The Yankees may rely on Sergio Mitre or Ivan Nova to be their fifth starter this year. You may think that this is patently un-Yankee-like, but you’d be wrong. In the past five seasons, Yankees starters have compiled 72.5 WAR, good for eighth most in the Majors. However, virtually none of that was compiled by their fifth starters.
The fifth slot in the Yankees rotation has rarely been consistently filled by the same person, making it generally impossible to give one player credit for being the fifth starter. In 2006, Shawn Chacon started the year as the fifth starter, but in examining the game logs, Cory Lidle, Aaron Small, Sidney Ponson and Jeff Karstens all took turns there as well. That magical quintet combined for 32 starts and -0.4 WAR. The next season, Phil Hughes’ debut offset Kei Igawa’s own disastrous debut, but the net result between their performances and Darrell Rasner’s was 0.7 WAR. Two-thousand and eight’s motley mix of Ponson, Ian Kennedy and Carl Pavano tallied a whole 0.3 WAR. The next season, 2009, saw Hughes back in the fifth-starter mix, as he, Chad Gaudin, Chien-Ming Wang, Chad Gaudin and Mitre combined for 0.9 WAR. And last season, the Javier Vazquez Experiment, Version 2.0 didn’t end all that spectacularly either, as he posted a -0.3 WAR. He was replaced late in the year by Nova, who undid his damage and balanced the scales with a 0.4 WAR.
The year 2011 may see more of the same juggling. As it stands now, the Yankees’ fifth starter looks to be Mitre. He does one thing very well, and that’s get ground balls. Mitre’s career 2.37 GB/FB ratio is seventh among all pitchers since his debut in 2003 (minimum 400 innings pitched). And while it’s debatable if producing ground balls is a good idea, what with the Grumpy Old Men currently patrolling the left side of the Yankees’ infield (you can tell me which one should be Lemmon and which one Matthau), ground balls are still generally better than the alternative. Unfortunately, when Mitre does allow fly balls, they tend to go far. Of the 274 pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings since 2003, Mitre’s HR/FB ratio of 14.5 percent ranks 274th, which strips away most of his value. As such, Mitre’s xFIP numbers can be misleading. As it states in the fabulous Saber Library (now housed here at FanGraphs), there are some players who are prone to underperforming the league average in HR/FB ratio. Mitre is one of those players, as 2007 is to date the only year of his career when his HR/FB ratio was below the traditional league average.
Of course, if the Yanks and Andy Pettitte can end their Mexican standoff without drawing pistols, Mitre would be pushed to either the bullpen or the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shuttle in favor of Nova, who is currently the fourth starter. Never listed by Baseball America as an organizational top 10 prospect and not reaching Triple-A until his sixth season, Nova shot up the Yankees org chart when his fastball gained a few miles an hour. Still just entering his age 24 season, he’s actually not all that dissimilar to Mitre, as Nova generates his fair share of groundballs. Last season, his GB/FB of 1.72 as a starter was equal to that of Roy Halladay. But his problem was a problem common to fifth starters – he couldn’t get deep into the game. He never saw the seventh inning in any of his seven starts, and while that is a very low sample, it’s something that could determine whether or not he succeeds long-term in the Bronx.
Looking ahead to 2011, Nova’s outlook is a little sunnier than that of Mitre. There is as of yet no Fans projection for Mitre, but Bill James’ has him compiling a 4.57 ERA and 4.46 FIP, though it’s almost exclusively in relief duty. Nova does have a Fans projection, and though they get there in different ways than does James, they basically agree in their FIP projection (4.22 for James, 4.23 Fans). The Fans have him pitching more innings, with both a lower strike out and walk rate, and being worth 1.7 WAR. The other option at the Major League level would be (gasp!) Joba Chamberlain, but the Yankees seem determined to keep him in the bullpen despite his career 3.63 FIP. Both projections also have him in mainly a relief role. Still just 25, Chamberlain is probably capable of transitioning back to starting, and doing so better than he did in 2009, but right now it seems a moot point (Dave Allen will check in later today with more on Chamberlain).
If Nova posted that WAR of 1.7 or better, it would trump the Yankees’ grand total of 1.6 WAR that they have accumulated from the last slot in the rotation the past five years, a staggeringly low total, especially when compared to Boston’s 10.9 WAR during the same period. Despite this, the Yankees have managed to win 478 games (good for a .590 winning percentage), reach the postseason four times and bring home a World Series trophy in that time. So whether the fifth starter is Mitre, Nova, Chamberlain, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, someone they pick up just before or during the season (like the just signed Bartolo Colon), or all of the above, Yankee fans can take comfort knowing that while they won’t have Ron Guidry circa 1978 out there, whoever is will be hard pressed to do worse than Yanks’ fifth starters of recent vintage.