On April 20th, 1977, Billy Martin, then in his first of approximately 176 stints as the Yankees’ manager, pulled a lineup out of his hat. Literally. In order to shake up a team that started the year 2-8 and was suffering the bouts of media drama notable for the team during this era, Martin set the batting order by putting the names of the starters on paper and selecting them from a hat. The team’s usual cleanup hitter, Chris Chambliss, hit 8th, meaning that the lie we tell to little kids about how the No. 8 spot is the “second cleanup hitter” was actually true for possibly the first time in human history. Whether coincidental or not, the Yankees won six games straight with only a couple minor changes to this pseudo-random lineup before the team returned to a more traditionally configured one.
The Yankee lineup on Sunday looked quite a lot like this lineup, but taken one step farther to even make the names random. Of course, this wasn’t due to any homage to the late, great Martin, but a necessity fueled by injuries to, well, nearly everybody. You might be excused if you thought someone goofed and you were looking at one of the team’s Grapefruit League lineups from this spring.
Narrator: You were not.
Only a single player in the lineup, Luke Voit, was both present and playing the position envisioned when the Yankees put together their roster (Gleyber Torres was healthy, but was given an off-day). Four players didn’t even start the season, just over three weeks old, on the 25-man roster, and a fifth, Mike Tauchman, was only acquired a week before Opening Day.
Naturally, the lineup, which would have shocked people a month ago, scored seven runs, eventually winning in ten innings. We’ll have to wait until the Yankees next play the Royals in late May to see if they broke some unwritten rule about crushing pitchers with their B-squad that apparently requires hitting people with baseballs.
[Update: Since I am getting old and my memory is occasionally spotty, the original version referenced the Fillmyer game when it was the Jorge Lopez game that had the lineup referenced. Aaron Judge was still available when they beat up on Fillmyer. -DS]
The larger truth, of course, is that the difference in position players is so small in baseball that the difference between average or good players and great players is almost non-existent in any one game. It doesn’t tell us how well the Yankees will survive overall with the losses due to injury.
To get an idea of how much health is responsible for changing the outlook, I ran two sets of ZiPS projections, one with the Yankees and the current assumptions for injuries and one if the Yankees suddenly got healthy, at least healthy enough to match the preseason playing time assumptions from this point on.
|New York Yankees||94||68||—||.580||48.9%||34.4%||83.3%|
|Tampa Bay Rays||93||69||1||.574||35.1%||40.1%||75.2%|
|Boston Red Sox||90||72||4||.556||15.8%||37.4%||53.2%|
|Toronto Blue Jays||76||86||18||.469||0.2%||1.3%||1.4%|
|New York Yankees||97||65||—||.599||64.8%||27.6%||92.3%|
|Tampa Bay Rays||92||70||5||.568||24.7%||48.2%||72.9%|
|Boston Red Sox||89||73||8||.549||10.5%||39.6%||50.1%|
|Toronto Blue Jays||76||86||21||.469||0.1%||1.1%||1.1%|
Now, there’s a significant loss in wins, but so far, the Yankees have only lost three victories relative to the projections based on the changes in playing time assumptions over the last month. The sunnier preseason projections, after all, already had injuries to Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino, Miguel Andujar, and Didi Gregorius baked into the cake.
But let’s be even gloomier. Let’s pretend that Hicks, Andujar, Gregorius, Stanton, Judge, and Bird are all out for the season. This is of course a far darker scenario than what appears to be the likely, but what’s the fun of having a projection system if you’re not going to test out weird possibilities?
That leaves a defensive lineup looking something like this:
|Tampa Bay Rays||94||68||—||.580||55.9%||25.8%||81.8%|
|Boston Red Sox||90||72||4||.556||26.2%||34.5%||60.7%|
|New York Yankees||88||74||6||.543||17.5%||30.1%||47.6%|
|Toronto Blue Jays||77||85||17||.475||0.4%||1.9%||2.4%|
Now, it pushes the Yankees to third in the division, but even this dark scenario doesn’t push the club out of contention. And with the missing losses due to injury rather than under-performance, it’s a more obvious scenario for the Yankees to be aggressive in making an acquisition, while something might be trickier if the problem was simply players who should be performing well but aren’t.
That the Yankees have this much survivability is testament to some responsible planning we talked about this offseason. Given the high likelihood of contention, the Yankees largely over-engineered their lineup. Facing Gregorius being gone at the start of the season, they brought in Troy Tulowitzki and LeMahieu, even without an obvious way to get both starter-level playing time before Gregorius’s return. Facing the Hicks injury, the Yankees weren’t content to just say “whatever, we have Frazier,” so they acquired Tauchman, an interesting spare part who the Rockies had little interest in exploring, in essence preparing for the next injury. There haven’t been as many nasty pitching surprises since the Severino injury, but even the Yankees there saw the wisdom of signing Gio Gonzalez (although he was recently released) in order to have a cheap fallback option in the case of another injury or simple disappointment from Domingo German or Jonathan Loaisiga.
The result of all this planning is that New York’s emergency lineups just aren’t that bad. In that Sunday lineup, every player is projected by ZiPS at above replacement level and generally beyond one WAR. It looks a lot like how the Astros built their starting rotation in 2018, not sweating the fact that Collin McHugh, a starter for the Astros since 2014, would be in relief. It’s also a lesson that the Red Sox and Indians took very poorly; the Red Sox might as well have been in stasis this winter and are paper-thin in multiple areas while the Indians have a starting lineup that can’t adequately survive not having the 2018 versions of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.
In essence, the Yankees lost a lot of wins above replacement, but they lost a lot fewer wins above Yankee replacement level by virtue of planning for a rainy day. The Yankees brought an umbrella to the 2019 season and it’s keeping them dry.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.