Last season, the New York Yankees went 91-71, and though they weren’t expected to contend, they made it all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS before falling to the eventual trophy-hoisters, the Houston Astros. The Evil Empire caught baseball off guard. The Bronx Bombers were good and they were charming.
Often, when a team — especially a likable one — has a surprising season, a lot of luck is involved. Odds are being defied and that’s what we root for, isn’t it? But the 2017 Yankees were a rare darling that succeeded without the help of Lady Luck.
The (Bad) Pythagorean Luck
One barometer to measure luck is the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball. This theory was developed by sabermetric pioneer Bill James, so you know it’s fire. The Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball relates the number of runs a team has scored and surrendered to its actual winning percentage. It’s based on the idea that runs scored compared to runs allowed is a better indicator of a team’s future performance than a team’s actual winning percentage.
According to Baseball Reference, the Yankees’ Pythagorean win-loss record in 2017 was 100-62, meaning they won nine games fewer than their run differential suggests they should have. According to Pythagorean luck, no team in the MLB was unluckier than the Yankees. The next closest teams, Philadelphia and Cleveland, each fell six wins shy of their Pythagorean win-loss record.
To call Aaron Judge’s 2017 season “out of nowhere” isn’t fair — he was a prospect of substantial repute. Nevertheless, the actual heights he reached were sure as hell head-turning. It’s only natural to ask questions about Judge’s historic season and call for some regression to human-level production in 2018. That’s a totally fair reaction — but is it correct?
Even though Judge’s power is his calling card, his eye at the plate is his most valuable tool. Last year, the 6-foot-7 rightfielder posted a .422 on-base percentage, third-best in the MLB, and had a walk rate of 18.7%, which ranked second.
Judge did famously come undone for a long stretch in 2017 (right after his gargantuan performance at the Home Run Derby, coincidentally). But even during his much-ballyhooed slump, he was reaching base safely. In 44 games after the All-Star Break, the 26-year-old hit .179 and struck out in 35% of his plate appearances, yet still posted a .346 OBP — two basis points higher than Mookie Betts’ OBP in 2017. Even when Judge was bad, he was Mookie Betts.
This year, Judge will be a part of the same lineup as Giancarlo Stanton — the only man to hit more home runs than Judge last year. The two of them will play half of their games in Yankee Stadium, a ballpark that plays to their home-run-hitting tendencies, and they’ll be playing in a division full of other band boxes as well. It’s hard to dream up a better situation for someone who likes to hit dingers.
Maybe Judge won’t replicate his stats from 2017, but actually betting on his numbers to improve is not exactly crazy.
If you want to pick out a weakness for the 2018 Yankees, you really have only one choice. Their lineup is a murderer’s row and their bullpen is filthy, so by process of elimination, let’s tab New York’s starting pitching as its weak link.
Calling a rotation that boasted the fifth-lowest ERA last season (3.72) a weak link may seem off, but there’s just nowhere else to punch holes in this team.
There’s a lot of luck involved with ERA, but a slightly deeper dive doesn’t reveal many red flags. The Yankee starters were seventh in the Majors with a 4.18 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing) and fifth with a 3.83 xFIP (a regressed version of FIP). In other words, the Yankees’ rotation outperformed its underlying metrics a bit, but was still among the best units in the Major Leagues.
Below is New York’s projected starting rotation for 2018, along with their ERA, FIP and xFIP from last season.
Luis Severino showed up as an ace last year and his numbers completely check out. The 24-year-old strikeout artist’s FIP and xFIP were basically in accordance with his sparkling ERA. The same can’t be said of Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery and C.C. Sabathia — all three of whom boasted ERAs that outran their FIP. However, Gray’s FIP and xFIP were both under 4.00, Montgomery was a rookie last year, and Sabathia is a No. 5 starter at this juncture of his baseball life.
Then there’s Masahiro Tanaka, who may have been the unluckiest pitcher in baseball in 2017. Not only was the 29-year-old’s ERA much higher than his FIP, but he also had a home run to flyball rate of 21.2%, well above the league average of ~10% and nearly 10 basis points higher than his HR/FB rate in 2016.
If Tanaka cuts down on his home run rate, he could give the Yankees a second ace to go along with their two slugging sensations.
The Future of the Evil Empire
Not surprisingly, the Yankees are among the favorites to win the whole enchilada. At 5dimes, they have the second-shortest odds (+620) after the defending champion Astros to win the World Series. At the Westgate, the Yankees have been hung with an over/under of 94.5 wins — tied with Cleveland for third-most in the Majors — and are the odds-on favorite (-150) to win the American League East. Everyone is on the same page here.
Of course, things can and usually do go wrong over 162 games. Like the other 29 teams, the Yankees will need a healthy roster to meet expectations.
There’s also the schedule. According to FanGraphs, the Yanks will play the sixth-hardest schedule this season. The American League is the deeper of the two circuits right now, and the AL East won’t be a cakewalk, especially if the Blue Jays make the experts who are picking them as a dark horse look good.
Even if Toronto and Boston push the Yankees, there’s no excuse for new manager Aaron Boone’s club to come up short this year. The Yankees are set up for really big things, and whether you hate them or love them, it feels natural to see the Yankees back at the top of the board. The Yankees were the original team you love to hate and they’re back to their old ways. Only this time, the Evil Empire may actually have some good karma coming its way.
All odds current as of Friday, March 23.
Photo: Giancarlo Stanton (L) and Aaron Judge