Let’s Pretend to Injure All of the Yankees

The 2019 Yankees may have been the best direct-to-video sequel ever. Usually these types of movies are the worst, mainly cheap forgettable cash-ins missing all the actors who were some of the biggest reasons the original was good. At various times, the Yankees lost Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances, Miguel Andújar, Aaron Hicks, and others. But surprisingly, everything just kinda worked out. DJ LeMahieu earned a place at the back of the MVP ballot, the pitching held together, and the team got tremendous years from Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman. The Yankees didn’t win the World Series, but they got closer than almost every other team in baseball, light years away from being, say, A Christmas Story 2 starring Daniel Stern, a movie that actually exists for some mysterious reason.

The Yankees survived the injuries, but it certainly wasn’t the desired outcome going into the year. Unfortunately for the Bronx Bombers, history has started repeating itself very quickly, leaving the team with the prospect of entering the 2020 season with a whole new slate of crucial injuries.

At the time of the ZiPS projection post for the Yankees, they were forecast for an obscene 102-103 wins (which would have been the best-ever ZiPS win projection). While this wasn’t with injury-free assumptions — ZiPS was already skeptical about the health of Hicks, Stanton, Severino, and James Paxton — this projection assumed that most of the stars would have healthier seasons. Paxton’s surgery to remove a cyst from his spine and the initial reports of Severino’s forearm soreness reduced these playing time estimates, dropping the Yankees to a “mere” 100 wins in the first public ZiPS run for the year.

The injury situation for the Yankees has gotten darker since these projections were run. Severino officially being out of the season thanks to Tommy John surgery sent the team’s divisional projections crashing from 82% to 69%. While this number slightly improved with Paxton being the rare Yankee who appears to be coming back ahead of schedule, the stress facture to Judge’s rib obliterated those gains. Additionally, Stanton’s recovery from a calf injury which will at least keep him out through Opening Day.

The Yankees did get some good news in that Gary Sánchez, who was close to returning from a back injury, was sidelined by the flu and not COVID-19.

An up-to-date projection is more relevant for this squad than for most teams, so since I’m well-equipped for this kind of nerdery, let’s go ahead and do that right now.

ZiPS Projected AL East Standings, 3/11
New York Yankees 96 66 .593 61.3% 29.2% 90.5% 12.7% 0.0% 26.4
Tampa Bay Rays 92 70 4 .568 32.6% 44.6% 77.2% 7.8% 0.0% 24.2
Boston Red Sox 85 77 11 .525 6.0% 25.9% 31.9% 2.0% 0.0% 18.5
Toronto Blue Jays 73 89 23 .451 0.0% 0.8% 0.9% 0.0% 0.5% 8.8
Baltimore Orioles 57 105 39 .352 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 58.0% 1.8

Projected with a 10-win cushion in January over the Rays, the Yankees have already “given back” four wins of that margin. This leaves them still the favorites in the AL East, but with an edge similar to the Twins vs. the Indians or White Sox rather than the more daunting advantage of the Los Angeles Dodgers. A total of 96 wins is still the second-best projection in baseball, behind only the Dodgers, but it predicts a more uncertain season for the Yankees, more of a battle than a coronation.

What should be noted, however, is that this projection assumes there’s no significant setback for Stanton in his recovery. Given his recent health record, it wouldn’t be shocking if it takes him longer to get back into games. This projection has Stanton averaging 515 plate appearances; what if we knock 200 off that number?

ZiPS Projected AL East Standings – Alternative Scenario 1
New York Yankees 95 67 .586 59.0% 30.0% 89.0% 12.1% 0.0% 26.1
Tampa Bay Rays 92 70 3 .568 34.5% 43.1% 77.6% 8.0% 0.0% 24.3
Boston Red Sox 85 77 10 .525 6.5% 26.0% 32.5% 2.1% 0.0% 18.6
Toronto Blue Jays 73 89 22 .451 0.1% 0.8% 0.9% 0.0% 0.5% 8.9
Baltimore Orioles 57 105 38 .352 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 57.7% 1.8

A more serious Stanton loss deteriorates the situation further, but the Yankees are very well equipped to absorb it. You’d likely see a lot more of Andújar in the lineup, but his problems are defensive, not offensive, so he’d be a comfortable replacement at DH. In all, ZiPS has the team losing a fraction of a win from this adjustment.

For our next step in stress-testing the Yankees, let’s be more pessimistic about Judge’s stress-broken rib. In the above projections, Aaron Judge average 500 plate appearances. Let’s knock off half of that.

ZiPS Projected AL East Standings – Alternative Scenario 2
New York Yankees 94 68 .580 53.7% 32.0% 85.7% 10.9% 0.0% 25.6
Tampa Bay Rays 93 69 1 .574 38.6% 39.6% 78.2% 8.4% 0.0% 24.4
Boston Red Sox 85 77 9 .525 7.6% 25.7% 33.3% 2.2% 0.0% 18.6
Toronto Blue Jays 73 89 21 .451 0.1% 0.8% 0.9% 0.0% 0.5% 8.9
Baltimore Orioles 57 105 37 .352 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 57.1% 1.8

Losing a few months of Judge is obviously not ideal, but it’s also not a disaster. It would likely mean a lot more playing time for Tauchman and Clint Frazier, with some more outfield appearances for Andújar (who is mostly replacing Stanton already), but they are better options than most teams have when losing a star. The divisional edge for the Yankees has shrunk, but still not completely disappeared and they remain the slight favorite at this point. Let’s change that.

