Just a little more than a week into July, the Yankees were left with only one of their season-opening starting pitchers healthy.
Ivan Nova – Tommy John surgery. CC Sabathia – knee problems. Michael Pineda – a shoulder ailment.
Then came the biggest blow of all: Masahiro Tanaka had a tear of the ulnar ligament in his right elbow. Rehab was prescribed, but season-ending Tommy John surgery was a possibility.
The only starter who remained from the April qiuntet was 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.
And, it turns out, Kuroda was the template upon which a new Yankees rotation would be built.
Whether through design or luck, the Yankees appear to have honed in on a particular type of starting pitcher, filling their rotation with guys who get groundballs and don’t walk hitters.
The Yankees went 14-12 in July, the first month since April they posted a record above .500.
They enter play Aug. 3 five games out of the division lead and just 1.5 games out of the second American League Wild Card spot.
How have they stayed afloat?
By significantly transforming themselves.
In April, the Yankees’ 43.6 percent groundball rate ranked 24th in the majors. Their 42.7 percent rate was 23rd in May and their 41 percent rate was 29th in June, in front of only the woeful Rangers.
Seemingly out of nowhere, then, the Yankees were fourth in MLB with a 48.2 percent in July.
The group who did it included:
- Shane Greene, a rookie who impressed in spring training, was called up in late June and during his four July starts he kept his infield on its toes, producing an eye-popping 59.7 percent groundball rate.
- Chase Whitley, an unheralded righthander converted to a starter only this season, had a 57.4 percent rate in six games (three starts).
- Kuroda, armed with his trademark devastating splitter, produced a 52 percent rate in six starts.
- Brandon McCarthy, acquired from Arizona for Vidal Nuno, relies heavily on a nasty sinker that delivered a 50 percent rate in four starts.
Even David Phelps, the most flyball-oriented of the new rotation, had a 44.3 percent rate in five starts, just below the MLB average of 45.2 percent. New addition Chris Capuano had a 46.4 percent groundball rate with the Dodgers in 2013, though he hasn’t shown that same rate in two starts with the Yankees this season.
David Robertson, closing games at the back of the pen, strikes out plenty of hitters -- 69 in 42.2 innings this year. But he also has a 47.7 percent groundball rate, making him perhaps the deadliest of the Yankees' groundball group.
Capuano (2.92), Whitley (1.97), Kuroda (1.79) and McCarthy (1.46) all walk fewer than the MLB average of 2.95 batters per nine innings. Only Greene (3.07) and Phelps (3.32) exceed the number.
The entire group of six, however, also strikes out fewer than the MLB average of 7.72 per nine.
What does this mean? There are going to be a lot of balls put in play – mostly on the ground.
To support the new rotation, the Yankees have acquired defensive standouts like Chase Headley, Stephen Drew and Martin Prado to go along with superb fill-in shortstop Brendan Ryan and solid first baseman Mark Teixeira (-1 defensive runs saved). Derek Jeter is the only member of the Yankees’ current infield rotation that has more than -1 DRS (he’s at -9).
By changing their entire ground game in about a month, the Yankees can now confidently challenge for the AL East or Wild Card with a strategy they know works.
While their new pitchers force the opposition to literally and vainly hit the ground, the Yankees can hit the ground running.