The Yankees' most glaring hole after the 2008 season -- non-first baseman division -- was the lack of reliable starting pitching. While the 2008 bullpen was one of the best in the American League, Yankee fans were subjected to a seemingly endless number of starts from retreads like Darrel Rasner and Sidney Ponson for the 8,000th time.
Thankfully there were two big free agent starters out there last winter, and Brian Cashman reeled both of them in. While the CC Sabathia signing was more or less universally praised, as Sabathia was expected to finally be the lock-down ace the team had lacked in recent years, A.J. Burnett was met with quite a bit of skepticism among the Yankee faithful. There were legitimate concerns about his durability, dollar value of the contract, length of contract and of course, the fact that one never quite knows what to expect from Burnett in any given outing.
Regardless, I was on board with the Burnett signing, given the flashes of dominance he does show from time to time as well as the fact that, as a #2 starter, he represented an upgrade over just about any other alternative. Of course, little did anyone realize that one of the most significant free agent pitcher signings of the winter of 2008 would end up being Andy Pettitte.
The Yankees launched the 2009 campaign with a rotation of CC Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang (seems like ages ago), A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain. Wang's historical early season ineffectiveness would lead the Yankees to summon Phil Hughes -- who later on became a bullpen savior -- and Wang's eventual season-ending surgery along with Joba's innings cap led the team to patch the back end of the rotation with a mix of Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin in the second half.
As we all know, by the time the playoffs rolled around the Yankees only had three reliable starters in Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte, and wound up becoming the first team to win the World Series with a three-man rotation since the Minnesota Twins in 1991. As I pointed out on Tuesday, the Yankees were the beneficiary of absurdly good pitching in the 2009 postseason (3.26 team ERA). Of course, they never would have gotten there in the first place if not for a pitching staff that tossed to a 4.26 ERA -- tied for third-best in the American League -- not to mention the second-lowest batting average against and highest K/9 rate.
CC Sabathia, LHP
162-Game Averages: 3.62 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1.23 WHIP, 7.6 K/9
2009 regular season: 3.37 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.15 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 3.39 FIP
2009 postseason: 36.1 IP, 3-1, 32K, 1.02 WHIP, 1.98 ERA, 3.59 FIP
So all CC Sabathia did in 2009 was make every start; toss 230 innings to the tune of a 3.37 ERA while playing the majority of his games in the toughest division in baseball; and post a quality outing in all five of his postseason starts, going 3-1 with 32 strikeouts and a superb 1.98 ERA.
Sabathia got off to a rough start in the season opener, as the Orioles bashed him for six runs in 4.1 IP. Thankfully this would wind up being CC's worst start of the season, and he only gave six earned runs up two other times all year -- two weeks later in Oakland, and July 2 against Seattle of all teams. While he only managed one quality start in April, he turned in quality outings in 20 of 29 starts thereafter, including 10 during the stretch run in August and September.
According to FanGraphs, Sabathia's 6.0 WAR made him the 10th-most valuable pitcher in the Majors in 2009, and he was worth $27 million. For the record, Sabathia's 2009 salary was $15.3 million. Apparently sometimes money can buy happiness, or at least one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.
A.J. Burnett, RHP
162-Game Averages: 3.84 ERA, 110 ERA+, 1.30 WHIP, 8.4 K/9
2009 regular season: 4.04 ERA, 106 ERA+, 1.40 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 4.33 FIP
2009 postseason: 27.1 IP, 1-1, 24K, 1.39 WHIP, 5.27 ERA, 4.12 FIP
The two big questions surrounding the A.J. Burnett signing were (1) Will he stay healthy, and (2) Will he live up to his #2 starter billing? Burnett answered the first query with a resounding yes, making all 33 of his starts. The answer to the second question is a bit less clear. In typical Burnett fashion, A.J. was at times brilliant and at times terrible, though he was good more often than he was bad.
As I wrote earlier, I was a Burnett supporter and still am, despite the inconsistencies. As we've seen throughout the year, when he's on, he's nearly unhittable. Also, not to be lost in that link is the fact that A.J. and CC pitched back-to-back shutouts against the Red Sox during that huge four-game sweep in August -- holding Boston scoreless for one game is borderline incomprehensible, and to do it two games in a row?
Additionally, Burnett -- despite two clunkers -- came up pretty big in the postseason, pitching brilliantly in the Yankees' much needed Game 2 victory in the World Series.
