After bludgeoning their way to the American League Championship Series in 2004 in spite of one of the worst collective team pitching performances in franchise history, Brian Cashman set out to revamp his team’s rotation the following season to ensure the fanbase wouldn’t have to endure another year of mostly dreadful pitching. In 2005, the Yankees began their season with the following rotation:
1) Newly imported high-expectation ace Randy Johnson
2) Newly imported high-expectation free agent Carl Pavano
3) Rotation stalwart Mike Mussina
4) Newly imported low-expectation free agent Jaret Wright
5) Noted headcase and nearing-the-end-of-the-line Kevin Brown
Knowing what we know now, this rotation looks mighty flimsy, but at the time it should have been competitive — at least, if its members had pitched the way their career numbers indicated that they would.
An injury to Wright (shocking!) in late April prompted the Yankees to call up the previously unheralded Chien-Ming Wang, who of course would go on to pitch better-than-expected in 2005, terrifically in 2006 and 2007, and very well in 2008 before his career was sidelined seemingly indefinitely (although it sounds like he may finally make it back to the Majors this season!) circling the bases at Minute Maid Park.
For his part, Pavano hit the shelf 17 starts into his Yankee career (near the end of June) for the first of seemingly hundreds of DL trips during his four-year pinstripe career. Brown also went down in mid-June, forcing the Yankees to rely on Sean Henn for two awful starts, and even trusty reliever Tanyon Sturtze got a spot start.
However, things got really ugly as June turned to July, as Wang was sidelined with a shoulder injury. The team was forced to rely on hilarious retreads Darrell May for a July 9 start against Cleveland (4.1 IP, 7 ER) and Tim Redding for one epically abominable July 15 outing against the Red Sox (1+ IP, 6 ER; 8 of 11 batters faced reached base). Both pitchers were DFA’d immediately following the Boston fiasco (relieving Redding in the second inning, May yielded the infamous Melky Cabrera-aided Trot Nixon inside-the-park home run), and their unacceptable outings prompted Cashman to trade for Marlins starter (and former Yankee) Al Leiter and promote offseason scrapheap pickup Aaron Small from AAA. To this day I have no idea what made Cashman turn to Small, who to that point had thrown 49 innings of 4.96 ERA ball (1.43 WHIP) against International League competition, but it wound up being perhaps one of the luckiest roster decisions in franchise history. Small made his first start with the Yankees on July 20, 2005, and threw a representative 5.1 innings of three-run ball.
Eight days later Cashman filled the other rotation hole by trading for Colorado Rockie Shawn Chacon, who I recall seeming like a significant upgrade at the time, though if Cash made this move today we’d question his sanity, as Chacon came over sporting a 4.09 ERA, 5.02 FIP and 5.49 xFIP. Oh, and Chacon also had a 4.83 K/9 and 35.7% GB% in his 72 innings with the Rockies — again, I have no idea what Cash saw in Chacon’s stat line that led him to believe he could be a positive contributor to the Yankees, but holy hell did he luck out.
Aaron Small went on to do the following as a starter during the 2005 season:
9 starts (the Yankees won in 8 of them), 59.2 IP, 3.47 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 4.83 xFIP, 4.37 K/9, 2.87 BB/9, 0.45 HR/9, for a stat line worth 1.1 fWAR.
And Shawn Chacon did this:
12 starts (the Yankees won in 9 of them), 77.1 IP, 2.79 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 5.09 xFIP, 4.66 K/9, 3.49 BB/9, 0.81 HR/9, for a stat line worth 0.9 fWAR. He also threw 6.1 huge innings of two-run-ball in the win-or-go-home Game 4 of the 2005 ALDS against the Angels.
Oh, and Leiter pitched in with this:
10 starts (the Yankees won in 5 of them), 49 IP, 5.33 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 5.57 xFIP, 6.61 K/9, 6.06 BB/9, 0.51 HR9, for a stat line worth 0.5 fWAR.
Though Leiter’s overall stat line is pretty ugly (6.06 BB/9!), and he ran out of gas at the beginning of September and spent the remainder of the season in the bullpen, for whatever reason I loved watching him pitch, and I’ll never forget his first start with the Yankees on a Sunday night in Fenway Park. In many ways the night of July 17 was a major turning point for the Yankees season, as they entered the contest 1.5 games behind the Sox for first place, having beaten the Sox in two of the previous three games — the one loss being the aforementioned Redding nightmare — and a win would provide a decisive series victory in a rare four-game set in Boston. They’d also end up needing every last win they could get against Boston, as they’d end up tied for first place at the end of the season. Leiter gutted it out through 6.1 gritty innings in hostile enemy territory, only yielding one run, and brought the Yankees to within half a game of first. After an up-and-down season that saw the team fall to a woeful 11-19 after its first 30 games, Leiter’s victory marked the first time all season where I started to feel like the team was actually going to keep its string of playoff appearances alive.
Anyway, I point all this out to show just how remarkable Bartolo Colon‘s and Freddy Garcia‘s seasons have been. Even the most optimistic prognosticators couldn’t have expected much from this duo, and yet they’ve been the Yankees’ 2nd- and 3rd-most valuable starters on the season.
Here’s what Colon has done:
12 starts (the Yankees have won in 8 of them), 78.2 IP, 3.09 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, 7.55 K/9, 2.17 BB/9, 1.14 HR/9, for a stat line worth 1.4 fWAR.
15 starts (the Yankees have won in 8 of them), 91 IP, 3.07 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 4.17 xFIP, 5.54 K/9, 2.57 BB/0, 0.89 HR/9, for a stat line worth 1.3 fWAR.
Incredibly, Colon and Garcia have already provided more combined value (2.7 fWAR) in 27 starts than the 2005 troika did in 31 starts (2.5 fWAR).
Now to be fair, there have been several cases made that the 2005 Yankees may have been the worst defensive team of all time, and there’s a good chance Colon’s and Garcia’s numbers wouldn’t be quite as sparkling if they had the 2005 Yanks playing defense behind them instead of the 2011 edition, but it still doesn’t take away from what they’ve managed to accomplish.
And when you put it into context by comparing it to the last time the Yankees had to rely on such a vast number of unknown quantities (14 players started games in 2005), it also makes you appreciate their contributions that much more. Although if the 2005:2011 analogy continues to hold, and Colon and Garcia continue to pitch better than expected, the Yankees would also do well to part ways this offseason (hello, C.J. Wilson and Edwin Jackson), considering Small’s and Chacon’s pixie dust ran out the following year and Leiter finally had to hang up his spikes.
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