A Matter of Trust with the Yankees Rotation

It’s been a weird year. Kevin Youkilis became a Yankee; CC Sabathia got skinny; Francisco Cervelli was relied on at one point and then missed and then suspended; Derek Jeter played in his first game of the season on July 11 and then went on the disabled list twice in three weeks; the Mariners cut Shawn Kelley and he became the Yankees’ third best reliever; the Yankees traded for Vernon Wells; Lyle Overbay went from unwanted to having a starting job; Ichiro was used as the cleanup hitter; A-Rod underwent a second hip surgery in four years, appealed a 211-game suspension and returned to the lineup; Eduardo Nunez learned how to play defense; and Alfonso Soriano returned to the Yankees for the first time in nearly a decade.

But what might be weirder than any of those things is that the Yankees rotation has undergone some changes when it comes to who you can and can’t trust. Every five days when Hiroki Kuroda pitches you know the Yankees have a chance to win, but every five days when Phil Hughes pitches you hope you have plans other than to watch the Yankees.

With the Yankees needing to win just about every game from now until Game 162, the rotation is going to be trusted to give the team a chance to win every single day and not take the team out of the game before YES gives you the lineups and defensive alignments.

So here’s the current pecking order of the rotation based on level of trust and performance.

1. Number 18, Hiroki Kuroda, Number 18
It was a long, long time ago that I gave Kuroda the nickname of “Coin Flip” for never knowing what you would get from him from start to start. But that was back at the beginning of the 2012 season and the name was justified.

After losing to the Royals on May 21, 2012, Kuroda was 3-6 with a 4.56 ERA and 1.481 WHIP in his first nine starts with the Yankees. But since then, Kuroda has made 48 regular season starts and he’s 24-12 and the Yankees are 30-18 in those starts. Here’s his line since losing that game to the Royals: 321 IP, 275 H, 97 R, 94 ER, 60 BB, 243 K, 27 HR, 2.64 ERA 1.044 WHIP.

This season alone, Kuroda is 11-7 with a 2.33 ERA, but has earned a no-decision in three starts where he pitched seven shutout innings along with no-decisions in three starts where he went at least 6 2/3 innings and allowed two earned runs or less. (But according to Jim Leyland he’s not an All-Star because of his wins total. Good thinking, Jim!)

Kuroda’s not an “ace” that way Sabathia is. He’s a real ace.

2. Number 47, Ivan Nova, Number 47
Pitcher A: 4 GS, 16.2 IP, 23 H, 12 R, 12 ER, 8 BB, 18 K, 1 HR, 6.61 ERA, 1.898 WHIP

Pitcher B: 8 GS, 59.0 IP, 50 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 15 BB, 57 K, 2 HR, 2.14 ERA, 1.102 WHIP

Pitcher A is Ivan Nova in April. Pitcher B is Ivan Nova in starts since returning from Triple-A on June 23.

I’m not sure what Nova did when he got sent down to Triple-A, but it worked and he’s back to the way he was in 2011 and not the way he was in 2012 or the beginning of 2013.

3. Number 46, Andy Pettitte, Number 46
His name and number still make me think that he’s the guy he was every other year of his career except for 2008, but he isn’t. For the first time, Pettitte has shown his age and is pitching like a guy who should be home with his family rather than the guy who debates whether he should be home with his family every offseason.

It would make a lot of sense if Pettitte is hurt or playing through injury because he’s looking at finishing under .500 for the first time in his career and he currently has the highest ERA (4.62) of any of his 18 seasons. He hasn’t won a game since July 11 and after two strong starts against the Rangers (6 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K) and Dodgers (7 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 3 K), Pettitte was embarrassed by the White Sox (2.2 IP, 11 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 4 K) and needed 101 pitches to get 13 outs against the Tigers (4.1 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 3 K).

If Pettitte were a fifth starter (which he probably should be this juncture of his career) and the Yankees had a strong hold on a playoff spot, it would be one thing, but the Yankees can’t afford to have Pettitte show his age over the last six weeks of the season because of the next guy, who has forgotten how to pitch …

4. Number 52, CC Sabathia, Number 52
Once upon a time CC was a real ace. Now he’s an “ace” the way A-Rod is a “superstar.” Sabathia won against the Angels on Tuesday for his first win since July 3 (despite doing everything he could to try and lose), evened his record up at 10-10 and even lowered his ERA from 4.72 to 4.66! $676,470.59 per start … well worth it!

At first we were made to believe that Sabathia’s diminished velocity was the reason for his struggles, but then he started throwing hard. Then we were told that his diminished weight was to blame, but that only contradicted the theories that his weight would prevent him from staying strong and pitching for a long time. Now we’re told that all of the mileage on his arm over the years, especially in recent years, is to blame for the worst season of his 13-year career. But I’m not sure any combination of velocity, weight loss and mileage is a reason for him walking six Angels from their JV team in six innings in his last start.

Sabathia is a 45-14 with a 3.31 ERA in 71 career starts in August and 31-17 with a 2.86 ERA in 64 career starts September. If he’s anything short of the guy he has been in those months for the rest of this August and this September, it won’t matter what anyone else does because the Yankees won’t make the playoffs.

5. Number 65, Phil Hughes, Number 65
Hughes has done nothing and I mean nothing to continue to deserve a rotation spot with the Yankees except have excellent luck on his side. With Michael Pineda, David Phelps and Vidal Nuno all injured, Hughes “has” to start. (I gave “has” quotations because he doesn’t “have” to start, but that’s the way Brian Ashcan and Joe Girardi rationalize things. Adam Warren could easily start in place of him.) So every five days the Yankees start Hughes no matter how awful he is or how many games he loses and he has already lost 12 games this year on an over-.500 team.

Hughes has been very bad for a very long time at this point. After Hughes’ start against the Royals on July 8, I wrote “What Is Phil Hughes? Part II” thinking that it might be one of the last starts Hughes would ever make as a Yankee with the trade deadline looming. Hughes lasted four innings against the Royals thanks to the rain as good luck and good fortune once again let Hughes stay in the rotation for another turn. But since that rain-shortened start, Hughes has started five games with this glorious line: 24 IP, 31 H, 21 R, 18 ER, 9 BB, 22 K, 7 HR, 6.75 ERA, 1.667 WHIP, including his loss on a getaway day to the Angels, a team that just wishes the season would end, on Thursday.

I’m not sure why any team would have wanted Hughes at the trade deadline like it was reported and speculated and I’m not sure why the Yankees wouldn’t have gladly given him up for anything. I mean anything. I’m talking a booklet of Frosty coupons to Wendy’s or a MetroCard with a balance of $1.80 or a scratched copy of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or even a promise that Travis Ishikawa would have to start every game at first base for the Yankees for the rest of the season. Any other team in the league could give the Yankees who they believe to be their worst starting pitcher and I would gladly give them Hughes’ starts for the rest of the year. Just get Phil Hughes out of the rotation.