Baseball’s best and brightest pundits forecasted the 2017 Yankees as a middling team, with very few picking them to even secure a playoff spot, and almost no one giving them a chance to make noise in October. However, as of May 3rd, the New York Yankees are tied for first place in the AL East with the Baltimore Orioles, prior to playing on Wednesday. They are 16-9, which is good for a .640 winning percentage – extrapolated over a full season that’s a 104-58 record. Their Pythagorean win-loss is 17-9. They have outscored their opponents by 1.7 runs per game, which is tied for the best in MLB. So what gives? Are the Yankees this good, or have they been lucky over the first month of the season?
Obviously the Yankees have been playing good baseball. Their Pythagorean wins and run differential support this. They are second in runs scored per game (5.6) and and fifth in runs allowed (3.88) in MLB. They haven’t just been fortunate in clustering their runs at opportune moments, but have outplayed their opponents. Can they keep up this pace, or will they slow down some, but at least continue playing as a legit World Series contender?
There are two possible reasons that they Yankees have overachieved this season besides the simple explanation that they are just this good: (1) They have been fortunate to play a soft schedule or (2) their players are performing well beyond their skill level and are very likely to regress.
The Yankees Schedule
In their first 25 games, the Yankees have played the Tampa Bay Rays six times (4-2 record), the Baltimore Orioles six times (3-3 record), swept the St. Louis Cardinals in a three-game series, taken two out of three from the Chicago White Sox, lost two out of three to the Pittsburgh Pirates, swept the Boston Red Sox in a rain-shortened two-game series, and split the first two in their current three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
During 2017, most of these teams have been around .500 and have been around even in run differential, with the White Sox(!) being the best at 14-11 with a plus-15 run differential and the Pittsburgh Pirates being the worst with a 12-14 record and a -12 run differential. The one team that has performed well below average is the Toronto Blue Jays, who are 9-18 with a -21 run differential. The only team that prognosticators picked as a preseason World Series contender was the Red Sox. I think most considered the Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Orioles as borderline playoff teams in tough divisions. So what does this all boil down to?
Well, it appears to me that the Yankees have had a moderately easy schedule. They’ve only played one expected powerhouse team – the Red Sox (and Boston has performed below expectations so far). But they also have avoided most of baseball’s truly bad teams. And the teams that were expected to be bad (Rays and White Sox) have actually performed pretty well against teams not from the Bronx. I don’t believe we can attribute the Yankees’ current performance to their unbalanced schedule.
The Yankees’ hitters have performed way better than expected so far in 2017. They are fourth in MLB with 140 runs scored (but second in runs per game), they are also second in OBP (.349), second in slugging (.466), second in wOBA (.352) and first in wRC+ (129). They have done this without Fangraphs’ projected WAR leader for Yankees hitters – Gary Sanchez – who has only contributed 21 plate appearances because of injury.
These are all great numbers, but can they be expected to continue or at least only regress moderately?
A review of their 25-man roster makes it seem very unlikely that they will continue hitting at this pace. Rookie Aaron Judge is putting up Barry Bonds-like numbers with a .313/.424/.795 slash line. 37-year-old Matt Holliday has a 149 OPS+, a number he hasn’t reached over a full season since 2011. Chase Headley has a nearly .900 OPS despite being 33 years old and carrying a .747 career OPS. Austin Romine has been more than adequate replacing Sanchez, hitting a robust .316 (.81 points over his career batting average). Starlin Castro has a .402 OBP and .550 SLG, well above his career norms of .320/.412. Even Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Ronald Torreyes have all been above-average MLB players this season (OPS+ of at least 100). Their fourth outfielder, light-hitting Aaron Hicks, has a .640 slugging percentage (!), good for nearly .300 points above his career average of .358. The only position where the Yankees have struggled to generate runs is first base, where Greg Bird (now on the DL) and Chris Carter have performed well below expectations.
Based upon this information, it seems that the Yankees’ offense should regress pretty hard. Aaron Judge is likely a very good baseball player, but he’s not going to be able to carry that batting average and on base percentage with his strikeout rates. We can also expect MLB pitching to adjust to his weaknesses once the scouting reports catch up to him. Holliday, Headley, Romine, Castro, Hicks, Gardner, Ellsbury, and Torreyes all appear to be vastly outperforming any reasonable projections for this season based upon their age and their prior performances. The Yankees can only rely on first base to offset some of this regression.
While the pitchers haven’t been as good as the hitters, they have performed very well to start the 2017 season. They have allowed only 3.88 runs per game (5th in MLB) and 97 runs (2nd). They are 8th in K/9, 2nd in BB/9, 6th in ERA, 4th in FIP, and 4th in xFIP. By any measure, they have been one of the top staffs in MLB.
Their starting rotation has been solid, and it is not unreasonable to expect even more production from them. Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, C.C. Sabathia, and Jordan Montgomery have all been about league average (ERA+ ranging from 94 to 109). Tanaka (94 ERA+) can be expected to pitch better as the season progresses as long as his partially torn UCL doesn’t completely tear. Sabathia can probably be trusted to maintain his current level (97 ERA+), or even pitch slightly better considering it appears that he reinvented himself last year into a serviceable pitcher. Jordan Montgomery is a rookie, but he has always performed well in the minor leagues. Projecting him as a league-average pitcher the rest of this season might be slightly generous, but it certainly isn’t out of the question. Luis Severino has been solid this year and despite his struggles in 2016, does have a legit pedigree.
The only starter that has performed notably above league average is Michael Pineda. Pineda has a 3.14 ERA supported by a 3.11 FIP, 11.6 K/9 and a 1.3 BB/9. He has pitched very well and has gotten excellent results. The past two years he has struggled to a combined 4.60 ERA, but his FIP was over a full run less (3.58) and he had a sterling 4.84 K/BB ratio over this time. Pineda at 28 years old could very well be this good, or even better.
Based upon this information, I think the Yankees are certainly overachieving – especially their offense. However, there is room for improvement with their pitching staff if Tanaka can return to his career norms as an ace and Severino/Montgomery/Sabathia can continue to provide league-average innings in the back of the rotation. With their bullpen, this is a dangerous staff that could perform even better over the next 5 months than they did in April. The big question is how far will their offense fall. There’s plenty of reason to think that they will come crashing down very hard, unless Judge really is a legit .900 OPS hitter and Sanchez returns to produce like he did in 2016.
We certainly can’t expect the Yankees to continue at their 104-win pace, but anything between 90-95 wins is going to make them serious contenders this year for the AL East crown against the Red Sox and Orioles. The future looks bright in New York, but the present could already be here.
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonykosinski.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.