Michael Pineda returns to the Yankees after a three-month stay on the disabled list, but will it be too little, too late for New York's playoff hopes?
For the first time since he was ejected from his April 23 start in Boston for having pine tar on his neck, Michael Pineda will take the mound for the Yankees. Suspended 10 games for doctoring the baseball, Pineda suffered a teres major strain behind his pitching shoulder in a simulated game during his absence and has been on the disabled list ever since. He rejoins a Yankees rotation that has been devastated by injuries, including his own, but that, like the team as a whole, has also proven surprisingly resilient.
The five pitchers in the Yankees’ Opening Day rotation have combined to start one less than half of the Yankees’ games this season (58 of 118). Pineda has made just four starts, one of which ended in that second-inning ejection. Ivan Nova had season-ending Tommy John surgery after posting an 8.27 ERA in just four starts. CC Sabathia had season-ending knee surgery after posting a 5.28 ERA in eight starts. Masahiro Tanaka made 18 starts before it was discovered that his ulnar collateral ligament was torn. Only 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda has avoided the disabled list, and he has been disappointing, posting a career-worst 95 ERA+ through 24 starts.
Despite the utter devastation of their rotation, the Yankees continue to hang on to hope in the American League wild-card race. The Orioles may be running away with the AL East, but the Yankees remain just 2 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot heading into Wednesday’s action. It’s a precarious position. Despite the small deficit, New York is in fifth place in a race for two spots, trailing the Angels, who seem to have a playoff berth well in hand, and the tightly bunched Tigers, Mariners, and Blue Jays, who are all battling for that second wild-card spot.
The Yankees are also the only team in the American League with a winning record but a negative run differential. In fact, there are four teams with losing records in the majors with a better differential than the Yankees' -33, a deficit in run scoring not far removed from the Twins’ -39 or the Cubs’ -46. That differential stems largely from the struggles of their rotation. In blowout games (those decided by five or more runs, typically due to a disastrous starting pitching performance), the Yankees have gone 10-17 (.370) and been outscored by 51 runs. In their closer contests, however, they are 51-40 (.560) and have outscored their opponents by 18 runs. The Yankees are still outperforming their run differential in those games (which would translate to a .527 winning percentage), but there’s an indication that their performance on the season isn’t as incongruous as it might appear.
Indeed, in 24 games since the All-Star break, the Yankees have participated in just two blowouts (winning one, losing the other) and have gone 14-10 while outscoring their opponents by four runs. They’re still out-performing their run differential, something enabled in part by the excellence of their high-leverage relievers. But that run differential is trending toward their non-blowout and overall records (.521 Pythagorean record based on second-half run differential alone, .517 actual winning percentage on the season).
One reason things are evening out for the Yankees is that they are slowly piecing together a viable rotation, or at least having more success in papering over the remains of the old one. Brandon McCarthy has been excellent since coming over in an early July trade for Vidal Nuno, who had posted a 4.89 ERA in 14 starts as Nova’s replacement in the Yankees' rotation. As Nuno’s replacement, McCarthy has gone 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA in six starts, finally getting results commensurate to his peripherals. Rookie Shane Greene has also been a pleasant surprise as Tanaka’s replacement, going 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA through his first six major league starts. Veteran swingman Chris Capuano has also pitched well in four starts since being purchased from the Rockies in late July, posting a better Fielding Independent Pitching ERA than McCarthy, but pitching in worse luck. Capuano’s arrival pushed Chase Whitley to the bullpen, where he lurks as a cautionary tale for Greene as another 25-year-old non-prospect who excelled in his first seven starts before things went sour.
Pineda, meanwhile, arrives as a potential replacement for David Phelps, who last week became the fifth Yankees starter to hit the disabled list, doing so with inflammation in his pitching elbow. Esmil Rogers, who pitched well in a long spot start for Phelps, will be bounced to the bullpen to make room for Pineda. But Pineda may be the last reinforcement New York gets in its rotation. While the Yankees are holding out hope that Tanaka can return this season, that has as much to do with a desire to have Tanaka avoid Tommy John surgery that would cost him all of next year as it does with his potential contribution this year. Tanaka has been throwing on flat ground, increasing his distance to 90 feet on Monday and throwing more freely each time out, but remains a long way from a potential return or any real indication of whether or not he will require surgery.
There’s reason to be optimistic about Pineda’s return. His injury, a strained teres major, was the same one that sidelined Clayton Kershaw in April. Given the time he missed, Pineda’s injury was obviously more severe (it’s also the same injury that wiped out Jurickson Profar’s entire season), but the fact that Kershaw has shown no ill-effects from his injury is positive. Pineda also looked good in his two rehab starts, striking out 11 men in 7 2/3 innings while allowing just one run and one walk. Pineda threw just 72 pitches in the latter of those two starts, so he may be limited to 85 to 90 pitches against the Orioles and Chris Tillman on Wednesday night. But given Pineda's dominance in April (1.83 ERA, 5.00 K/B) he could give the Yankees’ rotation yet another boost, and one more likely to sustain itself through the end of the season than the small-sample successes of Capuano and Greene.
The Yankees are still a longshot to make the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds give them a 7.7 percent chance entering Wednesday’s action, less than that of the Indians, a team two games behind them in the standings, and the recent loss of Brian McCann to a concussion is yet another set-back in a season full of them. Their best chance to improve those odds at this point is for Pineda to make a strong comeback. The Yankees hope that starts tonight.