Player Profiles 2020: New York Yankees Starting Pitchers

Nick Pollack analyzes the New York Yankees rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

These profiles will also be featured as an eBook exclusively for those signed up for PL+.

Updated James Paxton‘s projection based on injury news.

Yankees At A Glance

The Yankee staff looks a whole lot better entering 2020. The obvious addition of Gerrit Cole makes a massive impact from the start, but so will the full return of Luis Severino after providing just twelve frames in 2019. Losing Domingo German for half the season will lower staff expectations, though a fifth rotation spot cycling through JA Happ, Jordan Montgomeryand possibly Jonathan Loaisiga could be a whole lot worse.

Meanwhile, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka seem primed for a rebound, turning a depleted 2019 rotation into one of the best in the majors for the season ahead.

 

Gerrit ColeLocked Starter

Nickname: Bossil Fuel

 

2019 In Review

You don’t need me. You know how incredible Gerrit Cole was last season, posting a stupid, stupid 40% strikeout rate with a 0.89 WHIP, and 2.50 ERA. Ridiculous.

His SwStr rose to a near 17% from 14% the year before on the back of improved slider command, and a fastball he rode into the eye level of batters everywhere.

There’s an expectation for it to come down a bit in 2020 given how successful a season it was and the shift into New York. Time will tell, the skills sure seem legit.

 

Fastball (54% usage)

Cole features the most dominant fastball in the majors and it’s not that close. We normally like to see a SwStr rate on four-seamers eclipsing 10%, with 11-12% getting us excited.

Cole had a 16.7% SwStr on 1800+ four-seamers last season. UN. REAL. He puts the ball up in the zone constantly, then can freeze batters at the knees at times when they don’t anticipate heat so low.

There is one crack in the armor that could showcase itself in Yankee Stadium – a 19% HR/FB rate. Cole has often had trouble with the long ball off heaters, and that could stick around again next season. It affected his former teammate Justin Verlander more than him last year, and maybe Cole can keep it in check for another year.

 

Slider (23% usage)

What helps make his fastball so dominant is the constant fear of Cole deceiving with this slide piece. It’s easily a money pitch, earning a 21% SwStr rate and devastating batters for a 41 wRC+. His ability to locate the pitch into the ankles of left-handers and away from righties led to a drop in O-Contact to a fantastic 35% mark, and you can expect a whole lot more sliders in 2020 to pair off his heater.

 

Curveball (15% usage)

There are times Cole wants to sneak in a secondary pitch while saving his slider, and he elects to go with this curveball a good amount. It gets the job done with a 45% zone rate, but it doesn’t always get the strike he wants with a low 31% O-Swing and only an 11% SwStr rate. There’s room for improvement here, but I wouldn’t expect it a whole lot.

 

Changeup (7% usage)

It’s a good, but not a great, slow ball from Cole. Its 19% SwStr rate is more derived from batters trying to endure his four-seamer, and less about the break on the pitch. And when thrown out of the zone, batters are able to resist it at a 31% O-Swing. Like his curveball, Cole could take even another step forward if he were to refine this pitch a touch.

 

2020 Outlook

There are a few ways to look at Cole. His fastball likely performed as well as we’ll ever see from Cole last season, though his slider could repeat close to the same numbers. Meanwhile, his curveball and changeup both could improve over the year, possibly enough to stave off the fastball regression and murkiness of moving to New York.

Either way, you’re still getting the best fastball in the majors with the perfect complement in his slider. It’s going to be a fantastic season.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 34% K rate in 180 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.50 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 39% K rate in 210 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Gerrit Cole 2020 projection:

2.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 36% K rate in 200 IP

 

Luis SeverinoLocked Starter

Nickname: Sevy

 

2019 In Review

You want a lost season? Here’s a lost season. Severino was sidelined with a rotator cuff injury until the very end of the year, and just in time for a pair of solid – not excellent – starts in the playoffs. It’s hard to grasp exactly what to expect from Sevy in 2020, but with no injuries holding him back, it’s hard not to expect the same excellent heater and slider combination, with a chance for his changeup to come together for a legit ace once again.

Note: I’ll be using 2018 metrics for Severino and 2019’s twelve frames don’t tell the proper tale.

 

Fastball (50% usage)

We saw Severino sit just under 98mph in 2019 and take it a bit easy during his return, with drops to 93/94 at times as he didn’t push himself during meaningless frames. Keep an eye out for this early in the season – Severino may need a few starts to rev the engines back up again, but we may have concerns if he’s sitting 95/96 instead of the electric 97/98 prime Severino featured.

