The narrative that the Yankees had no starting pitching was always silly, but no one expected this type of dominance.
That narrative was silly because they had the fifth-best ERA in the American League last season, and struck out the second-most batters per nine innings in the AL.
However, the one legitimate knock on the Yankees’ rotation is they needed a real No. 2 starter. Well, they got one in Nestor Cortes, who has proven to be one of the best pitchers in the game – so much so that Gerrit Cole might be their second-best arm.
But this rotation has taken a serious leap forward. Their ERA right now is almost 1.5 runs better than last season, they’re striking out more batters, and they’re allowing less traffic on the bases.
So how did they do it?
Yes, they’ve had some easy opponents like the Orioles, Royals, and Rangers. But they’ve also shut out the Toronto Blue Jays twice this season, and they held the Guardians, who rank second in average and runs, and fourth in OPS, to seven runs in their three-game series.
No matter who they’ve played, the pitchers themselves have performed better up to this point. As mentioned, their strikeout-rate is higher from last year (9.7 vs. 9.3 K/9). They’re bearing down and have kept 82.7 percent of runners on base, which is second in the big leagues – last year, that number was 74.9 percent (eighth in MLB). They also have the best opponents’ hard-hit percentage at 22.3 percent, as compared to 31.7 percent last year, which ranked 13th.
But they’ve also gotten incredible help from their defense that’s kept their overall numbers miniscule.
This past offseason, the Yankees moved on from Gary Sanchez, who, as much as the Yankees tried to put a positive spin on things, was one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball. Now, they have two of the best behind the dish every single night – and Jose Trevino has been flat-out awesome.
Advanced numbers actually say that Kyle Higashioka has not been great defensively this season (he also leads MLB in passed balls allowed). But he ranked well above-average in plenty of metrics last season, so we’ll allow some breathing room for him.
But back to Trevino, whose defensive prowess is not an accident. Always elite defensively, Trevino is stealing strikes with excellent framing. Among borderline pitches out of the strike zone, Trevino has a 55.3 percent strike rate, the best in the majors among catchers with 100+ innings (Higashioka’s 47.2 percent is ranked 31st) (also, shoutout Baseball Savant for these numbers).
The Yankees’ eight wild pitches are also the 10th-lowest in baseball, so Trevino and Higashioka are getting down and dirty to keep the ball in front of them. Last year, the Yanks had the third-most wild pitches. Trevino’s five DRS (defensive runs saved) is also the best mark among catchers.
To put those framing numbers into context, out of 59 qualified catchers last season, Sanchez’s strike rate was just 45.9 percent, the 11th-worst mark in baseball. Even more telling, Baseball Savant tells us he actually gave his opponents six more runs because of how bad he was at framing. His -6 “catcher framing runs” was the fourth-worst mark in MLB. We already know Cole always preferred Higashioka – but he wasn’t the only starter to feel the ill-effects on Sanchez.
Montgomery’s career ERA throwing to Higashioka is a 3.02. To Sanchez? 4.30. And for what it’s worth, he had a 3.84 ERA throwing to Austin Romine. Taillon’s ERA throwing to Sanchez last season was 4.71. To Higashioka, it was 3.62. Corey Kluber threw a no-hitter to Higashioka, whom he had a 3.27 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of .652 with. When throwing to Sanchez, he had a 6.27 ERA, and opponents had an OPS of .862.
The massive upgrade defensively behind the plate isn’t the only benefit for the rotation either. In fact, even the defense behind the mound has helped.
Gleyber Torres is clearly a second baseman – he has four defensive runs saved there this year, which is the second-best mark behind only Tommy Edman among second baseman. He also has the second-best UZR (ultimate zone rating) throughout the position. Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s 1.8 range runs are the best mark among shortstops, his 2.2 UZR is the second-best, and his three DRS are the fifth-best. Even the 36-year-old Josh Donaldson has been a stalwart defensively with his three DRS (sixth among 3B). DJ LeMahieu also has the second-best UZR for third basemen, and is playing above average second and first base.
And while the Yankees outfield doesn’t rank great metrically (in fact, downright bad in some numbers), no Yankee outfielder has an error this year, so that’s good enough.
Now, what does all that even mean?
Well, it means that if a batted ball is playable, we can trust the Yankee defense to make the play – thus leading to better numbers for the pitchers. The Yankees have only made seven errors this year, the least in baseball. Last year, they made the fifth-most. The Yankees defense as a whole this season has the seventh-best DRS in the league. Last season, they had the second-worst.
We haven’t seen a truly good rotation from the Yankees in quite a while. We haven’t seen a legitimately good defense, either. The two put together will keep the Yankees in every game. In recent years, it’s been the Yankees’ potential to outslug anyone that’s kept them in games. Brian Cashman took notes from last year and pounced, and it has proven dividends.