The Yankees: The Most Underrated Team in Baseball

In my regular Wednesday chat this week, this question popped up:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.18.27 AM

Interestingly, a few days before, I’d been thinking about the narrative of the Yankees heading into 2016, and how so much of it is being driven by their lack of free agent spending this winter. It’s almost historically unprecedented for the Yankees to sit out an entire free agent class, but this winter, the team decided to make their upgrades through the trade market instead, and thus have not signed a single player to a major league contract this off-season. With the Red Sox stocking up for another run, the Blue Jays likely to still be a force, and the Rays and Orioles doing enough to keep themselves around .500, the Yankees are in the unusual position of being something of an afterthought in the AL East.

Thus, we get questions like this one from Christian, asking for some hope that his team might contend in 2016. Well, fear not, Christian; not only do I think there are reasons to think the Yankees are legitimate contenders, I think they might actually be the most underrated team in baseball heading into the season.

Let’s start with the obvious; the Yankees were contenders last year, so it’s not like they’re trying to bridge some kind of big gap that the 2015 team couldn’t overcome. The Bronx Bombers won 87 games a year ago, and it wasn’t a sequencing-aided fluke; they were an 87 win team by BaseRuns as well. That they made the Wild Card game wasn’t some kind of happy accident.

Now, you don’t want to just take last year’s results, add in the performances of the new guys, and call that a 2016 projection; that isn’t how life works. The team added Aroldis Chapman, for instance, but their overall bullpen performance probably won’t be substantially better, since the guys who are coming back should be expected to perform a bit worse, and Chapman’s essentially replacing Justin Wilson, who was tremendous in 2015. Likewise, Starlin Castro should be an upgrade over what the team got from their second baseman a year ago, but they also have to account for the fact that they probably won’t get the same level of production from first base or designated hitter again.

But even with expected regression from the returning veterans, I still see a pretty good amount of upside on this roster, especially on the pitching side of things.

A year ago, the Yankees run prevention could best be described as okay. Their 99 ERA- ranked squarely in the middle of the pack, ranking 15th best in baseball, but those average results were mostly driven by an anomalous home run problem. A year ago, 13.6% of the fly balls the Yankees allowed ended up going over the fence, the highest ratio of any team in baseball. Sure, some of that is just the nature of the ballpark they play in, but HR/FB ratio is also one of the least consistent year-to-year variables for a pitcher, even ones who throw half their games in a park that inflates home run rates.

By xFIP-, which normalizes their home run rate, the Yankees pitching staff actually ranked 4th in baseball in 2015 with a mark of 91, suggesting that based on their walks, strikeouts, and ground ball rates, they should have had an above average run prevention unit. If that had been the case, combined with the team’s strong offense, they’d have won 90+ games pretty easily, and we probably wouldn’t be questioning whether or not the 2016 Yankees could contend with mostly the same roster.

Of course, there are reasons to think that perhaps the Yankees have just assembled a rotation full of guys who aren’t as good as xFIP thinks. Since the start of the 2012 season, CC Sabathia has thrown over 600 innings and has a 14.6% HR/FB ratio over that time; it seems pretty clear that the regression in his stuff has made it easier for hitters to square up his mistakes, and he probably shouldn’t be expected to post league-average HR/FB rates in 2016.

Likewise, the Yankees were able to acquire Nathan Eovaldi from the Marlins because of his history of allowing hard contact, and while he probably won’t give up a .337 BABIP again, his career mark is .316 in over 600 innings pitched, so he’s probably not going to regress back to the league average rates of hits on balls in play. And while Michael Pineda’s track record is shorter, he’s pitched much better with the bases empty than with runners on, so it’s possible that he’s part of the Javier Vazquez family of pitchers, guys who simply don’t squash rallies as well as you’d expect based on how they do in low-pressure situations.

But historically, it’s probably more correct to expect one of these issues to repeat themselves again in 2016, not all three. And when we look at teams who have posted an eight point gap between their ERA- and xFIP- in one year, we see that it mostly goes away the next year. Here are the other teams since 2002 who also underperformed their xFIP- by eight points, and then what the gap was in the following season.

Yankee-Like Pitching Staffs Since 2002
Team Season ERA- xFIP- Next ERA- Next xFIP-
Astros 2007 107 99 104 98
Dodgers 2010 105 97 98 97
Indians 2004 107 99 84 92
Marlins 2007 112 104 103 102
Mets 2011 113 105 110 103
Rangers 2008 119 111 93 102
Reds 2007 108 100 103 97
Twins 2012 116 108 113 108
Average 111 103 101 100

The 2012 Mets basically repeated their gap between ERA- and xFIP-, and the 2013 Twins and 2008 Astros didn’t improve by much, but the overall trend is clear; the team’s next-season ERA was almost a perfect match for their xFIP, as the overall group didn’t show a strong tendency to continue to underperform their expected results. This isn’t any kind of shocking discovery, as it’s been known for a while that single-season ERA isn’t a particularly good predictor of future ERA, but it’s good to remember that we shouldn’t just look at the Yankees 2015 home run problem and decide that it’s an inherent issue that is likely to carry over to 2016.

The Yankees have a rotation of pitchers whose peripherals suggest that they’re actually pretty good, even if the results weren’t there a year ago. There are clear health risks throughout the group, and it doesn’t do the team any good to bet on positive regression if Pineda and Tanaka just end up on the DL, as is certainly possible. But if they can keep their starting pitchers reasonably healthy, the Yankees probably have something like a league average rotation, and they inarguably have the best bullpen in baseball; this is a pitching staff that could end up being one of the best in baseball, even without a traditional ace.

Beyond the health of the pitchers, the question will be how much of their strong offense can repeat in 2016. Mark Teixeira and A-Rod will likely hit worse, and now they won’t have Greg Bird around to pick up the slack, so there are legitimate concerns about whether the offense might regress more than the pitching staff improves. But the Yankees were second in baseball in run scoring a year ago, so there’s some room to fall while still being a strong enough offensive club to contend. They probably won’t be the offensive juggernaut they were a year ago, but with a pitching staff that could make significant gains in 2016, even just an above-average offense should be enough to get them into the Wild Card range.

The Yankees might have had a pretty boring off-season, but there are plenty of reasons to think that they remain one of the better clubs in the American League, just like they were a year ago. They’re not an elite team, but in a league lacking any elite teams, they have nearly as good a shot at the World Series as anyone else.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

Dave, you said they could have been one of the two wild card teams. In fact, they were.

8 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

That’s how under-rated they are.

The guy saying they’re under-rated, under-rates them.