Outside of its velocity, it’s a strong pitch. Not overwhelming like Cole’s, but it kept batters at bay for the most part. It’s all in an effort to emphasize his slider, and there may be room to grow if he embraces the top of the zone a bit more and learns from his new teammate. He certainly has the heat for it.

 

Slider (36% usage)

This pitch is what makes Severino work. A money pitch around 40% for both O-Swing and Zone rates, with a 17% SwStr, Severino doesn’t hold back with his sweeper, forcing wRC+ marks of 50 and below across his two heavy volume seasons. Between 2100 sliders thrown in 2017 and 2018, the pitch allowed just 12 long balls, while boasting a 38% strikeout rate and a .500 OPS.

There have been moments when his slider just isn’t working, including the end of 2018, though they seem more like blips than problems fundamentally wrong with the pitch.

 

Changeup (14% usage)

Severino uses his slow ball as a zone pitch when he doesn’t want to show his slider, featuring a zone rate above 43%. There’s still room to grow with the pitch as a whiff-earner – just 12% SwStr for his career – but if he can confidently throw it in the zone, this will do just fine.

 

2020 Outlook

There’s still an unknown about what Severino we’ll see in the spring. His 2017 was a bit fortunate and regressed a bit in 2018, though we still saw production across the board that could be replicated in 2020. There’s room for growth in his four-seamer and changeup, while his slider should provide an excellent strikeout and ratio floor.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 27% K rate in 140 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 31% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Luis Severino 2020 projection:

3.30 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 29% K rate in 190 IP

 

James PaxtonLocked Starter

Nickname: Big Maple

 

2019 In Review

Paxton’s first season in New York was a mixed bag. He only pitched 150 frames as he endured a knee injury, Paxton’s home run problem in Seattle stuck around for another season at a 1.37 HR/9, and his 1.28 WHIP was well inflated over the 1.10 mark across the two previous years. He finished strong with four starts of just 1 ER…before his final game of the year, when he was pulled early in an injury scare.

The injury risk is still alive and well, and after a step down in production, there is a larger haze about how obtainable his ceiling truly is.

 

Fastball (60% usage)

Paxton features a solid fastball and I love his approach, going up-and-in constantly to right-handers, helping set up his cutter underneath, and a big curveball down under the zone. He’s showcased above-average SwStr rates with the pitch for three straight seasons, and even with an increase in home runs over the past two, his heater still produces constantly.

It did take a step back last year by getting fewer strikes. His zone and O-Swing marks each dipped about four points, while batters connected for hits more often through a 30 point rise in BABIP. Partially a product of luck, partially a product of a worse sequence. Paxton’s heater should not return a 127 wRC+, it will be better in 2020.

 

Cutter (20% usage)

Paxton upped his cutter usage to a career-high mark while pulling back slightly on fastballs and curveballs and while I approve of the move, it didn’t quite go as planned. The pitch still held its 20%+ SwStr, but it saw a nine-point drop in O-Swing, a four-point drop in zone rate, and it led to an 112 point jump in BAA. That’s not good.

You’d think it was a product of worse location, but it actually did a great job of falling near the ankles of right-handers as you’d want, while falling away from lefties. The pitch needed to be more of a zone pitch, though, and Paxton buried the pitch when it wasn’t quite ready to be a good amount of the time.

His cutter-heavy approach is the right way to go, though, and I think a season without knee aggravation can turn this pitch back into a stellar offering.

 

Curveball (19% usage)

This curveball performed well last year, but its skills took a step back. Chases and whiffs were still there, but he earned fewer strikes by finding the zone less often with the deuce. It made Paxton’s cutter chased less, and forced his fastball to do more. If he can steal more strikes with deuces, it’ll open the door for his cutter and heater to dominate.

Let’s hope he gets into a better rhythm with the great hook this season.

 

Changeup (1% usage)

There was a time Paxton featured changeups as his third offering, but with the cutter taking a major role, this changeup is barely touched anymore. And that’s alright, it’s far-and-away the fourth-best pitch here (optimistic phrasing, always!).

 

2020 Outlook

Paxton has all the tools he needs in an upper 90s heater and two strong secondary pitches that each get whiffs. The question is if he can get quality strikes with either secondary pitch consistently, while limiting the long ball on his fastball. The ceiling here is bonafide ace (provided he’s able to survive 180 frames for once!), while the floor is still a productive strikeout producer.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 27% K rate in 60 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.10 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 30% K rate in 120 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant James Paxton 2020 projection:

3.60 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 30% K rate in 100 IP

 

Masahiro TanakaLocked Starter

Nickname: Our Hiro

 

2019 In Review

This was a nightmare season for Tanaka. His whiffs disappeared, dropping more than three points overall in SwStr from 14%+ to sub 11%, his affinity for the long ball stuck around, and his splitter was gone for the majority of the season.

