Pettitte and Hughes lead the Yankees back to dominant form

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Phil Hughes. (mlb.com)
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Following New York's 7-0 win over Tampa Bay Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees improved to 30-24, and could move into first place as soon as Wednesday night. They're just a half-game behind Tampa Bay and Baltimore, and they take on the Rays twice more this week.

One reason for their recent dominant form is that the Yankees are finally hitting. They're now second in the American League in O.P.S., and they've scored the fifth-most runs of any team in the league.

But another reason is the emergence of their celebrated starting pitching, in the recent form of Phil Hughes and Tuesday night's starter, Andy Pettitte.

The Yankees had tremendous depth coming into the 2012 season in their starting pitching ranks. But outside of CC Sabathia, they had few pitchers with a ceiling beyond mid-rotation contributor, particularly once Michael Pineda was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

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But Hughes and Pettitte, the former a big time prospect just a few short years ago, the latter one of the finest pitchers in Yankee history, have provided Sabathia with some competition over the past month.

Since Pettitte returned, he's been nothing short of remarkable. His 2.78 E.R.A. is supported by a walk rate of less than two per nine innings and a strikeout rate of better than eight per nine innings, both significantly better than what he gave New York in combination during any season of his extended stretch run of excellence. He's averaging better than seven innings per start, and his ten strikeouts Tuesday night marked the first time he's reached double figures in nine years.

Think of Pettitte's performance this way: He's getting paid a base salary of $2.5 million in 2012. According to Fangraphs, his five starts have produced value of $2.5 million already. So from here on, the Yankees are getting bonus production; Pettitte's already paid for himself.

During that same period, Hughes has averaged just under seven innings per start himself, with an E.R.A. of 3.51 and comparable peripheral stats. Sabathia checks in right between them, a 3.09 E.R.A. and seven innings per start as well.

The Yankees are expecting David Robertson to return shortly to help the already strong bullpen, while Brett Gardner should improve the outfield defense when he returns to left field shortly as well.

But the scariest part for Yankee opponents isn't the roster's talent depth. It is that come playoff time, they may have a top three rotation anchors to go up against anyone in a short series. For a team that operates under a dictate every year of World Series or bust, that's the best news of all.