The Yankees Overperformed Because They Overplanned

The Yankees’ preparation for the worst made them one of the best. (Photo: Keith Allison)

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” – Molière

Injuries are one of baseball’s most common complaints. If there has ever been a contender that fell short without blaming injuries as one of the reasons, I certainly don’t remember them. What’s rarely admitted to is the fact that almost every team suffers these setbacks, and that it’s the teams that get to play with their entire on-paper roster from the preseason that are the extreme outliers.

The 2019 Yankees didn’t need many excuses for their final results. Despite losing most of the desired starting lineup and their best pitcher from 2018, the team won 103 games, three more than the previous year. As an Oriole fan who grew up in Baltimore, the Yankees being so darn good despite all of their setbacks is irksome. As a baseball analyst, I can’t help but admire what they accomplished.

The Setup

One of the less appreciated aspects of the 2018 Yankees was just how young the roster was. No, the Yankees weren’t coming out of a rebuild, but the team’s construction historically has featured a lot of very highly paid veterans. These Yankees were still big spenders, just like most every other Yankee team; even during the early-90s rough patch, the club never fell out of the top 10 in payroll. But only a single hitter in 2018 worth at least one win was in his 30s (Brett Gardner). The pitching was older than the lineup, but Luis Severino, at 24, was worth more than any other two pitchers on the team combined.

Don’t just believe an anecdote, believe the data. In terms of WAR for players that haven’t reached their age-30 season, these Yankees were the second-best in team history.

New York Yankees, Under Age 30 WAR
Year <Age 30 WAR
1942 43.3
2018 41.7
2017 41.5
1941 38.1
1956 37.9
1957 37.3
1921 37.2
1958 37.1
1943 36.8
1954 36.7
1931 36.7
1927 35.1
1911 35.1
1910 34.8
1961 34.3
1936 34.2
1932 33.7
1920 33.7
1952 33.5
1923 32.4
2010 32.1
1963 31.8
1922 31.6
1971 31.6
1955 31.3
1998 30.9
1976 30.6
1970 30.5
1978 30.3
1939 30.2

From 1999-2008, the team averaged 11.7 WAR per season from players under 30 and didn’t hit 20 WAR in any of those years. This had consequences for the roster; without a willingness to spend $300 million a year, the Yankees had little in the way of reinforcement when the team’s legacy superstars started falling off the cliff. From 2013-16, the Yankees failed to win 90 games in a season. While this is hardly a great measure of pure futility, the only time the Yankees had done this since the CBS years in the 1960s was that early-90s fallow period.

Brian Cashman has now been the team’s general manager for more than 20 years, but his authority over team decisions wasn’t always what it’s become recently. Cashman’s job at the start was keeping the phenomenally talented organization on the right path. The 2010s were the stronger challenge as he needed to not just keep the Yankees winning games, but in light of the organization’s desire to get under the luxury tax threshold, make the team lean as well as mean. The first wave of Cashman’s Baby Bombers got the team back over the 90-win mark, and the organization’s faith in him was enough that he was able to cut ties with manager Joe Girardi before receiving a five-year, $25 million contract extension.

Girardi wasn’t fired because he was a terrible manager; he did a more-than-adequate job at helping transition the team from one era to the next. While the Yankees officially downplayed any notion that there was a disconnect between Cashman and Girardi, writers who followed the team (including myself) didn’t fail to hear of some situations in which the two didn’t see eye-to-eye on analytics. In hiring Aaron Boone while now being the unchallenged power in the organization, Cashman added a manager with a similar baseball worldview to himself, and I don’t believe that was a coincidence.

