The Yankees Have Been the Best Team in Baseball

It’s not supposed to be the Yankees’ time — not yet. I think we’ve all sensed a coming resurgence, given their resources, and given their farm system. We knew the Yankees would bounce back eventually, and it’s considered a foregone conclusion they’re going to grab at least one of the big-name future free agents. But this year — this was supposed to be an average year. Maybe a wild-card year, one of those years where, if everything went right, the Yankees could scrape to 85 or 90 wins. The division was going to belong to the Red Sox. How could that division not belong to the Red Sox?

Still might. Red Sox are good. But everyone’s aware of the Yankees, now. They opened the season 1-4, losing consecutive series to the Rays and Orioles. Yet they just pulled off a road weekend sweep in Wrigley Field. If you sort the regular standings, the Yankees have baseball’s best winning percentage. If you sort the nerd-friendly standings, the Yankees have baseball’s best BaseRuns winning percentage. By outcome and by process, the Yankees have been better than anyone, and what might be truly frightening is just how much has gone wrong.

Now, no one’s going to compare the Yankees and the Mets. The Mets have faced some tremendous early-season adversity, some of it admittedly of their own doing. But the Yankees haven’t had what they expected to have. Their 2016 sensation Gary Sanchez has played in just eight games. Their 2015 and spring-training sensation Gregory Bird has all of six hits. They were without their starting shortstop for the first few weeks, and CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka have combined for a near-5 ERA. If this were all you knew about the Yankees’ first 29 games, you might put them at 10 wins before you’d put them at 20.

And yet 20’s the lucky number. The Yankees’ starting rotation has been better than average, powered by Michael Pineda and Luis Severino. The Yankees rank fourth in baseball in bullpen WAR, and their group of position players ranks first. Although they’re second in runs, they’re first in wRC+, third in baserunning, and middle-of-the-pack in defense. Yankees position players have a combined WAR of 8.6. Sanchez, Bird, and Didi Gregorius have been worth a combined -0.2.

It’s not a total shock that Pineda might get things straightened out. It’s been difficult to explain why his ERA *wasn’t* good. Severino, too, is someone we’ve kind of seen coming. As far as the hitters go, you already have a pretty good understanding of what’s driven the Yankees to this point. Turning to the bullpen, the Yankees were never going to suffer as long as they had both Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. But I want to make sure that Jonathan Holder, Adam Warren, and Tyler Clippard also get their due. Those are the top five Yankees relievers in average leverage index. I looked at the numbers for every team’s top five leverage relievers. The Yankees are first by strikeout rate, at 33%. They’re second by runs per nine innings, at 1.89. It’s a good *and* deep bullpen, and it should remain that way, more or less.

If you think about how things have begun, the Yankees are kind of like the anti-Giants. The Giants started as a strong wild-card and divisional contender. Compared to opening day, their projected record is now down 11 wins. Their rest-of-season projected winning percentage is down 35 points, easily the worst mark in the game. The Giants’ awful start has put them on the fringe of the race. There’s so much work for them to do just to be relevant.

The Yankees opened on the fringe, and now they look like a strong wild-card and divisional contender. Compared to opening day, their projected record is now up more than nine wins. Their rest-of-season projected winning percentage is up 26 points, which is the best mark in the game. For one thing, the Yankees have played well. For another thing, they’ve played in such a way the projections see a club that’s substantially improved.

There’s credit to go around, obviously. But I’ll say this much: No hitter has improved his offensive projection more than Ryan Zimmerman. Compared to his preseason projection, Zimmerman’s projected rest-of-season wOBA now is up 31 points. Ryan Zimmerman, very impressive! The name in second place is Aaron Judge. The name in third place is Aaron Hicks. You don’t have to go far to find Starlin Castro. Judge now looks like he could be great. Hicks now looks like he could be good. You don’t need another Aaron Judge article. There are plenty of those already in circulation.

So you can put on the positive spin. The Yankees have already been good, with little from guys like Bird and Sanchez. They should be better, so the Yankees should be better! There’s no stopping the Yankees! And to a certain extent, I can get it — it really could be a tremendous lineup if you believe in guys like Judge and, to a lesser extent, Hicks. There’s no great reason not to believe in them yet.

I can’t not think about historical precedent, though. The Yankees have 20 wins through their first 29 games. What’s the recent track record of teams with similar hot starts? I’ve referred several times to my spreadsheet of preseason team projections going back to 2005. So, one more time, we’re going to play around within that window. Between 2005 and 2016, there were 34 teams that won at least 19 of their first 29 games. Here are some relevant numbers.

  • Average preseason projected wins: 84
  • Average end-of-season actual wins: 90
  • Average preseason projected winning percentage: .518
  • Average rest-of-season winning percentage: .525

That last bullet point refers to winning percentage after the first 29 games. Compared to the preseason projections, you see an improvement of just seven points — the equivalent of about one win over a full year. To narrow this down a little more, this year we had the Yankees projected a hair or two under .500. Between 2005 and 2016, there were 12 teams that won at least 19 of their first 29 games after being projected below .500. Here are some relevant numbers.

  • Average preseason projected wins: 77
  • Average end-of-season actual wins: 85
  • Average preseason projected winning percentage: .474
  • Average rest-of-season winning percentage: .492

There are more positive and negative ways to take this. On the negative side, in that second sample, the teams collectively played under .500 the rest of the way. The hot starts didn’t reveal that the teams were actually good; rather, they were just slightly improved. On the positive side, the teams were improved, and those early wins never went away. On average, these teams finished eight games better than their preseason projections. This is what you’d expect, and this is what our current projections expect, basically. You shouldn’t look for the regression monster to make the Yankees unravel. For the billionth time, I will declare that the games in the books are the games in the books, and the Yankees get to take those wins to the bank. They get to keep the wins, and they get to keep all the encouraging signs.

When the season began, we projected the Yankees to have the American League’s 11th-best record. Now we project them to finish with the AL’s fourth-best record, easily good enough to make it into the playoffs. And there’s reason to believe the Yankees are even better than their projection, depending on the extent to which you believe in Judge and some other potentially corner-turning players. It was never supposed to be a bad roster. It was going to be a volatile roster. Volatility comes with incredible upside.

The start has been a hell of a start. The finish doesn’t need to be nearly so good for the Yankees to arrive a little ahead of schedule. It’s probably not possible to sell the Yankees — literally the New York Yankees — as any kind of feel-good operation, but this might be as close as they can get.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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