Carl Johnson

Carl Johnson

On May 28 this year, I wrote in this column “Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman is looking for additional starting pitching help and, despite the large contracts the Yankees have, there is always more money to go around.” I went on to say that “If they don’t add at least one top of the line starter, I don’t see the Yankees being there in October.” 

At the time, 43 games into the season, the Yankees were in first place, one half game ahead of the second place Baltimore Orioles. They were nine games over .500 with a 26-17 record. They had used the same five starting pitchers in every one of their games. C.C. Sabathia was 4-2, Masahiro Tanaka was 5-3, Luis Severino was 2-2, Michael Pineda was 5-2 and rookie Jordan Montgomery was 2-3.  

They had a combined staff ERA of 3.86 but they were scoring 5.53 runs per game to make up for the high ERA. With Tanaka looking bad in his previous two starts, Sabathia not getting any younger and the fifth starter Montgomery a rookie, the Yankees looked like help in the starting pitching department was the key to their season.

Two months later, on July 31, the deadline for trading, the Yankees were still in first place, now one half game ahead of the Red Sox. However, during the time between the 43rd game and that date, the Yankees had won just 30 and lost 30 to remain the same nine games over .500 at 56-47.

During that time period, the starting pitchers had won 22 and lost 14.  Sabathia had gone 5-1 and improved his ERA to 3.66 from 4.62, Severino had been 6-2 and improved his ERA to 2.98 from 3.64, Montgomery had gone 5-3 and improved his ERA from 4.30 to 4.15. However, Pineda was 3-2 and his ERA had gone from 3.35 to 4.39 and Tanaka was 3-6 and his already high 6.52 ERA was still 5.02. Tanaka had also had elbow problems, again.

Despite the perceived problems with the staring pitching, as of Wednesday of this week, the Yankee starters had the third best won loss record in the American League at 40-30, the fourth best ERA at 4.17 and the fourth lowest batting average against them at .235. The entire staff had an ERA of 3.83, sixth best in all of baseball and the relievers had an ERA of 3.32, fifth best in baseball.

Their hitting had certainly not been the reason for the 30-30 record in this period. As of Wednesday, they were second in the league in runs scored with 560, fourth in home runs with 155, fourth in batting average with .261 and second in slugging percentage with an average of .444. 

They had lost their Closer Aroldis Chapman from May 14 through June 18 with an inflammation of his rotor cuff. On May 23rd, when their 30-30 streak started, they had had 12 save opportunities and been successful 10 times. In the next 60 games, they blew 17 of 29 save opportunities. For the season, Chapman has saved 13 of 16 opportunities and Dellin Betances has saved six of eight, so between them they have 19 saves in 24 opportunities. The rest of the staff has blown 17 of 20 save attempts in that time.  

Given the numbers, it would appear that the Yankees biggest problem was in their inability to close games not their starting pitching. However, everyone, including Brian Cashman was convinced that the key to the Yankee lackluster performance was their lack of starting pitching.     

Everyone had anticipated that the Yankees would make a move near the trading deadline to get some help. General Manager Brian Cashman did just that. On July 29, he acquired 31 year old left handed starter/reliever Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins. Garcia was 5-7 this year with a 4.29 ERA in 19 starts with the Twins. In eight years in the big leagues, mostly with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was 67-52 with a 3.65 ERA and has extensive experience, both as a starter and reliever.

On July 31, just before the trading deadline, he acquired one of the most sought after of the available pitchers on the market, Sonny Gray, from the Oakland Athletics. Gray, a 27-year-old right handed starter, was 6-5 with a 3.43 ERA, at Oakland this year, for a team mired in last place. He was 44-36 in his four and a half years there, and before an off year last year, he had been 14-10 with a 3.08 ERA in 2014 and 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA in 2015, when he was an All-Star and finished third in the Cy Young Award balloting.

Adding Gray and Garcia to the regular staring rotation will definitely strengthen the rotation and allow them to rely less on the rookie Montgomery and perhaps give Tanaka the chance to recover from his elbow problems or perhaps to have the Tommy John operation that might be the solution.

Perhaps more importantly than adding the starters, from the Yankees perspective, on July 19, in the trade that brought them Todd Frazier from the Chicago White Sox, the Yankees got right handed reliever David Robertson back and acquired right handed reliever Tommy Kahnle. The Frazier trade got such headlines that many people hardly even noticed Robertson and Kahnle coming over.

Since returning to the Yankees, where he was the setup man for the great Mariano Rivera and then the closer himself before being traded away, Robertson, 32, has been in seven games in relief, given up just two runs on six hits and struck out 10.  The 27-year-old Kahnle has been in seven games, given up one run on five hits and struck out 11. In three years with Colorado, the White Sox and now the Yankees, he has been in 163 games and has an ERA of 3.62. These two may give the Yankee bullpen the boost they need for the long run.

The Yankee pitching situation looks much better now than it did 60 games ago.  If they can continue to hit near the same level they have so far, they will be tough to beat and the American League East is beginning to look like it may be a two team race, between the Yankees and Red Sox, the rest of the way.  

What could be better for New England fans than a fight to the finish between the two teams that have always had the hottest rivalry in all of sports?

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