(Photo Credit: REUTERS/WENDELL CRUZ)
The saying goes "good pitching beats good hitting."
Thus, it's no coincidence an excelling pitching rotation is at the heart of this incredible run that has seen the Yankees win 15 out of their last 16 and 17 out of their past 20. Not only has their mediocre start been put in the rearview mirror, it's been left in a cloud of dust as the Yankees speed their way into the second series of the season with the Boston Red Sox, the one team who has a better record in all of baseball.
At the beginning of the season, it was expected the rotation would be the Yankees' greatest weakness. There were too many questions surrounding the projected five starters that were to carry the workload. Would CC Sabathia, at 37 years old, withstand another rigorous season even as a reinvented crafty southpaw? Could Luis Severino, who finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2017, be the man to lead this rotation at the tender age of 24?
The questions, evolving into fears, were confirmed after a dismal 9-9 start in the first 18 games. Outside Severino, the starting rotation struggled to provide depth that ultimately led to an overtaxed bullpen that, inevitably, would surrender a lead in the late innings. Sonny Gray was walking men at such an alarming rate he was raising doubts among the Yankee faithful regarding whether he was the man they traded for last summer. Sabathia was already experiencing his first stint on the DL, and Jordan Montgomery, despite a strong rookie campaign, didn't have the track record to prove what kind of pitcher he'd be with serious expectations on his shoulders.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox were flying high with a potent trio leading their rotation. Chris Sale was, and has been, undoubtedly Chris Sale; his ERA to date sits only a fraction above two, accompanied by 63 strikeouts in 49 innings. Rick Porcello has returned to 2016 Cy Young form, and even David Price got off to a promising start where he didn't yield a run in his first two starts.
As the Red Sox soared to an 18-2 start, the Yankees were floundering, until everything changed.
Amid a nine-game win streak spanning from April 21 to April 30, Yankees pitching never yielded over four runs in a game. Only once did an opponent score over three. While outscoring an opponent 64-18 is a testament to the potency of a lineup featuring Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, and Gary Sanchez, it's easy to overlook the role pitching played in it all.
Because at the start of their winning streak, the Yankees were facing serious competition that, if things had gone differently, might have drowned them in too great of a deficit to overcome. Consider that, before their four-game matchup against Toronto last month, the Blue Jays were 12-5 compared to the Yankees' 8-8 start. Then came the Minnesota Twins who, despite an equally disappointing start to the season, were still very much the same team that ambushed the Yankees to a 3-0 lead in the first inning of the 2017 AL Wild Card Game. The Los Angeles Angels were riding the hype surrounding two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani as they sought to usurp Houston's hold of the AL West.
At the heart of the nine-game win streak, Yankees' pitching limited to their opponents to one run on five separate occasions. April 25th saw the Twins score four, but the Yankees walked away with the 7-4 victory. Their series with the Angels saw the Yankees limit the bats of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Ohtani to five runs in a three-game sweep, followed by shutting out the defending champion Astros in two games as the Yankees' got early revenge by winning three out of four in Houston.
But the overall numbers see the Yankees' pitching staff at the top of the league. A team ERA of 3.43 is fifth best in all of baseball and second in the American League. A compilation of 355 strikeouts is second best to the Astros' 380. Their 3.02 walks per nine innings are fifth best in MLB, though it's probably inflated with Sonny Gray's command issues, while a strikeout rate of 10.31 per nine innings is second best.
Yankees' pitching is limiting traffic on the base paths too. They're avoiding the multi-run home run as the combination of a low walk rate and high strikeout rate shows a command of pitches that allow Yankee starters to attack the hitters directly. The pitchers' aggressiveness has been at the heart of a nine-game win streak and now a separate six-game streak against two of the top teams in baseball.
The Yankees' starting rotation isn't set in stone. Expect them to add one more piece by the trade deadline in July to solidify their chances at another World Series run. Injuries also are a major variable in the success or failure of a team. Jordan Montgomery will be out for two months with a strained flexor tendon in his elbow but Domingo German, who threw six no-hit innings against the Indians in his first major league start, seems poised to fill the gap.
There's still a lot of room for this team to grow. Giancarlo Stanton has yet to wake up his bat, and Gary Sanchez is still hovering around the Mendoza line with his batting average. The true test will arrive with the Red Sox, who have seen their division lead diminish to a single game. But Sonny Gray has turned in two quality outings against both the Astros and Indians, and there's hope he may figure out the malaise that plagued him at the start of the season.
And after Luis Severino's complete game shutout against the Astros, there could be a whole other level of dominance from the righty ace we haven't seen yet.
For while the offense is the scariest aspect of this Yankees' team, the starting rotation could be its most deadly.