Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake weighs in on the state of the Bombers' rotation

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After the Yankees officially announced the signing of free agent Corey Kluber – just days after acquiring Jameson Taillon from Pittsburgh – the mystery that is their starting rotation is taking shape. But there are still many questions about how reliable a staff it is given the number of arms coming back from injuries or long layoffs, including the two newest ones.

Kluber (1), Taillon (0), Luis Severino (0), and Domingo German (0) threw a combined total of one major league inning in 2020. Gerrit Cole led the Yankees starters with 73 innings pitched, but Jordan Montgomery (44) is the only other returning starter who reached even 40 innings (J.A. Happ and his 49.1) signed with Minnesota, and Masahiro Tanaka and his 48 agreed Wednesday to return to Japan.

So how do the Yankees expect to fill the 800-900 innings they will need from starting pitchers in a 162-game season?

In a conversation with Matt Blake this week, the Yankees second-year pitching coach told me there is no set formula or strategy, but rather a rough outline that might constantly need to be adjusted depending how pitchers react to a workload they haven’t experienced in, in some cases, two to three years.

“Obviously there are certain guys like Cole, you know he knows what it’s like to take the ball every fifth or sixth day and get 180 to 200 innings,” Blake said.

Although Kluber topped 30 starts and 200 innings in five consecutive seasons, the last time was with Cleveland in 2018. The two-time Cy Young Award winner will turn 35 in April. And the oft-injured Taillon is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery performed in August 2019 (the first was as a minor leaguer five years earlier) after he threw a career-high 191 innings in 2018.

“I think the hard part is you don’t want to just go in blind and say we’re going to get 200 innings from all these guys,” Blake said. “That’s not realistic.”

But knowing they’ve experienced a heavy workload somewhat recently does help. Blake said that 150 innings (30 starts, 5 innings per start) is a good baseline to consider for Kluber.

“That’s probably somewhat reasonable,” Blake said.

With Taillon, the same 150 innings is a goal, but like with Kluber, it might swing higher or lower depending how he feels.

“I think you just kind of add and subtract based on if they’re going deeper in games or getting out early, or if they need to skip a start or something,” Blake noted. “I think it’s just being rational and realistic about where these guys are coming from, and knowing that their most value is going to come if we can get to a point where we’re playing in October.”

And getting Kluber and Taillon to October, as well as all the others, will likely require some creativity.

Let’s say, for example, a healthy rotation to start the year looks like this: Cole, Kluber, Taillon, Montgomery, and German.

The depth includes Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt, and Nick Nelson, who all debuted in 2020, plus youngsters Michael King and Jonathan Loaisiga. There are also non-roster invitees like Jhoulys Chacin, Nestor Cortes, Jr., and Asher Wojciechowski, in addition to the ever-present Luis Cessa.

“I think there’s a volume of arms that can kind of pick up some innings in bunches,” Blake said. “I think it’s just trying to figure out in what order does that happen and how many times in a row do they take the ball.”

And coming off the routine-busting 2020, assessing each pitcher’s strength and endurance is an equation featuring more variables than you can measure with a simple, “How you feeling, kid?”

First there are baseline metrics to measure range of motion and strength when pitchers report to camp.  That is followed by studying each pitcher’s “stuff” during the buildup from Spring Training to Opening Day, and through the first month of the season.

All along the way, there is careful monitoring of how each pitcher recovers from outing to outing.

“Are they losing range of motion? Are they losing strength? Are they losing weight? Those kind of things,” Blake said. “And then, is their stuff staying the same? Is it trending up? Is it trending down? All those give us some good data points to kind of just keep asking ourselves if these guys are able to keep taking the ball, keep taking their turn.”

And that’s when the creativity comes into play, determining when and how often to employ an extra starter to give everyone a day off – or perhaps skipping one pitcher altogether for extra rest.

“I think it’s just being honest with ourselves about if we need to take a turn here or there,” Blake said, noting the decision is a collective one by the organization, and one that requires complete and precise communication so the pitchers know what they can expect.

And, of course, adjustments will need to be made for rainouts, double-headers…and even COVID.

“Last year we had to bounce around a little bit, and you tried to get Cole the ball as much as possible.  Outside of that you were trying to give your guys a chance to pitch at their best, whether that’s matchup-related or health-related.”

Oh, that’s right. An injury or two could derail the whole plan too.

So don’t get too used to what the rotation looks like to start the year. It will take many twists and turns along the way.

*******

Here are some other highlights from my conversation with Matt Blake on the Yankees pitching staff:

*Taillon had thrown five bullpen sessions already as of Monday and is expected to be a “full go” when camp starts, but “we’ll obviously be cautious trying to get him back into the swing of things.”

*Kluber’s shoulder injury, which held him to just one inning in 2020, is not a major concern at this time.

“He’s pretty much been full throttle this whole offseason in terms of building back up and he’ll be ahead of schedule where he normally is coming into camp. Just given that he hasn’t pitched much in two years he wanted to ramp up the intensity before he got to spring training which is encouraging.”

*Severino has been throwing well so far in Tampa, but it’s too early to speculate on when he could be ready following Tommy John Surgery last March.

“Mid-season is kind of an easy place to say, but whether that’s June, July, August who knows? Once he really ramps up on the mound and starts building some intensity we’ll have a (better) read.

*While German’s velocity ticked down as his workload increased in Winter Ball, it was to be expected after the long layoff.

“Regardless of his results in winter ball, getting back into competition was really important and getting some quality work in between his outings, just starting to get back into the flow of being a baseball player again and everything that demands. We need to continue to see just him working and showing up with a good bill of health and making sure he’s doing all the right things off the field, but I think he could slide right into the middle of the rotation like he did in 2019. It’s just a lot boxes we have to check before we get to that point.”

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