The New York Yankees, at a robust 38-30 and 0.5 games behind the Red Sox for first in the AL East, have exceeded most people’s preseason expectations thus far. Yet baseball fans, and especially New York baseball fans, maintain a very ‘what have you done for me lately’ attitude. As a result, the Yankees’ current seven game losing streak has the media and fans in a bit of a tizzy.
The Yankees have lost their last seven games by a combined score of 28-42, which sounds pretty bad. However, four of the seven losses, which have all come at the hands of either the Angels or the Athletics, were one-run affairs. Given that baseball is a mercurial game that requires a 162-game season to parse out the best and worst teams, it is probably unfair to to overreact or draw hasty conclusions from a one-week sample of games. In fact, if one increases the scope of analysis from one to two weeks, the impression of the Yankees’ play changes quite a bit. Prior to the seven game losing streak, the Yankees rode a six game winning streak where they outscored the Red Sox, Orioles and Angels by a ridiculous 60-12, an average surplus of +8.0 runs per game. In total, over the last two weeks, New York outscored their opponents by a mammoth 88-54 differential. Their 6-7 record in that span is less than desirable, but a team that operates at a +2.5 run differential per game will start winning ball games sooner rather than later.
All told, through 68 games (roughly 42% of the season), the Yankees are the best team in baseball in my opinion. While they trail the Astros, the best team in baseball by record, by a hefty eight games, the underlying statistics point to New York as the deepest and most well-rounded team in baseball. Let’s start by looking at their offense.
The Yankees’ standout offense
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can surmise that the Yankees own one of the best offenses in the game. Rookie masher Aaron Judge, second-year slugger Gary Sanchez, resurrected vet Matt Holliday, along with surprise starts from Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks vaulted the Yankees offense to arguably the best in the league.
Just how good have they been? To start, the Yankees lead the MLB in runs per game with 5.7. They also lead baseball in home runs per game with 1.6, along with third place in total bases per game with 16.4. To put it simply, the Yankees absolutely mash, with the only other team in close consideration being the Houston Astros.
Digging deeper into the numbers, New York leads baseball with a .349 OBP, indicating that they are the most patient team at the plate. They are third in SLG rate (Total Bases / At Bats) at .467, which is unsurprising given their performance in home runs and total bases. OPS, which simply sums up the OBP and SLG, also treats them kindly with a second place finish at .816.
Advanced statistics like wOBA (weighted on-base average) and offensive runs above replacement also suggest that the performance is real, not simply a result of fortunate batted ball luck or an unsustainable batting average with runners in scoring position.
The statistic wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) adjusts for a team’s home park factors as well as the difference between AL and NL run scoring. By this metric, the Yankees’ 117 score ranks second in the league, and indicates that they score 17% more runs than the average team after adjusting for park and league factors.
The main take away is that, any way you slice it, the Yankees’ offense has been elite, and that the performance is legitimate. There is also significant room for improvement, as the Yankees have received putrid production from their first base position. With a healthy Tyler Austin in AAA and a nearing healthy Greg Bird, New York should improve on their first base production fairly easily. The to-date season statistics also represent a lot innings without Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez, who both missed over a month of time dealing with shoulder and arm injuries. Having those two healthy going forward will naturally increase the offense’s cumulative performance.
Upper Echelon Starting Pitching
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Yankees heading in 2017 was their starting rotation. Outside of Masahiro Tanaka, the staff was full of question marks. Michael Pineda always flashed potential but was below average on a run-prevention basis in 2015-16. CC Sabathia was 36-years old and one wrong step away from shattering his knee for good. Luis Severino was an intriguing prospect, but struggled mightily in 2016.
Outside of Tanaka, the aforementioned vastly exceeded expectations, and, along with rookie sensation Jordan Montgomery, performed like one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Cumulatively, Yankees starting pitchers pitched to an ERA of 4.09, which is third best in the AL and eighth best in the MLB. Their WHIP of 1.25 is second and fourth respectively. The staff does need to temper their home run allowance, as 1.42 HR/9 is eighth in the AL and 19th in the MLB, however Yankee Stadium’s favorable home run environment makes that easier said than done.
The underlying numbers support the rotation’s run preventing abilities and actually foretells improvement. The main aspects under pitcher control are whether the ball gets hit on the ground or in the air, whether it gets hit softly or firmly and whether the batter makes contact at all. Superior pitchers keep the ball on the ground, limit balls in play to soft contact and cause batters to swing and miss quite a bit. By these metrics the Yankees’ staff is outstanding, with the best swinging strike rate in the MLB at 12.0%. Their groundball rate of 48.3% is third in the AL and sixth in the MLB, while their hard hit rate is third and seventh respectively.
This strong underlying performance leads to FIP (fielder independent ERA) and xFIP (expected FIP) statistics near the top of the league. The Yankees perform a bit worse in FIP since that statistic is calculated using home runs allowed, with the aforementioned home run environment in Yankee stadium putting the New York staff at a disadvantage. However, xFIP is calculated using flyball rate rather than home runs, which is why the Yankees’ staff performs better there. SIERA, short for skill-interactive ERA, an ERA estimator similar to xFIP but one that places a higher importance on strikeouts compared to batted balls, treats the Yankees’ staff similarly with the best 4th rating in the MLB.
In summary, the Yankees’ starting pitching has been very good, and should actually get better if they maintain the same underlying performance. In particular, Masahiro Tanaka’s 6.34 ERA is sure to come down, especially since he’s a league-leader in predictive statistics such as chase rate and swinging strike rate. Moreover, the performance from young guns like Severino and Montgomery looks sustainable.
A solid bullpen
With two of the top five relief pitchers in the game in Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, it should come as no surprise to see the Yankees boast one of league’s top bullpens. However, due to an injury that has sidelined Chapman over the past month and some suspect bullpen depth, New York’s relievers are probably the team’s biggest weak link to this point.
While New York’s relief staff has put up the fourth best ERA in the majors, along with the seventh best WHIP and third best HR/9, there are some cracks in the hull that could soon lead to major leaks. The bullpen’s HR/9 rate of 0.79 seems unsustainable given how many flyballs the group allows combined with pitching home games in Yankee stadium. The FIP, xFIP and SIERA estimators all point to regression in ERA moving forward.
Of course, re-introducing Chapman, who has missed close to half the season, will stabilize the pens’ recent struggles. With that said, the Yankees could use another reliever to lighten the load on Betances and Chapman.
We’ve established that the Yankees boast arguably the best offense in the game, along with a top 10 pitching rotation and bullpen. What does that mean in totality? That the Yankees have received their fair share of bad luck to end up with with a 38-30 record. According to BaseRuns, which calculates a record based on a team’s underlying offensive and defensive performance, the Yankees should have the best record in baseball at 45-23. The astronomical seven game difference, which is what I call ‘luck factor’, is attributable to the fact that the Yankees have typically blown out opponents in wins while trailing by one or two runs in losses. The distribution of runs scored tends to even out over the long-run, so expect the Yankees’ record to improve substantially if they stay relatively healthy and continue to perform at the same underlying pace.