pitcher this season. I use the word “fairly” because I’m neither bullish nor bearish on the portly right-handed pitcher. One on hand, he’s a very low risk investment considering his contract and placement in the rotation. On the other, he’s making the move to the AL East where he’ll face much better competition than he faced in the AL Central last year. Furthermore, as a right-handed fly ball leaning pitcher that has a tendency to give up his fair share of home runs, he may have trouble not only pitching in parks that favor left-handed power (Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards), but also facing lefty-dominated lineups (like the Red Sox). All of that said, provided he can remain healthy, he should be able to produce a season that’s roughly on par with the 1.3 WAR he produced last season with the White Sox. If he struggles, the Yankees always have reinforcements available in Kevin Millwood and Bartolo Colon—or if they get really adventurous, Manny Banuelos!

Next up, I’ll tackle the Yankee relief corps!

2 thoughts on “Projecting the 2011 Yankees: Part 3 – The Starting Rotation

    • @DustyYF – Full disclosure…In case you didn't know, I'm a Red Sox fan. Just mentioning that so you know that there's not any pro-Yankee bias (or anti-Yankee for that matter). You're right though, they do seem optimistic at first glance. I thought the same thing. After reviewing Bill James, Marcel, and a couple of other projections, I feel pretty confident that my projections match the true talent level of each pitcher.

      If there's one projection that I might downgrade if I were doing this purely based on subjective measures might be Hughes. It's because I don't think he's a 3.5 WAR pitcher, but because his projected HR/FB rate came out lower than I'd expected. Considering his fly ball tendencies, an elevated HR/FB rate could lower his WAR accordingly–especially if his K and BB peripherals don't come out as projected.