It led to a poor 4.45 ERA and sub 20% strikeout rate, making owners concerned to invest, especially without an exceptional strikeout rate to salvage starts. Will he get the feel back for his famous pitch or will he continue to labor through outings?

 

Fastball (31% usage)

It’s your quintessential “please don’t hit me” heater as Tanaka hopes to nip the edges early in counts, then turn to his slider and splitter to induce swings off the plate and make batters uncomfortable.

The problem here is that it’s truly a bad pitch. It holds a career 178 wRC+ for good reason, and hasn’t held a sub 170 mark in four seasons. No wonder he throws it so rarely and prays batters elect to take the pitch. Without a decent fastball, Tanaka needs both his slider and splitter to work on a given night to succeed.

 

Slider (38% usage)

Good news for Tanaka – he has a really good slider. It finds the zone roughly 45% of the time, yet induces whiffs across 15% of his pitches, and earned a 41% chase rate. That’s a money pitch, an offering he can throw at anytime with confidence, especially when batters have held a sub .600 OPS off it for two straight years.

Keep throwing it Tanaka, don’t be afraid to touch a 40% usage this year.

 

Splitter (28% usage)

Man, this really was the problem for everything. This splitter held a 20%+ SwStr rate for two straight seasons until last year’s clip. 11.2%. Yeah, it was a mess.

It found the zone 35% of the time after sitting around 27% prior, and batters made contact at an 82% rate. That’s horrible for a splitter, and Tanaka’s holds a 68% mark for his career, including last year’s travesty.

Maybe it was the new ball, maybe it just wasn’t his year. Either way, Tanaka has to get the feel back for this splitter if he wants to touch a 25% strikeout rate again, and produce ratios that are worthy for your fantasy lineup. It could easily happen, but it will be a hard watch if he doesn’t.

 

Curveball (3% usage)

There is a curveball in Tanaka’s repertoire, but it’s a very rare offering when he really doesn’t want to throw a fastball. It’s sole purpose is to steal a strike and it does sometimes. Not as much as it needs to, though.

 

2020 Outlook

It comes down to his splitter. The slider is going to be great, the fastball will be terrible, but there’s room for bliss and disaster rooted in his splitter’s ability to miss bats. It’s a risky proposition to believe in a splitter, and I’m inclined to be pessimistic regarding the full year return. Still, monitor it early and if it’s on, jump on the train for as long as it lasts.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 19% K rate in 140 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.70 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 25% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Masahiro Tanaka 2020 projection:

4.20 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 22% K rate in 170 IP

 

JA HappLikely Starter

Nickname: Lumbergh

 

2019 In Review

This was as bad as it gets for Happ. A near 5.00 ERA as he couldn’t get the same strikes he used to sneak in with his slider and sinker, preventing him from elevating effectively with four-seamers for strikeouts. Home runs were a major problem as he held a career-worst 1.90 HR/9, fueled by an inflated 18% HR/FB rate, and it makes us question if a pitcher entering his 37-year-old season has it in himself to reinvent himself one more time. All signs point to a sad shake of the head.

 

Fastball (68% usage)

We have two fastballs at play here. First is a sinker that he throws a quarter of the time and it does its job well – doesn’t get crushed, induces outs and gets strikes. It sits in the low 40% of zone rates, but consistently hangs in the 30%+ O-Swing realm. It does a good job keeping batters off-balance, and generating balls in play off pitches they didn’t want to hit. It did a great job in 2019 with a .666 OPS, and here’s to hoping he can keep it up.

Now there’s the four-seamer, which is featured in 75% of all fastballs and did such a good job in 2018, earning a marvelous 19+ pVal as Happ jammed right-handers with surprise high-and-tight four-seamers late in counts for strikeouts, and induced poor contact frequently over 1800 thrown.

2019 was more of the same, except for one major difference. Despite throwing 500 fewer four-seamers, Happ allowed seven more long balls. That’ll destroy a season in a heartbeat.

Happ needs to make fewer four-seamer mistakes in 2020 if he wants to remain on the bump, a tough ask for a 37-year-old arm.