The Red Sox won the World Series in 2018, but the ZiPS projections saw the Yankees as the slightly better team, both at the start and the end of the season. Improving a hundred-win club is no easy feat, but they were able to do so in an active 2018-19 offseason. The Yankees started the winter with a big move, acquiring James Paxton from the Mariners, giving the team a potential ace with durability concerns. Sonny Gray, who had trouble clicking with the Yankees, was traded after the team confirmed returns from J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia. The team’s always-deep bullpen was buttressed by the re-signing of Zach Zack Britton as well as the addition of Adam Ottavino, who was coming off a dominating campaign with the Rockies.

With the roster looking deep on paper, the Yankees were active in assembling backup plans. Didi Gregorius would eventually return from his October Tommy John surgery, but the team searched for more robust contingencies than Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes. DJ LeMahieu was signed to a two-year, $24 million contract without even an apparent starting position once the team was healthy, and the Yankees gambled a lottery ticket in Troy Tulowitzki. Gio Urshela, who was acquired the previous summer and had worked on his swing with minor league coach Phil Plantier, was signed to a deal with the parent club in late spring.

The Projection

Even as the projected playing time for some of the team’s biggest stars started deteriorating over the course of the spring, the ZiPS projection system remained a big fan of the Yankees. The final projection before the start of the season was for a 98-64 record, the best in baseball. The only reason the Yankees didn’t have the best World Series projection (14.3%) was that the presence of the Boston Red Sox reduced the Yankees to a wild card in nearly 40% of situations.

The most interesting thing in the projections was the lack of downside for the team (ZiPS uses a methodology that takes into account the secondary talent, not just the on-paper roster). To illustrate this, the Yankees had a mean projection of only two more wins than the Cleveland Indians (98 vs. 96). But when it came to the 10th-percentile projection, the Yankees had an 11-win edge over Cleveland, 90-to-79. The eight-win dropoff from the 50th percentile to the 10th was the smallest in baseball, though the Astros and Dodgers were closer than the Indians.

The Results

As injuries piled up, even before the season started, the Yankees brought in a lot of “extra” talent, sorting through players who struggled to receive chances in their previous stops (Mike Tauchman, Jake Barrett) and inexpensive veteran fill-ins (Cameron Maybin, Gio Gonzalez, Logan Morrison, Brad Miller).

And those injuries really piled up. Gregorius, of course, was already known to be out for about half of the season. Miguel Andújar’s campaign ended in early May, and Tulowitzki retired in July. Severino’s six-week injury turned out to be closer to a six-month one, and Dellin Betances only returned briefly in September. Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton missed most of the season and Aaron Judge was out two months.

None of this really seemed to bother the Yankees. Urshela’s changed mechanics led to more home runs (21) than he ever hit in a season, majors or minors. LeMahieu’s MVP case withered as Mike Trout and Alex Bregman took off, but he was a legitimate top-10 AL position player in 2019. Tauchman, another former Rockie, was given a chance at full-time work. Colorado only bothered to give him six starts in 2018 after he hit .323/.408/.571 for Albuquerque while giving 13 to Matt Holliday, who was unemployed for most of the season. Tauchman hit like clockwork for New York, with his .277/.361/.504 line crushing the expectations of even the most optimistic prognosticators (including me, who spent much of 2018 stanning for him).

While some of it had to do with the fact that the team was still winning, the club showed a great deal of cool thinking amid the injuries. At no point did they panic and start throwing top prospects at the problem. That’s not to say the Yankees did nothing, they just didn’t make panic-type moves. Edwin Encarnación was acquired midseason for Juan Then, their No. 31 prospect, which was a solid trade considering Encarnacion’s .856 OPS as a Yankee.

Feeling little pressure with a 7 1/2 game lead in the division at the trade deadline, the Yankees had a very quiet late summer, at least from a transaction standpoint. As they saw it, their returning stars were de facto acquisitions. The Yankees continued to roll, finishing the season with a 35-20 record before murderizing the Twins in the playoffs with a three-game sweep. The Yankees were eliminated in six games in the American League Championship Series, in a game against the Astros that was certainly the first bullpen vs. bullpen playoff elimination game I can remember.

What Comes Next?

