The Yankees were deemed an underdog early as a promising staff morphed into a depleted one. Then, budding rookie ace Masahiro Tanaka, who began the season 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA, was placed on the disabled list on July 10, further jeopardizing any sort of remaining playoff hope.
But he and his fellow rookie hurlers have responded to the season’s trying times, putting this year’s Yanks within striking distance of one of the two wild card spots — they trail the Tigers by 3.5 games for the second spot. Going 34-19 thus far in games rookies have started — compared to 36-46 when veterans start — the Yankees could join an elite club of winning teams relying on young arms.
Since baseball integrated in 1947, only 86 teams have had rookie pitchers start at least 60 games in a season, according to Fangraphs.com. With a month left, rookies Shane Greene, Chase Whitley, Tanaka and ex-Yankee Vidal Nuno have amassed 53 starts, putting the team on pace to reach that mark. As one might expect, such teams relying on first-year faces historically have been unsuccessful, with just 14 managing winning records and only four reaching the postseason (1952 Dodgers, 1984 Royals, 2003 Giants and 2012 Athletics).
The Dodgers lost the World Series in seven games in 1952 but claimed a title three years later, and the Royals would win their only championship the following year. The Oakland rookies propelled the A’s back to the playoffs last year, and the franchise continues to turn its luck by currently boasting the AL’s third-best record.
Five of the 86 were in their expansion year, including the 1962 Mets and their modern era-worst 120 losses.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Starters Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda each made four starts early this season before landing on the disabled list. Nova underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in April while Pineda returned in August after a half-season stint recovering from a strained lat muscle. After eight starts, CC Sabathia was sidelined with inflammation of the knee in May, choosing to undergo season-ending surgery in July. David Phelps was the most recent setback to the rotation, discovering elbow inflammation at the start of August.
Nuno started as the Yankees’ long reliever but stepped into the rotation following Nova’s ailment. He went 2-5 with a 5.42 ERA before being traded to the Diamondbacks for veteran starter Brandon McCarthy in hopes of bolstering the staff. Whitley replaced Sabathia, with his first start coming in a Subway Series showdown with the Mets on May 15, a game the Yankees won 1-0. Greene was called up from Triple-A in July and has earned his keep ever since, going 4-1 with a 3.09 ERA in nine big-league starts.
The most recent team to have rookies start at least 60 games in a season was last year’s Brewers. Wily Peralta and five other part-timers combined for a 23-37 team record during those starts as part of a 74-88 season that left Milwaukee fourth in the NL Central.
A year earlier, the Athletics had six rookies start a total of 101 games, winning 62 of them. Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker anchored the staff, accounting for 60 combined starts alone as the A’s claimed the AL West with 94 wins but were edged by the Tigers in the ALDS. Parker, who went 13-8 with a 3.47 ERA during the regular season, lost the first and final matchups of the five-game series against Detroit.
WILL THEY REACH 60?
Tanaka is slowly working his way toward 100%, and Nuno now is in Arizona. Whitley had been working out of the bullpen before being sent down in late August, meaning Greene may have to get them there on his own. He’s scheduled to be on the hill tonight as the Yankees start a three-game series in the Bronx against the Red Sox, and could conceivably make as many as five additional starts.
That alone would put the team short of 60 starts by rookies, but a few other factors could boost that count. Top pitching prospect Manny Banuelos made his first Triple-A start in August, and both he and Whitley are candidates for spots starts with MLB rosters expanding to 40 men for September. Plus, there remains a chance Tanaka will be back for at least a start or two at the end of the month, although general soreness on Friday makes a 2014 return doubtful.