 

Slider (17% usage)

Here’s your #2 pitch – a slider that has never held a 35% O-Swing, nor hit a 12% SwStr rate – and you understand now why Happ throws so many heaters. It did a decent job finding the zone last year, hitting a 40% mark for the first time since 2013. While it’s done a decent job of not getting laced, it’s been middling through-and-through. Case in point, it holds a 96 wRC+ across his career. This is average.

 

Changeup (14% usage)

This really isn’t a good pitch and has never been across his career. We’re talking sub 25% zone rates and failure to ever eclipse a 40% O-Swing. That’s not enough strikes to justify a 14% usage rate…except there’s nothing else to turn to, so Happ has to except its mediocrity.

And mediocrity is the right word. It’s not outright detrimental with its career .139 ISO, it just doesn’t help enough, making the punishment come later in the at-bat off his slider or heater.

 

Curveball (1% usage)

Happ barely touches this curveball anymore, and it didn’t do a whole lot when thrown this season. It was never a major part of his approach in the first place, and with better options at his disposal, there’s no reason to reconsider the hook.

 

2020 Outlook

There’s a chance for a better year, as long as his four-seamer surrenders fewer homers and his sinker can still be good enough to chug through innings.

There isn’t a whole lot to like in his secondary stuff though, and that will hinder his ceiling while opening the floor if his fastballs aren’t working as they should. It’s a risky proposition, monitor from afar.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 18% K rate in 100 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 22% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant JA Happ 2020 projection:

4.40 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 21% K rate in 140 IP

 

Jordan MontgomeryFringe Starter

Nickname: The Bear

 

2020 Outlook

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018 and returning for a few frames in September, Montgomery is finally ready to make the impact we hoped for two seasons ago…except there’s a major problem: he doesn’t have a rotation spot. There’s a chance he beats out JA Happ in the spring, but in most cases, he’ll be the first one get the opportunity when the time calls, and there is some interesting upside present. He held an overall 12.5% SwStr rate across his repertoire, with a curveball that induced a 45% O-Swing and 19% SwStr back in 2017, a changeup that held a 41% zone rate, and a slider with an 18% SwStr rate. Not bad at all.

It’s possible modern day Montgomery doesn’t have the same feel, or 2017 was a case of a small sample size, but keep your eye out during the year. This could be sneaky production from The Bear.

 

Domingo GermanFringe Starter

Nickname: Deutsch

 

2020 Outlook

With Severino missing nearly the whole season, German stepped in the fifth rotation spot with ease, and gave the Yankees a legit ace through his first fifteen starts with a 3.38 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 27% strikeout rate. His curveball was filthy, fastball good enough, and his changeup pleasantly improved as a strong pitch to throw for strikes.

Sadly, German has off-the-field issues, causing an 81-game suspension stemming from a horrible incident with his girlfriend. Even when he returns this season, will he be welcomed back on the field? If so, will his performance take a step back without a clear headspace? Will he even have a job to earn?

 

Jonathan LoaisigaFringe Starter

Nickname: Johnny Lasagna

 

2020 Outlook

I’ve always loved Loaisiga’s stuff and while the Yankees have tried him as a starter a few times, I wonder if he’s destined to be a reliever given his lack of a smooth road to a rotation spot. His fastball (mostly out of relief) sits 96/97, he earns a ton of whiffs with curveballs at a 20% SwStr, and his changeup shows a ton of promise missing a ton of bats and inducing swings out of the zone.

It’s a three-pitch mix that plays as a starter, the question is opportunity, and a path to being stretched out effectively. I have my doubts we’ll see it in the near future, but who knows what lies ahead in 2020. If he gets a clear extended look in the rotation, the upside is there to make an impact.

 

Nickname explanations:

Gerrit Cole: Bossil Fuel. He’s the dopest Cole there is.

Luis SeverinoSevy. It’s obvious and cool with us.

James PaxtonBig Maple. It’s not mine, he’s tall and from Canada.

Masahiro TanakaOur Hiro. Masahiro. You don’t need me.

JA HappLumbergh. He’s from Office Space. “Hey Peter, whaaaaaaaat’s Happenin’.”

Jordan MontgomeryThe Bear. Jor + Mont = Jorah Mormont from Game of Thrones. His sigil was a Bear.

Domingo GermanDeutsch. It’s German in german.

Jonathan LoaisigaJonny Lasagna. Not mine, people have called him this as it’s hard to figure out his last name.

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire| Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm)

Nick Pollack

Founder of Pitcher List. Worked with MSG, FanGraphs, CBS Sports, and Washington Post. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum. Wants every pitcher to be dope.

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