With a deep roster in which nearly every contributor was already returning for 2020, the Yankee offseason plan should have been to make one big score, focusing their available cash as tightly as possible, like a center punch smashing a car window.

And, well, that’s precisely what they did. With the luxury tax penalty reset and guaranteed contracts dropping under $100 million in 2021, the Yankees were fine busting through the threshold to get the right guy. They got their right guy in Gerrit Cole, the AL Cy Young runner-up in 2019. No pitcher in baseball is clearly preferable to Cole, and assuming better health from Severino, the Yankees have a frightening one-two punch in the rotation. Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka are an equally terrifying three and four.

The biggest challenge for the Yankees is a nice one for a team to have: how do you get everyone enough playing time without causing disgruntlement in the clubhouse? Even with some regression to the mean from Urshela, Andújar’s glove at third is weak enough that it’s not obvious to give him that job, and the team’s deep outfield means they won’t get him 500 plate appearances at DH. The team has resisted trading Clint Frazier, but they also have little place to play him. That leaves Happ, Jordan Montgomery, and Jonathan Loaisiga fighting for table scraps with Domingo German after he returns from suspension, something that could be even more difficult if Deivi Garcia’s performance makes it hard to keep him down in Triple-A.

I suspect that if the team looks healthier as 2020 starts, we will see the Yankees being unusually active on the trade front in the early going.

2020 ZiPS Projection – Gleyber Torres

At least one of the team’s stars in the lineup did stay healthy in the form of Gleyber Torres, the bounty from the Aroldis Chapman-to-Cubs trade. Called to play second base and shortstop, Torres acquitted himself quite well at short, better than many expected, with UZR seeing him at -5 runs per 150 games and DRS at just about even. His second base performance wasn’t quite as exciting, but it’s more evidence that Torres can do more than just fake being a middle infielder and that a move to third base is not required at this time. He continued to develop as a hitter as well and just barely missed putting up his first four-win season.

Torres became more aggressive at the plate in 2019 in the best possible sense. Of the increase in swing rate from 2018 to 2019, 92% was from in-zone as opposed to out-of-zone gains. His walk rate declined (as did his strikeout rate), but it wasn’t from poor plate discipline but from seizing more opportunities. Torres left the yard 38 times in 2019. Even if the ball becomes de-juiced, I’d be surprised if Torres doesn’t finish his career with multiple 40-homer seasons.

ZiPS Projection – Gleyber Torres
2020 .287 .348 .557 558 94 160 26 1 41 115 52 128 7 136 -7 4.6
2021 .292 .357 .588 544 97 159 27 1 44 121 55 130 6 146 -6 5.1
2022 .289 .357 .586 543 97 157 27 1 44 120 57 134 6 145 -6 5.1
2023 .289 .359 .602 543 100 157 27 1 47 124 59 138 6 150 -6 5.4
2024 .287 .360 .601 537 99 154 26 1 47 124 61 138 6 150 -6 5.4

Let’s not forget that Torres only turned 23 a few weeks ago. His upside can best be described as “monster” and the Yankees should already be thinking long-term contract extension.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for 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

Oh those Gleyber projections.

3 years ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

He’s a hell of a player any way you slice it; it’s possibly worth pointing out that he went an absurd 26-66 against BAL, with 13 homers.

3 years ago
Reply to  rhswanzey

I’d love to see how he would project if you used his vs BAL #s (prorated out to a mostly full season) as his 2019 season.

3 years ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

I would have expected much more conservative projections for Gleyber: last year he had a 21.5% HR/FB ratio but only an 89 MPH average exit velo. That makes him look like a regression candidate to me. Why does ZIPS like him so much?

Still, we could take 10 HRs/year off these projections, and they’d still be insanely good.

3 years ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

Offensively, that’s about as optimistic as you’ll ever see ZiPS on a non-Mike Trout player.

3 years ago
Reply to  jdr

Juan Soto says hi.