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The Yankees Shouldn’t Be This Good Yet. (Yet!)

Welcome to Full Count, our new(!) weekly baseball column. Have anything you want me to write about? Email or tweet me at neil.paine@fivethirtyeight.com or @Neil_Paine.

The summer of 2017 was supposed to be one of the last opportunities for New York Yankees haters to bask in pinstriped mediocrity. Although the Bronx Bombers went into the season with baseball’s second-best farm system and an intriguing mix of veterans and kids at the big-league level, they were also sellers at last year’s trade deadline — for the first time in ages. General manager Brian Cashman had even sold management on the idea of a long-term rebuilding plan (at least, long-term by Yankees standards). New York was going to be dominant again in the near future, the thinking went, but probably not this year.

Fast-forward to a month into the season, however, and the next great Yankees team appears to have arrived ahead of schedule. At 17-9, New York has the third-best record in the majors, and its underlying metrics are even more striking — according to wins above replacement,1 the Yankees have played at a 117-win pace (!) in the early going.2

But the fact that the Yankees are winning baseball games is not as fascinating as who they’ve been winning with. The players driving New York’s early run are either middling veterans (Aaron Hicks) or unproven youngsters (Aaron Judge). When you sort the roster by how much each player has contributed so far this season,3 only two of their top five players (third baseman Chase Headley and left fielder Brett Gardner) had even a baker’s dozen of career WAR to their names before this year. The Yankees’ lack of pedigree is highly unusual for a franchise that famously seeks out (and overpays for) pedigree. It also suggests that the team probably won’t be able to sustain this breakneck pace. But whether their early 2017 results are real or not, they’re providing a preview of things to come for the franchise — even if that future might eventually involve a different supporting cast.

For most teams, you can make a pretty good guess about how they’ll do simply by looking at the track records of the talent on hand. The Detroit Tigers, for instance, are a moderately old team whose WAR have come from moderately accomplished players, so it’s no surprise that they’re hovering around .500. But the Yankees are bucking that trend so far. For every Headley (25.9 career WAR before 2017) and Gardner (28.4 WAR), the Yanks are powered by many more players like Judge, the breakout second-year slugger who had -0.4 WAR while hitting .179 last year. In fairness, Judge was a well-regarded prospect despite his slow career start — he cracked the Baseball America Top 100 list in preseason — but that wasn’t true of other team leaders such as Hicks, Luis Severino, Starlin Castro, Michael Pineda, Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes. Not old, but not exactly babies either, none had done much to suggest that greatness was around the corner.

POS PLAYER AGE 2017 WAR PREV. CAREER WAR
RF Aaron Judge 25 2.4 -0.4
3B Chase Headley 33 1.1 25.9
2B Starlin Castro 27 1.0 12.1
LF Brett Gardner 33 1.0 28.4
LF Aaron Hicks 27 0.8 1.4
CF Jacoby Ellsbury 33 0.7 29.7
DH Matt Holliday 37 0.7 47.3
SP Luis Severino 23 0.6 1.5
SP Michael Pineda 28 0.6 10.1
RP Adam Warren 29 0.5 3.8
RP Aroldis Chapman 29 0.5 13.9
C Austin Romine 28 0.5 -0.9
RP Dellin Betances 29 0.4 8.5
SP Masahiro Tanaka 28 0.4 10.8
SS Ronald Torreyes 24 0.4 0.6
These aren’t your typical star-studded Yankees

WAR here is an average of the wins above replacement systems found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com. 2017 data current through May 3.

Sources: Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, Seamheads.com

Weighted by each player’s contributions to New York’s bottom line,4 the typical member of the 2017 Yankees went into the season with 13.2 lifetime WAR — a pretty ordinary total, considering the age of their roster. (Since the dawn of the expansion era in 1961, the average WAR for a team with the same age as the Yankees is 12.9.) That makes this group especially abnormal for New York, where there’s always an enormous budget for importing accomplished talent. By this measure, this is the least-pedigreed Yankee team in 25 years:

This is also the youngest Yankee squad since the 1992 edition. That team only won 76 games, however, while this year’s version is conservatively on track for 88 wins with a solid chance at the postseason.

The Yankees tend to exceed expectations a little anyway, winning about five more games per season on average over the past decade than would be predicted from the ages and credentials of their players alone. (Such are the benefits of a stingy bullpen and good pitching-staff management, along with having the payroll to fill gaps midseason.) But if this year’s team keeps playing to its early-season form, it would find itself punching above its weight class more than any Yankees team since the 1998 version that exploded for 114 wins and kicked off a dynasty.

With 18 former or future All-Stars, though, those Yankees weren’t exactly lacking in star power. They’d already won the World Series two seasons before, and 1998 was the third straight year that the team posted 90 or more wins. By contrast, it’s been five years since the current Yankees cracked that threshold. There’s still plenty we don’t know about this year’s team, but it’s safe to say they’re not the reincarnation of the ’98 Yankees.

