Tuesday, November 6, 2012

2012 AB4AR Season Review: The Rotation

(Don't get it twisted. This guy is still the man.  Courtesy of the AP)

Nobody could say that the Yankees didn't do everything possible to fortify and overstock their rotation for the 2012 season.  Signings, trades, promotions, they covered it from every conceivable angle short of investing money into cloning CC.  With their offense consistently taking a dump in the postseason, and the rotation usually not being good enough in the postseason to carry the load, Cash made damn sure that lack of starting pitching was not going to be a reason why the Yanks didn't take the title home in 2012.  He started with a pre-emptive re-negotiation of CC's deal and didn't stop until Andy Pettitte came out of left field to sign his name on the dotted line as extra insurance.

The variety of moves to build the 2012 rotation was reflected in the diversity the Yankees built in their depth.  They had CC, Hughes, and Nova left over from 2011, they traded for Michael Pineda, signed Hiroki Kuroda, and locked up Freddy Garcia and Pettitte as that previously-mentioned veteran insurance.  As we all found out with every disappointing DL stint, it was insurance and veteran experience that was much needed for this group, and despite all the setbacks and unfortunate circumstances, the Yankee rotation collectively remained one of the best in baseball and a source of strength for the 2012 club.

The familiar face at the top of the rotation had another solid season this year, but for the first time we started to see some cracks in CC Sabathia's armor.  His 3.38/3.33/3.20 slash line was just fine, as were his new Yankee career best K and BB rates of 8.87 and 1.98 per 9 respectively.  For as many times as we were told that CC wasn't "pitching like an ace," his numbers from 2012 stack up favorably to any of his 3 previous seasons in pinstripes.  The problem with CC was health-related, as he had 2 separate DL stints this year for leg and elbow problems.  The elbow was serious enough that he had surgery to remove some bone chips, and next year will likely be the first time the team makes a conscious effort to limit his regular season workload, but make no mistake, CC Sabathia is still the ace of this staff and he pitched like it.

With Sabathia missing time, a big burden fell on newcomer Hiroki Kuroda, who faced the typical batch of "how's he going to handle coming to the AL East?" questions that every pitcher making that transition does.  Kuroda not only answered those questions, he answered them emphatically and set a new precedent for what NL pitchers coming to the AL East can do.  Kuroda led the staff this season with 33 starts and 219.1 innings pitched, and his slash line of 3.32/3.86/3.67 was right up there with CC's in terms of reflecting how dominant at times and consistent all the time he was.  Sabathia is still the BEST pitcher on the staff, but Kuroda was easily the most valuable in 2012, and I still say he would be a Cy Young dark horse if he would have gotten a little more run support.  He's currently weighing his options for next season, and if he decides to come back for another year with the Yankees it will be a huge boost.

Phil Hughes came into 2012 with a lot to prove after his bombjob in 2011, and all things considered I think he answered the call about as well as he could.  By now, it's clear that Hughes is never going to reach that ace potential that he had as a prospect, but Phil did a lot this season to show he's capable of being an above-average Major League pitcher.  His 32 starts were second on the team to Kuroda, he achieved new career bests in IP, K/9 and BB/9 as a starter, and his slash line would have looked a lot better if he wasn't so homer prone.  That part of Phil's game is probably never going to go away as a flyball pitcher, but Hughes' ability to stay healthy and his ability to finally start working some new pitches into his repertoire make him a valuable commodity and a welcome part of the rotation next season if he isn't traded away.

That last sentence holds true for Ivan Nova as well, even if his results in 2012 were not nearly as good as Phil's.  After his strong finish to 2011, Nova came into this season as the wild card who could have been the difference between the Yankee rotation being great or just good.  Nova's regression into a glorified pitching machine did hold the rotation back some, and his standing with the team as it relates to next year is once again in question.  Nova made a real effort to pitch to his improved stuff this season, and while it returned dividends in the strikeout department (8.08 K/9), his inability to locate his stuff within the strike zone led to him giving up more extra base hits than any pitcher in baseball.  His 5.02 ERA is probably not a true representation of his talent, but Nova will enter 2013 as the #5 starter.

Out of all the positive storylines to come from the 2012 rotation, none was better than the return of Andy Pettitte.  I was very vocal in questioning whether it was the right move when his signing was first announced, but Pettitte quickly proved me and all the other doubters wrong when he took over for Freddy Garcia in May.  The Casey Kotchman comebacker cut out a lot of his time on the mound in the summer, but in the 75.1 innings he did pitch Pettitte proved that he's got plenty left in the tank.  He was the only pitcher on the staff with a sub-3.00 ERA, his FIP was second to only CC's, and his 8.24 K/9 was his best strikeout rate since 2004.  It was incredible to watch Andy back out on the mound this year, and like Kuroda, he'll be a welcome addition back in 2013 if he decides he wants to keep playing.

Michael Pineda might be the biggest story of the year and he didn't even throw a single inning.  The uncertainty surrounding his comeback for 2013 leaves the back end of the rotation up in the air again, but the Yankees already gave themselves a sneak preview of his possible fill-in with David Phelps' 11 spot starts this year.  Phelps did enough to earn the 6th starter spot for next season if all 5 from this year come back, and probably did enough to earn himself a 5th spot if the Yankees do lose somebody to retirement or a trade.  There were a lot of hurdles to overcome in 2012, and there will be more in 2013, but all things considered this season has to be looked at as a good one for the rotation.

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