While Burnett the pitcher may remain enigmatic, and some may bemoan the fact that he's under contract for four more years, I look forward to the remainder of A.J.'s tenure on the team. Personality-wise, he seemed to help loosen up what had been perceived as a tight clubhouse through the introduction of the walk-off pies, and on a statistical note, he actually posted a slightly below-average year in 2009, and I think we're going to see an even better A.J. Burnett in 2010 after both a season in New York and championship ring under his belt.
Andy Pettitte, LHP
162-Game Averages: 3.91 ERA, 116 ERA+, 1.36 WHIP, 6.6 K/9
2009 regular season: 4.16 ERA, 103 ERA+, 1.38 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 4.15 FIP
2009 postseason: 30.2 IP, 4-0, 25K, 1.21 WHIP, 3.52 ERA, 4.66 FIP
Where would the 2009 Yankees have been without Andy Pettitte? While Pettitte's regular season was only slightly above average, he was as much of a horse as Sabathia and Burnett were, especially in the second half, and stabilized the number three spot in the rotation after Wang went down.
He went on to pitch exceptionally well in the postseason, leading the Yankees to clinching victories in all three series while making it virtually impossible for Brian Cashman to not bring him back next year. I don't really have anything else to add to another great year from Andy other than I wonder how the 2004 through 2006 seasons would have played out with Pettitte's steady left arm in the rotation. Truly, letting Pettitte go after the 2003 season may have been one of the most shortsighted moves of the decade.
Joba Chamberlain, RHP
162-Game Averages: 3.61 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1.37 WHIP, 9.1 K/9
2009 regular season: 4.75 ERA, 90 ERA+, 1.54 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 4.82 FIP
2009 postseason (as reliever): 6.1 IP, 7K, 1.58 WHIP, 2.84 ERA, 3.41 FIP
Given that this was Joba's first full year as a starter, the 162-game comp isn't entirely useful, but he started enough in 2008 that it may be somewhat instructive.
It's hard to color Joba's 2009 campaign as anything other than a disappointment. However, we all know elite starters seldom come up and consistently throw lights-out gems from the get-go. It can take time for talented young pitchers to put it all together, and given the periodic sparks of brilliance that Joba the starter has shown, it would be more than foolish for anyone to consign him to the bullpen due to one season of inconsistency.
Still, the Joba-to-the-pen people are certain to be out in force after a semi-dominating performance out of the bullpen in the postseason, and those people need to be kept away from the general populace. Joba will be a starter in 2010 and beyond, until and unless it's unequivocally clear he can't handle the workload and/or consistently provide six effective innings. Additionally, with Joba registering just under 160 regular season innings, he should be good to go for a full season's worth of starts. With the so-called "Joba Rules" finally gone, we're certain to see a better performance from Joba next year than a 90 ERA+.
Phil Hughes, RHP
As starter | 2009 regular season: 7 starts, 5.45 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8.0 K/9
As reliever | 2009 regular season: 1.40 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 11.4 K/9
162-Game Averages: 4.20 ERA, 105 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP, 8.3 K/9
2009 regular season: 3.03 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.12 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 3.22 FIP
2009 postseason (as reliever): 6.1 IP, 7K, 2.37 WHIP, 8.53 ERA, 4.83 FIP
FanGraphs doesn't appear to split stats by starter and reliever, unless I just can't find that function, so I don't have FIP numbers for Hughes in his two roles, only for his entire 2009 campaign. Hughes' 3.22 FIP overall was the third-lowest on the team (behind Mariano Rivera's 2.89 and David Robertson's 3.05), and underscores just how valuable he was upon being transitioned to the bullpen.
Of course, as great as Hughes was setting up for Mariano, his rightful place is still in the rotation come 2010. Unfortunately he won't be in the rotation the entire year next year, given that he'll be on an innings limit much like Joba was this past year, but I hope to see Hughes in the fifth spot more often than, say, Sergio Mitre.
Hughes made seven starts in 2009 and was far better than he'd been the year prior, only getting shellacked once (in his second start on May 9 against the Orioles, surrendering an ugly eight runs in 1.2 innings) while turning in mostly serviceable outings in the other six. He pitched six innings of shutout ball against the Tigers in his season debut on April 28, and followed the Baltimore start with five innings of three-run ball against the Twins, five innings of three-run ball against the Orioles, eight innings of shutout ball against Texas (there seems to be something about Arlington for our boy Hughes), and five innings of four-run ball against the Indians.