Catching is a brutal position to play, and with Sánchez already having back problems, so how about we make that worse? Let’s say one of Sánchez’s friends has a couch that needs to be moved up three flights of stairs, and if you’ve ever done that, you know that’s an injury just waiting to happen! ZiPS has Sánchez at 420 PA and Kyle Higashioka at 120 PA, so let’s flip that.

ZiPS Projected AL East Standings – Alternative Scenario 3
New York Yankees 93 69 .574 47.4% 33.6% 81.0% 9.4% 0.0% 24.8
Tampa Bay Rays 93 69 .574 43.6% 35.6% 79.2% 8.9% 0.0% 24.5
Boston Red Sox 86 76 7 .531 8.9% 25.7% 34.6% 2.4% 0.0% 18.8
Toronto Blue Jays 73 89 20 .451 0.1% 0.9% 1.0% 0.0% 0.5% 9.0
Baltimore Orioles 57 105 36 .352 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 56.5% 1.9

Higashoka’s probably stretched as a full-time starter, but he does have a projection north of one win as the primary catcher, well above trolling for a Triple-A veteran or finding the best unemployed catcher who you have the cell number for. It does leave the race a coin flip, with the Yankees the very, very slight favorite. Let’s change that. I’m an O’s fan after all and I have lots of memories of Yankee-friendly crowds at Camden Yards!

The Yankee bullpen stayed relatively intact in 2019, especially compared to the rest of the team, with the big exception of Betances. Even knocking off Aroldis Chapman only pushes the race slightly into the Rays category; the team’s relief depth isn’t what it was the last few years, but there’s a limit on how valuable any reliever can be. An unfortunate Luke Voit mishap leaves the Yankees with the perfectly suitable Mike Ford replacement. A starting pitcher injury is also not sexy enough here as ZiPS likes both a returning Jordan Montgomery and a Deivi Garcia forced into major league action.

So we have to be crueler than this. Losing Gleyber Torres for three months would be a harder pill to swallow than any of the previous ones we prescribed. There’s no DJ LeMahieu waiting in the wings here, just Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada. The Yankees only have a single non-roster invitee who can play the middle infield, Kyle Holder, who had a .742 OPS as a 25-year-old playing Double-A ball last year.

ZiPS Projected AL East Standings – Alternative Scenario 4
Tampa Bay Rays 93 69 .574 53.0% 28.2% 81.2% 9.8% 0.0% 24.8
New York Yankees 91 71 2 .562 35.3% 34.6% 69.9% 7.0% 0.0% 23.2
Boston Red Sox 86 76 7 .531 11.6% 25.8% 37.4% 2.7% 0.0% 19.1
Toronto Blue Jays 74 88 19 .457 0.2% 1.0% 1.2% 0.0% 0.5% 9.2
Baltimore Orioles 57 105 36 .352 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 55.6% 1.9

In terms of wins, ZiPS projects that losing Torres for a half-season, given the contours of the roster, is as damaging to the Yankees as the first three theoretical losses combined. That’s not saying that Torres is more valuable than Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez combined, but only that the team is poorly situated to handle that kind of a loss. It’s enough to make me wonder if the Yankees made a misstep by not adding to the infield depth this offseason. While Gregorius may not have accepted a qualifying offer and the Yankees clearly didn’t want to risk it, having someone like Matt Duffy or Yolmer Sánchez or Adeiny Hechavarría may have been prudent.

I should note that all this doom and gloom still leaves the Yankees as playoff favorites, just via the wild card more often than a divisional crown. As long as we’re being excessively cruel, let’s take away Gerrit Cole for the season.

ZiPS Projected AL East Standings – Alternative Scenario 5
Tampa Bay Rays 93 69 .574 68.6% 17.2% 85.8% 11.3% 0.0% 25.3
Boston Red Sox 86 76 7 .531 16.7% 27.8% 44.5% 3.4% 0.0% 19.7
New York Yankees 86 76 7 .531 14.4% 25.7% 40.1% 2.9% 0.0% 19.1
Toronto Blue Jays 74 88 19 .457 0.3% 1.5% 1.8% 0.1% 0.4% 9.5
Baltimore Orioles 58 104 35 .358 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 53.2% 2.0

I was hoping that Baltimore’s divisional odds would finally round up to 0.1%, but no such luck. I did get the Yankees down to the level of the Red Sox, though it took a biblical number of disasters.

The Yankees are an excellent team, one of the best in baseball. But with Severino already gone for the year, it doesn’t take that much to turn the AL East into a real divisional race.

We hoped you liked reading Let’s Pretend to Injure All of the Yankees by Dan Szymborski!

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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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Why stop there? Let’s imprison Cashman and the entire baseball ops department. Burn down Yankee stadium. Banish NYY fans from the United States.

[checks projections; they’re still better than Baltimore’s for 2020]

Well…. I tried.