The Yankees’ rotation may surprise you in 2016

I’m going to get back into this blogging business, and I’m really excited about the New York Yankees this season. A lot of “experts” don’t seem to be buying much stock into the Bronx Bombers this season, most likely a typical reaction to their inactivity on the free agent market. But you know what? I do think they’re going to surprise people this year.

Why do I think that? First off, there is a pretty high ceiling for this pitching staff. Their bullpen somehow got even better, and their rotation could fall into place if everything goes right. A lot of “ifs”, however, as pretty much everyone comes with a “Handle With Care” label. Three of their right-handers have dealt with elbow injuries, one finally put together a full season after being held back by a shoulder tear four years, and their oldest starter has been dealing with a degenerative knee.

When they did pitch, the Yankees’ starting pitching was a mixed bag in 2015, as they finished 19th in ERA, 11th in fWAR, and 16th in FIP. However, their peripherals suggest they should have had more positive results. As a team, they don’t walk many batters (4th lowest BB/9 in the majors), they’re above average at getting outs via strikes (7.51 K/9), and they keep the ball mostly on the ground (4th in MLB at 48.3%, 6th in grounders to flyball rate at 1.56). The Achilles’ is their home ballpark, as Yankee Stadium had the. Factoring out home runs, the Yankees’ rotation ranked 7th in the majors in FIP-, which suggests possible positive regression, as batted ball trends are rarely constant year-to-year.

Maybe they won’t lead the majors in ERA, but there is a high risk, perhaps high reward feeling surrounding this team’s rotation going into 2016. If all goes right, there’s a good reason to buy into their odds to get back into the postseason.

Our Hiro: Masahiro Tanaka (2015: 12-7, 3.51 ERA, 112 ERA+, 3.98 FIP, 8.1 K/9, 5.2 K/BB)

Last year was an endless media circus surrounding Masahiro Tanaka and his $155 million elbow. The old-timers in the New York tabloids constantly called for the Yankees to make Tanaka get Tommy John surgery, despite the dissenting opinions from several team doctors, trainers, and Dr. James Andrews himself. Tanaka spent all of May on the DL with a forearm strain related to the UCL problem, but returned to pitch more innings and starts than he did the previous year when he first sustained the injury. Despite inflated home run rates (1.46 HR/9), Tanaka finished with the lowest WHIP (0.99) in the American League and earned the start in the Yankees’ brief playoff appearance.

Now, the Yankees’ hopes rely on Tanaka once more, but the ace is right on schedule again after having a bone-spur removed from that right elbow. He is looking to start on Opening Day again, and has set his goal to throw 200 innings this season. If he manages to keep the ball in the park more consistently, he’s easily one the AL’s elite pitchers.

Big Mike: Michael Pineda (2015: 12-10, 4.37 ERA, 90 ERA+, 3.34 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 7.4 K/BB)

The 6’7″ Pineda has been an enigma in his career in Pinstripes. After missing all of 2012 and most of 2013 with a shoulder injury, Pineda impressed in a 13-start cameo in 2014. His 2015 season was about of a mixed bag as you can get. He had an impressive 7.34 K/BB rate, but was absolutely killed by the home run ball. Despite a 3.34 FIP and 2.95 xFIP, Pineda finished with a 4.37 ERA. His slider at times was very flat, which made him more hittable despite his restored velocity.

Pineda certainly has potential to be a dominant No. 2 starter, the only question is consistency. That question of consistency could be answered as he tries to finally master a third-pitch, his changeup. He began using it more last season, and it resulted in a much higher groundball rate (48.2%) than in his previous two big league seasons (39.1% in 2014 and 36.3% in his rookie year in 2011). Normally, a low-walk rate, a high groundball rate is a recipe for success, so for Pineda it depends on more consistent movement and velocity on his plus-pitches.

Nasty Nate: Nathan Eovaldi (2015: 14-3, 4.20 ERA, 94 ERA+, 3.42 FIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.5 K/BB)

On a hot June night in Miami, the former Marlin got just two outs and gave up 8 runs. The fireballer’s ERA stood at 5.12. Around this time, Eovaldi began crafting his split-finger fastball, and his four-seam fastball started to reach the upper 90s regularly in the dog days of July and August. In his next 12 starts, he didn’t lose, pitching to a 2.93 ERA as opponents batted just .235 against him. Eventually, his season was cut short in the final month owed to an elbow injury.

The story of Eovaldi’s Major League career is that he gives up hits. Lots of them. However, the majority of them are singles, and Eovaldi is great at not getting hit hard (2.01 groundball to flyball rate, 52.8 groundball %, 0.58 HR/9 rate in 2015). Hitters had a .337 average on balls in play, which resulted in a 4.20 ERA on the year despite a 3.42 FIP and 3.2 fWAR.

Armed with the highest average fastball velocity in the American League, Eovaldi is looking to finally break out this season. There’s certainly no questioning his talent, stuff, or his demeanor on the mound, it’s just a matter of putting it all together: that mix of stuff and luck.

The Kid: Luis Severino (2015: 2.89 ERA, 137 ERA+, 4.37 FIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.6 K/BB in 62.1 IP)

After blazing through the minors last season, the Yankees’ 22 year-old pitching prospect gave them much-needed help in the rotation in August and September. His stuff is absolutely legit: a fastball that regularly hits the upper 90s, a slider that can hit 90 mph, and a changeup that still needs development but has a late drop.

But we probably need to simmer down our expectations for now, as the Yankees will set an innings and pitch count limit for the Dominican right-hander. Over the course of his 11-start debut last year, his FIP was a high 4.37 due to a propensity to the long ball and limited outings. The Yankees will take it easy on the

Redemption: CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova

Lastly we have the back-end, and it leaves much to be desired. Sabathia led the team in innings, but continued his long and ugly decline into old age in 2015 before checking into an alcohol-rehabilitation facility upon the conclusion of the regular season. The 35 year-old former ace is currently favored to fill the No. 5 spot over Nova, but velocity continues to trend downwards and his home run rates continue to rise. With a knee brace now on his leg to combat his declining condition, keeping people off base to limit his homers to solo shots and remastering his signature slider is pretty much his only hope this season.

After returning from Tommy John surgery in June last year, Nova struggled to re-discover the consistency he enjoyed in 2013. After pitching to a 3.10 ERA in his first seven starts last year, he struggled late in the season and was removed from the rotation in September. The 29 year-old regained his pre-surgery velocity, but the movement in his pitches simply wasn’t there. After a full, regular offseason, Nova looks to regain form in whatever role he can be provided. He could very well fill the Adam Warren-role as the spot starter and long man for the team, and with the injury risks all over this rotation, he should have the ability to win his chance throughout the season.