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Have The Yankees Gotten Better Or Luckier?

For the first few months of the 2021 MLB season, the New York Yankees resembled a sputtering car. Their usually loud bats were silent to start the season en route to a 5-10 record. They pulled things together to cruise to eight games over .500 by late May, only to see themselves skid back down to the .500 mark again by Independence Day. They recovered once more, winning nine of 12 heading into a four-game road series with the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox late last month. But then came another stall-out, and this time the hated rivals from up north seemingly put the finishing touches on the Yankees’ season, taking three out of four — including an epic eighth-inning meltdown by the New York bullpen on July 25 after starter Domingo Germán lost a no-hit bid.

No matter, it would seem. That faltering ride — one of the most expensive in baseball, as is New York’s wont — has since found the right gear. Since that demoralizing defeat to Boston, the Yankees have been the hottest team in baseball, going 23-5 — including a current 11-game win streak — and erasing what had been a nearly 10-game hole to the Red Sox in the division (and playoff) standings. After starting with MLB’s second-best World Series odds, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast, New York had just a 34 percent chance to make the playoffs on July 26. Today, they’re up to 94 percent playoff odds and an 8 percent chance to win the Fall Classic, fifth-best in baseball.

How did the Yankees save their season?

On the surface, New York’s most obvious changes were the deadline acquisitions of first baseman Anthony Rizzo from the Chicago Cubs and outfielder Joey Gallo from the Texas Rangers, both of whom immediately added left-handed hitting to what had been an extremely righty-dominated lineup in the Bronx. Rizzo and Gallo also added some much-needed firepower at two of the team’s weakest positions, but the Yankees’ deadline deals don’t explain much of the team’s improvement. Though Rizzo immediately made an impact in New York, putting up a .963 OPS over his first nine games in pinstripes, he hasn’t been the same (.198 OPS) since getting sidelined with COVID-19 earlier this month. And aside from a few memorable moments, Gallo has struggled considerably, batting just .143 with a .653 OPS in 84 at-bats as a Yankee. 

A better explanation for New York’s revival is the increased consistency — and availability — of the Yankees’ top position players by wins above replacement.1 Outfielder Aaron Judge, designated hitter (and sometimes-fielder) Giancarlo Stanton and second baseman DJ LeMahieu have all batted for an OPS above their season levels in August while playing together in 21 of 23 possible games — a real rarity by their standards. All the while, baseball’s best pitching staff by WAR has held down the fort with a 2.79 ERA in the month, third-best in baseball.


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Earlier in the season, we wrote about how the Yankees’ efforts were hamstrung by poor roster construction and a seeming inability to do the “little things” that help teams pick up wins at the margins. Certainly the midseason shakeups — and various other adjustments — have helped some in those areas. As of mid-June, Yankee batters had the platoon advantage only 43.0 percent of the time; now that rate is slightly up to 45.1 percent on the season. They had a 12.7 percent rate of bouncing into double plays; now that rate is down to 12.1 percent. They made their outs productive in just 23.3 percent of opportunities; now those are up to 25.1 percent on the year. They were taking extra bases just 30 percent of the time, while making far and away the most outs on the base paths of any team; now they’ve taken 36 percent of potential extra bases and are merely tied for last (with the Oakland A’s) in outs on base.2

Those are all small changes to what remain less-than-great numbers in “fundamental” categories. But the slight improvements have collectively added up to help the Yankees look at least somewhat more like the sum of their parts. Since mid-June, their offensive output is up from 3.94 runs per game to 4.34, while their runs allowed have held almost perfectly steady. According to FanGraphs, New York easily had MLB’s biggest shortfall between their actual and expected runs-per-game differential (-0.53) a few months ago. Now, their underperformance is down to just -0.28 net runs per game, and they’ve been surpassed in that regard by the Orioles, Twins and Cardinals.

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Of course, some of the Yankees’ recent fortune might just be a matter of better luck. Through their first 98 games, after which they sat nine games back of the division-leading Red Sox, the Yankees managed just the 22nd-best batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in all of baseball despite the highest share of hard-hit balls,3 an average exit velocity of 89.6 mph (sixth-best) and a barrel rate of 9.4 percent (fifth-best). Over the past month, those topline numbers haven’t significantly improved, with some even getting worse, and yet New York has upped its batting average on balls in play to .304 since July 26.

The Yanks are getting better results on similar swings

Key hitting metrics for the 2021 New York Yankees, by period of season

topline metrics RESULTS
Season range EV Barrel% Hard Hit% AVG SLG BABIP RPG
Through July 25 89.6 9.4% 42.0% .236 .396 .286 4.16
Since July 26 90.0 8.9% 39.6% .244 .409 .304 4.96
Change +0.4 -0.5% -2.4% +.008 +.013 +.018 +0.80

Source: fangraphs

For a team that constantly preached process over outcomes, the improved results have been a vindication of sorts. They also serve as a reminder that baseball can be a fluky sport, and that good luck is a key component to winning — even when a team tries to focus on underlying metrics that remove luck from the equation, such as exit velocity, hard-hit rate and other numbers tracked by Statcast.

And the improved offensive production has translated to more wins because the Yankees’ pitching remains so stellar. According to WAR, New York has MLB’s fifth-best rotation and its second-best bullpen this year, with every Yankee who’s tossed more than 30 innings this season delivering a better-than-average fielding independent pitching (FIP) and all but Germán producing a better-than-average ERA. Even starter Gerrit Cole, whose effectiveness was feared to be a thing of the past after MLB cracked down on pitchers using sticky substances in June, has allowed an OPS more than 30 percent below league average since the All-Star break. The Yankees’ staff kept them afloat during the hard times, and it is helping power their recent hot streak as well.

But as much as the Yankees have made their own luck through outstanding pitching and improved fundamentals, they have also had nine lives in close games. Despite blowing a historic number of late-inning leads, including four in a single game earlier this month against the Kansas City Royals, the Yankees have held their own in close contests. In fact, they’re tied for the eighth-best winning percentage in games decided by two runs or fewer (.671) since MLB adopted the Wild Card in 1995, which has helped them be the second-luckiest team in baseball this season, behind only the upstart Seattle Mariners. Conversely, the Yankees have played in just 26 games decided by five runs or more, good for second-fewest in baseball.

So despite a spate of recent comfortable wins, it might be good to “speak to your doctor today to see if New York Yankees baseball is right for you,” as The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler recently put it. The team still likes to live on the edge, for good and for bad.

“The good thing is, I think our guys are really comfortable in those situations, whatever the outcome may be,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said earlier this month. “Guys are comfortable in those spots.”

Right now, that’s working for the Yankees. Their 11-game winning streak is the franchise’s longest since 1985 and only its third winning streak of that length since 1962. All it took to make it happen was great pitching, better luck and a few small improvements at the margins. For a team as inconsistent as the Yankees, their early struggles prove that another downturn is just an unlucky stretch away. But for now, a team that was always better than its disappointing record indicated has finally started unleashing its full potential.


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Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, which you can download data for on GitHub.

  2. The Yankees’ defense is as mediocre as ever (they’re 21st in fielding WAR).

  3. That is, balls with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Santul Nerkar is a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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