Granted, only two of these were quality starts, but no young starter is going to be flawless out of the gate, and Hughes appeared to be on his way to developing into a reliable piece of the rotation. Of course, Chien-Ming Wang's misguided return forced Hughes to the bullpen, where he was almost unfortunately too good, as plenty of ill-informed Yankee fans will be calling for his return to the 'pen next season. Those people are wrong.
Phil Hughes is still one of the youngest pitchers in baseball, and, like Joba, should be given every chance to succeed as a starting pitcher before being cast off to the bullpen. If they still can't produce at league average after another three years, then it may be time to rethink their roles. But there's a reason Phil and Joba have been two of the most talked-about young pitchers in Yankeeland in ages and why I launched Save Phil Hughes two years ago, and it's not because they're lights-out for one inning at a time.
Any sane baseball fan realizes that a good starter is more valuable than a great reliever, and I'm confident the Yankees' brain trust knows this and will give Phil the opportunity to start going forward. If he runs into a stretch where he's absolutely killing the team and unable to provide innings, I have no problem plugging in a cheap stopgap while Hughes works his kinks out in the minors.
Chien-Ming Wang, RHP
162-Game Averages: 4.16 ERA, 107 ERA+, 1.34 WHIP, 4.2 K/9
2009 regular season: 9 starts, 9.64 ERA, 44 ERA+, 2.02 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 5.38 FIP
Chien-Ming Wang's 2009 season was an unmitigated disaster. I unfortunately bore witness to his third start of the season in what would end up being a 22-4 shellacking by the Indians in the third home game of the year at the new Stadium, and it was pretty clear at that point that something was just not right with Wang. After being sent to the DL to rehab, Wang came back a little over a month later and pitched OK in relief before being reinstated to the rotation at the expense of Phil Hughes for a June 4 start against Texas in which Wang tossed 4.2 innings of 5-run ball. Wang got torched by the Red Sox in his following start, and then rattled off four OK starts before getting shut down for the season.
Wang did not have a single quality start in 2009 -- something even Sergio Mitre was able to accomplish once -- and it remains unclear just what exactly the Yankees plan to do with him. The general consensus seems to be that they'll non-tender Wang in hopes of re-signing him to a cheaper deal, but there's obviously no guarantee that Wang will agree to that. While I appreciate what Wang did for the Yankees's rotation in 2006 and 2007, and wouldn't mind bringing him back at the right price given the importance of pitching depth, I'm not convinced that he'll ever be right again, and if the Yankees decide to cut ties, they'll probably have a good reason for doing so.
Sergio Mitre, RHP
162-Game Averages: 5.56 ERA, 78 ERA+, 1.56 WHIP, 5.5 K/9
2009 regular season: 9 starts, 6.79 ERA, 63 ERA+, 1.63 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 5.30 FIP
Sergio Mitre is not a good pitcher. His best season came in 2007 as a member of the Florida Marlins, when he posted a 93 ERA+. While the Yankees miraculously went 5-4 in Mitre's starts, he was unable to pitch deep into games and had a penchant for throwing gasoline on his fires. For whatever reason he seemed to have a particularly tough time with Toronto, giving up 22 earned runs in 18.2 innings against the Blue Jays.
Mitre will be back with the Yankees next year and will hopefully spend the majority of the year anchoring the triple A staff. If we see Mitre making more than one start in a row in the majors at some point in the year then a couple of things will have gone very wrong...
Chad Gaudin, RHP
162-Game Averages: 4.50 ERA, 94 ERA+, 1.52 WHIP, 7.0 K/9
2009 regular season: 6 starts, 3.43 ERA, 125 ERA+, 1.45 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 5.29 FIP
2009 postseason (as reliever): 1.0 IP, 0K, 0.00 WHIP, 0.00 ERA, 3.10 FIP
...because the Yankees have Chad Gaudin to serve as 6th starter/Phil Hughes' caddy. While Gaudin's acquisition through waivers seemed inconsequential at the time, he wound up being a pretty serviceable 5th starter, and while he didn't go particularly deep into games he generally kept the Yankees in it while he was on the mound.
Gaudin's unlikely to ever be more than a 5th starter in the Majors given his difficulties with lefthanded hitters, but he's not a bad guy to have stashed on the roster in case of emergency.