Yankees Now the AL East Favorite by Craig Edwards June 3, 2015 The New York Yankees haven’t been to the playoffs since 2012. In itself that’s not all that noteworthy: a two-year playoff drought when the team won 84 and 85 games over the previous two years seems more like bad luck than fundamental organizational error. Over the last two seasons, however, more teams have made the playoffs than haven’t, and the Yankees are in the minority despite their $200 million payrolls. After first planning to cut salaries and then abandoning that plan following a disappointing 2013 season, the Yankees’ spending spree couldn’t quite push them to the playoffs last year. Surprisingly, though, it’s the same collection of injury-prone, aging players from last year who have led to the club’s success over the first two months of the 2015 season. In 2014, newcomer Jacoby Ellsbury played well, but Brian McCann disappointed on offense, and Carlos Beltran never got things going. Injuries to Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka — plus the complete absence of Alex Rodriguez, a compromised Mark Teixeira, and a disappointing farewell for Derek Jeter — meant a second straight season without the playoffs. Hiroki Kuroda played well, but he didn’t return for 2015. During the offseason, the Yankees did more tinkering than make wholesale changes. They brought in Didi Gregorius to play shortstop, retained trade-acquisition Chase Headley, and signed Andrew Miller to replace the departed David Robertson. The Yankees current record of 28-25 is only one game better than their expected winning percentage at the start of the season, but their playoff odds have increased immensely, as the following graph illustrates. AL East, what happened to you?! FULL PLAYOFF ODDS: http://t.co/NTONFScho1 pic.twitter.com/TUOSlzmZEx — FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) May 31, 2015 The graph below shows the difference for all teams since the start of the season. Among the biggest positive differences, the Yankees are actually the most surprising based on record. Houston, Minnesota, Kansas City, and St. Louis are a combined 48 games over .500 and only the Cardinals were seen as favorites to make the playoffs when the season began. The Yankees don’t fit quite the same mold. With a one-in-three shot to make the playoffs before the season began, they had twice the odds of the AL Central teams, and unlike the other teams, the Yankees sit just three games over .500. Perhaps the biggest boost to the Yankees’ playoff fortune is due to the struggles of the Red Sox. As the AL East graph above shows, the Red Sox were big favorites heading into the season, but have given the rest of the division a big start, going 23-29 to begin their 2015 campaign. However, the change is not solely due to the Red Sox’ reversal. Jeff Sullivan wrote a week ago about the biggest changes in projected winning percentage from the start of the season to the projected winning percentage over the rest of the season. At the time, the Yankees had taken the biggest leap forward. One week later, the Yankees are still in front. For the projected winning percentage to change, either the player composition needs to change or the view of the player needs to have changed. For the Yankees offense, a little bit of both has occurred. Here are the projected wOBAs for all Yankees projected to take at least five percent of the team’s plate appearances. PRE denotes preseason; ROS, rest-of-season. Proj. % of NYY PA PRE Proj wOBA ROS Proj. wOBA Change Alex Rodriguez 6.7% .310 .327 .017 Mark Teixeira 7.9% .327 .342 .015 Jacoby Ellsbury 9.5% .332 .333 .001 Brett Gardner 10.1% .325 .326 .001 Brian McCann 8.3% .330 .327 -.003 Chris Young 7.5% .312 .308 -.004 Garrett Jones 7.0% .328 .323 -.005 Chase Headley 10.1% .336 .329 -.007 Stephen Drew 7.9% .289 .281 -.008 Carlos Beltran 7.4% .329 .321 -.008 Didi Gregorius 7.3% .296 .288 -.008 Mark Teixeira has played extremely well so far this year, what appears to be improved health more than compensating for his age. The other big difference is Alex Rodriguez, projection systems having perhaps had difficulty accounting both for his suspension year and advancing age. For the most part, the changes have been minimal for the rest of the team, although there are more positive than negative numbers. That is where the composition of the team comes in. Including the wOBA difference from above, the chart below shows the percentage change in plate appearances of the team total projected going forward. wOBA Change PRE Proj% of Team PA ROS Proj% of Team PA Change in % (Points) Alex Rodriguez 0.017 6.7% 10.2% 3.5% Mark Teixeira 0.015 7.9% 9.4% 1.6% Jacoby Ellsbury 0.001 9.5% 9.9% 0.3% Brett Gardner 0.001 10.1% 9.8% -0.3% Brian McCann -0.003 8.3% 7.5% -0.8% Chris Young -0.004 7.5% 6.5% -1.0% Garrett Jones -0.005 7.0% 3.4% -3.6% Chase Headley -0.007 10.1% 10.1% 0.0% Stephen Drew -0.008 7.9% 7.9% 0.0% Carlos Beltran -0.008 7.4% 7.7% 0.3% Didi Gregorius -0.008 7.3% 8.4% 1.1% The three biggest changes are taking away plate appearances from Garret Jones, whose projection has gone down, and increasing the plate appearances for Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, whose projections have improved. The Yankees’ fortunes have changed because Rodriguez and Teixeira have helped allay concerns about their fitness moving forward. While the team is still dependent on the health of those players, making the projections (like the team itself) somewhat fragile, if the team stays healthy, the offense will be better than we thought at the beginning of the season. We can repeat the same exercise in a simpler format for the pitchers. Like with Teixeira and Rodriguez, Michael Pineda was not expected to do well this season after multiple injury-filled seasons. Pineda has been fantastic, though, having already surpassed his preseason projected WAR one-third of the way into the season. The graph below shows the preseason WAR projections (PRE) for major contributors, the rest-of-season WAR projection prorated (PRO) over a full season, the difference between the two, as well as that difference over the final two-thirds of the season. PRE WAR PRO WAR Difference ROS Difference Andrew Miller 1.4 2 0.6 0.4 Dellin Betances 1.6 2 0.4 0.3 Masahiro Tanaka 2.9 3.6 0.7 0.5 Michael Pineda 2.1 3.8 1.7 1.1 Adam Warren 1.7 1.7 0.0 CC Sabathia 2.2 2.7 0.5 0.3 Nathan Eovaldi 1.3 1.7 0.4 0.3 The performance and health of the Yankees pitchers amounts to a three-win difference over the course of the rest of the season. Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances have both been fantastic thus far while the rest of the rotation after Pineda figures to be slightly better than projected. Masahiro Tanaka is a bit of a wild card for the Yankees as he pitched well for a brief time in April and is set to come off the disabled list today. If he can remain healthy and meet or exceed his projection, the Yankees rotation will be in very good shape. If he can’t do those things, though — and if Ivan Nova’s rehabilitation assignment fails to produce good results — the starting staff could endure some struggles. For close to a decade, the Yankees have built their team around veteran stars. As those stars have aged and the reinforcements have been typically older and injury-prone as well, the Yankees have been unable to return to their days as a 90-win juggernaut. This season, the Yankees are still unlikely to win 90 games, but a combination of good health and good production from previously injured players has helped put a better team on the field than seemed otherwise likely. The Yankees, like most contending teams, will be dependent on the health of their players moving forward, but in the middling AL East, New York looks to be in the best position to capitalize on the Red Sox’ slow start to the season.