Let’s Pretend to Heal All of the Yankees

Last month, in more normal times, we tested the Yankees to see how injury-resistant the 2020 roster actually was in light of the then-recent news that Luis Severino would miss 2020 with Tommy John surgery. While this year’s Yankees roster wasn’t quite as deep as 2019’s, it took a lot of key injuries to seriously affect the team’s 2020 chances. But even as they remained the favorites to win the East, losing James Paxton until at least May, Aaron Judge‘s broken rib, and Giancarlo Stanton’s sore calf muscle increased the team’s downside risk.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported late Monday night that MLB and the MLBPA were discussing the particulars of a plan that would see workouts resume in May with the season beginning soon after. Passan is as dependable as they come, and I have little doubt about the story, but the chances of the season starting that quickly strike me as fairly small. As Ben Clemens wrote for FanGraphs earlier today, the logistical lift involved with such a plan is enormous. From what I’ve heard doing the rounds — and I’ve yet to have a colleague form a drastically different impression — MLB’s more realistic targets involve June workouts and a start sometime in early-to-mid July.

Obviously, teams would rather be playing right now, regardless of their roster’s injury status. Reality is terrible! But with reality’s timeline in mind, instead of injuring all of the Yankees, what if we healed them? It’s not quite as preposterous as it sounds thanks to the delayed start to the season. Severino wouldn’t return no matter how late Opening Day ends up being, so my headline is a bit of a cruel lie. But a midseason start to the 2020 season leaves a very real chance that the Yankees kick things off with Paxton, Judge, and Stanton all on the active roster; Stanton was likely to return in April, but the outlook for Paxton and Judge was a bit foggier.

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed how playoff probabilities change in shorter seasons. The Yankees remained the projected division favorite in all the scenarios post-Severino, but the shorter the season, the greater the chance that the Rays could pull off one of their upside scenarios and topple the Bombers. With no other change but the length of the season, New York’s probability of winning the AL East (per ZiPS) went from 61% to 49%, a 12-point drop that you could fairly describe as 1/8th of a divisional title.

However, these projections were generalized, and not intended to look at factors such as injuries. For most teams, this isn’t that big a deal, as there aren’t that many players who have a drastically different injury outlook beginning in July instead of April. But the Yankees happen to have a few of them in Judge and Paxton and possibly Aaron Hicks. The Yankees do have some outfield depth, but replacing Judge’s expected performance isn’t easy. Paxton isn’t quite as valuable as Judge — nor normally projected as quite as healthy — but the team’s starting pitcher depth is stretched thin after needing to replace Severino, Paxton, and the suspended Domingo Germán.

Assuming a July start that allows the Yankees to get their injured players back (sans Severino), ZiPS projects the team to win two additional games over a 110-game season. That may not sound like a lot, but two wins loom larger in a shorter season. Those two tiny wins are enough to bump their current AL East win probability from 60.2% to 69.6%. That still leaves nearly a one-in-three chance that the Rays win the division, but in that case, the Yankees can at least feel that they lost with their best available team on the field.

While the Yankees have the most high-profile injuries, they’re not the only team with injured players who would benefit from a later start to the season. Who else would do well with more time to get healthy? To gauge this, I gave back the players teams are likely to have return with an early-July start. I then compared those projections to a set of projections based on the current team roster strength given their current injuries (and a 110-game season to keep the comparisons apples to apples):

MLB Teams, Midseason Health vs. Current Health
Team Division Change Playoff Change
New York Yankees 9.4% 5.5%
Houston Astros 2.9% 2.0%
Cleveland Indians 2.7% 2.6%
Cincinnati Reds 1.6% 2.5%
Atlanta Braves 1.4% 1.1%
Philadelphia Phillies 0.3% 0.8%
Arizona Diamondbacks 0.1% -0.6%
St. Louis Cardinals 0.1% 0.2%
San Francisco Giants 0.1% 0.2%
Baltimore Orioles 0.0% 0.0%
Colorado Rockies 0.0% -0.2%
Detroit Tigers 0.0% 0.0%
Seattle Mariners 0.0% 0.0%
San Diego Padres 0.0% -1.1%
Miami Marlins 0.0% -0.1%
Kansas City Royals -0.1% -0.3%
New York Mets -0.1% 0.0%
Los Angeles Dodgers -0.1% -0.3%
Texas Rangers -0.1% -0.3%
Pittsburgh Pirates -0.2% -0.2%
Toronto Blue Jays -0.3% -0.5%
Milwaukee Brewers -0.3% -0.1%
Los Angeles Angels -0.8% -1.4%
Chicago White Sox -1.0% -1.8%
Chicago Cubs -1.3% -1.0%
Washington Nationals -1.5% -1.1%
Boston Red Sox -1.6% -1.2%
Minnesota Twins -1.6% -1.1%
Oakland A’s -2.0% -1.7%
Tampa Bay Rays -7.6% -1.7%

The conventional wisdom that the Yankees have the most to gain in terms of health appears to be well-founded: In terms of projections, they’re the biggest gainers using this methodology. On the flip side and unsurprisingly, the team’s AL East rivals see the largest losses, math demanding that the AL East probabilities add up to 100%! The Red Sox come out an even longer shot after losing Chris Sale for the season, and Tampa Bay sees their probabilities decline the most with New York’s gains.

A healthy Justin Verlander represents a significant boost for the Astros. Houston’s rotation is not as deep as it once was and having Verlander start the 2020 season fully recovered from his groin surgery is extraordinarily helpful; ZiPS does not see the Oakland A’s going away easily.

A July start also gives Cleveland Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger in a playoff race that projects to be a fairly close one. The Reds are better equipped than most to deal with the short-term loss of Eugenio Suárez, but in what appears to be a tight NL Central, having their 49-homer third baseman is a good thing.

At this stage, there’s a lot we don’t know about the 2020 season, whether it’s when it will start, the format, the length, or even if it will actually happen. Assuming there is a season, though, whatever it ends up looking like, the Yankees should be a bit more formidable than they would have been otherwise.

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.

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3 years ago

I mentioned this in a chat the other day, but I wonder how toolish the Astros would be if they lost in the playoffs in a short season and claimed that was why.

3 years ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

The most toolish of the Astros will always be around the same level of toolishness. There’s really no way for them to get more so.