And history tells us that while any team has the potential to catch lightning in a bottle, those that lack the underlying talent to back it up will almost certainly enjoy only fleeting success. Since 1961, the average team who outplayed their track records as much as the Yankees have thus far crashed back to earth the following season.5 And that’s looking at teams who elevated their play over an entire season, whereas the Yanks have only run hot for a month. That’s why projection systems still see New York as playing only a little better than .500 ball the rest of the season, despite the scorching start.

All of which is to say, the Yankees still probably haven’t arrived quite yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they do. Even if New York’s less-pedigreed contingent cools off over the rest of the 2017 season, they should get a boost from hard-hitting catcher Gary Sanchez, who is scheduled to return from injury soon. And the team’s combination of the No. 2-ranked farm system and the No. 2-ranked payroll in baseball could easily have the Yankees cracking 90 or even 95 wins within a couple seasons. According to Matt Swartz’s research on the relationship between farm rankings, payroll and wins, the second-ranked farm system is worth four wins above average two years into the future and the second-ranked payroll is worth 11 wins, which would add up to a 96-win season.

That Yankee squad will probably be headlined by current pinstripers like Judge and Sanchez, but also prospects like Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and James Kaprielian, none of whom have made the majors yet. By banking that gaudy April record, though, the Yankees have placed themselves squarely in the early-season playoff discussion, which is a conversation they should be a big part of for the foreseeable future.

Too many eggs in the pitching basket?

The New York Mets’ ongoing spate of pitching injuries this season — culminating Sunday with Noah Syndergaard’s torn right latissimus muscle, which will keep the flamethrower out indefinitely — had me wondering whether it was possible for a team to lean too heavily on the fragile arms of major league hurlers. (After all, how does a team go from being lauded for its pitching depth to relying on a catcher to chew innings in a month?)

In other words: Is building a team around pitching value inherently riskier than banking on hitters? I looked at this a couple of ways. First, I measured the year-to-year correlation in a team’s batting/fielding WAR and its pitching WAR6 going back to 1961. The verdict: Pitching WAR (with a correlation of 0.48) was slightly less reliable than position-player WAR (0.53) — though it’s a small difference at best.

The other thing I did was check to see if pitching-heavy teams were more prone to collapse — which I defined using several thresholds for declining records — in the following season. (Specifically, I ran a series of logit regressions testing whether the percentage of a team’s WAR that came from pitching was associated with an increased risk of declining by at least five, seven or 10 wins the next year.) It turns out there was no significant relationship between how much a team relied on its pitching staff and how likely it was to go down in flames in the future.

There are certainly other ways to look at this, but my quick-and-dirty research suggests that the Mets’ policy of relying on pitching wasn’t necessarily a flawed one. They just appear to have picked the wrong group of pitchers to count on.

Juiced-ball watch

Last year, our own Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh noticed that balls had been flying out of ballparks at a ridiculous clip since late in the 2015 season, and they found evidence that changes to the baseball itself could be responsible. Here, Ben notes that we could be in for even more dingers this season:

Give pitchers a chance (to hit eighth)

Multiple people sent me this question as Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is once again hitting his pitcher eighth in the batting order. Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell is reportedly considering doing the same, and many other managers have dabbled with the strategy over the years. Maddon picked it up from fabled lineup-tinkerer Tony La Russa, but does it work? Does it even matter?

A lot of interesting research has been conducted on the subject. Most notably, co-authors Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin examined the question in their great sabermetric manual “The Book,” where they used a markov chain-based lineup simulator to measure the effect of slotting a pitcher-caliber (i.e., terrible) hitter into various lineup spots. Although it hurts the offense to give more plate appearances to such a poor hitter, Tango and co. found that the damage was offset by the benefit of giving the nine hole to a “second leadoff hitter”: a reasonably competent hitter (often with similar skills to a traditional leadoff man) who would often come up before the top of the order, setting the table for those hitters far more frequently than the pitcher would.

One of my longtime favorites, Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton, performed some follow-up research several years later. Carleton used a markov simulator similar to the one used in “The Book,” but he also tried to account for the way hitting the pitcher eighth increases the likelihood that a manager will have to make a tough pinch-hitting decision when the starter’s spot comes up in the mid-to-late innings of a close game. And in Carleton’s final analysis, the problems that decision causes cancel out the benefit of the second leadoff man, making it basically a wash. Hitting the pitcher eighth is different, and maybe even a little cool, Carleton wrote, but the research shows it doesn’t add (or subtract) much in the grand scheme of things.

Footnotes

  1. Using an average of Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs.com’s WAR metrics.

  2. A team WAR of 11.2 in 26 games works out to about 70 over a full season; since the replacement level is set at 47 wins per 162 games (a .294 winning percentage), that adds up to 117 wins.

  3. According to WAR.

  4. For this, I used WAR but also added in wins generated below the replacement level — yielding a total “wins added” for each player. (This was necessary because some teams — such as the 1979 A’s and 2003 Tigers — nearly finished an entire season with subzero WAR totals, which would have thrown off their averages.)

  5. If the Yankees maintain their current winning percentage for the rest of the season, they’d finish with 106 wins, but we’d expect them to play like a 92-win team next year.

  6. Per 162 games.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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