Adam Hunger/USA Today

Can The Yankees Maintain Their Hot Start?

The Yankees are rolling, but there are questions about both their offense and starting pitching staff.

It’s common practice when an iconic franchise is struggling for the team to emphasize its glory days with a slew of pregame or halftime ceremonies celebrating those halcyon days past. Last Sunday, the Yankees retired Derek Jeter’s number but the Yankees’ present is nothing that requires misdirection.  New York is in first place in the hyper-competitive AL East and their run differential strongly suggests that they are a team built to be in the race all season long.

However, this is the first taste of sustained success since 2015 that the Yankees have really enjoyed A.D. (After Derek). Is this team for real?  Let’s break them down and find out.

The Yankees’ have scored the third-most runs in all of baseball, and when you look at them as a composite, they have many of the attributes you’d expect of a team able to score consistently throughout the season. They have definitely had some BABIP luck with a .320 tally at the time of this writing (5.16.17), but that number is not so high that one can just completely dismiss their prowess on good fortune.  However, we’ll get back to BABIP in moment.

Perhaps the most optimistic sign that the Yankee offense should be functional is the fact that they have achieved what they have despite hitting only .252 with runners in scoring position. That their crosstown rival Mets lead the majors with a .318 average in that situation should tell you how potentially deceptive relying on “clutch” stats can be. What matters is not your “clutchitude” or your “clutchosity” but how often you are generating those situations in the first place.

The Yankees are a team who gets on base (.353 OBP 2nd in MLB) and does so via the walk (10.7% BB rate also 2nd in MLB).  They strike out more than the average team but not egregiously so, especially given their power numbers.   The Yankees have hit 56 homers, third highest in baseball. Their K% of 23% is tenth-highest, but that’s a fair price to pay for so many mashed taters.

That being said, when you look at the Yankees individually on offense, it’s hard not to see a regression coming. Here are some peripherals on their top six hitters ranked by plate appearances:



Player

BABIP

BB%

K%

Starlin Castro

.382

5.2

18.3

Brett Gardner

.341

12.1

23

Chase Headley

.337

11

25

Aaron Judge

.359

15

28

Jacoby Ellsbury

.299

10

14

Matt Holliday

.344

15

27

 

Um, yeah.

Those numbers aren’t gonna last.  Castro, in particular, is likely to endure a very abrupt journey back to the mean.  If you look at the other four players enjoying great BABIP fortune, they are all walking at league average or better rates, and nothing cushions a BABIP fall better than a healthy walk rate. Even Aaron Judge, who isn’t gonna last as a right-handed Babe Ruth forever, is showing some good plate discipline (when he isn’t fanning 28% of his PA’s away). The thing is, these regressions (or hot streaks) don’t always arrive with any synchronicity.  The Yankees’ need to hope that even though all these hot streaks are happening at once, the slumps don’t follow suit.

That brings us to the next issue. When the Yankee offense cools off, will the pitching be able to support it?  The aggregate data on their starters seems to say “Yes.”  New York’s starters have pitched to a 3.75 xFIP, second-best in the American League.  Unlike their hitters, they have a collective .304 BABIP, so their performance would seem to be a bit more trustworthy at this point. So much of success in baseball is timing and luck, so when you remove that, what does it say about the Yankee starters?

If the best offenses walk and homer, it stands that the best staffs avoid both assiduously.  The Yankees have been bit by the dinger bug.  Their 1.17 HR/9 is fourth-highest in the league. Their BB/9 is 2.41, which is the second lowest, so at least when they are victimized by the dinger, there usually aren’t people on base via the walk. The Yankees have the fifth-highest K/9 of any AL starting staff, and they force the most ground balls in the American League, both admirable attributes.

One issue may be the ability of those starters to push deep into games. New York’s starters have accumulated the fourth-lowest amount of innings pitched this season. That means that the Yankees have been utilizing what projected to be the clear strength of the team, their bullpen, early and often. What they’ve lacked in game depth, however, they’ve provided in durability.  

The five Yankee starters have been the only five pitchers to start this season. The Dodgers, by contrast, didn’t make it through the season’s first fortnight before exceeding that number. Considering C.C. Sabathia’s age, Michael Pineda’s shaky recent injury history, and Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery’s lack of track records, this could be the biggest question mark for the team moving forward through the season.

This is a good pitching staff. They rarely walk people (Pineda, at 3.6 BB%, has been exceptional in this regard) which mitigates their homer proclivity significantly. Severino and Pineda have had some good BABIP fortune, but they are all missing bats at an acceptable rate with the exception of Sabathia. There’s just no way to tell how Montgomery and Severino are going to negotiate a full season, which leaves a very expansive range of outcomes for this pitching staff, and conversely for this team.

The Yankees are good.  They have a good offense that has been great, and they have a starting staff that has pitched very effectively. It’s highly unlikely this team craters, but it’s also unlikely that they end the season atop this division.  FanGraphs has them finishing second, with a 61% chance of snagging the Wild Card. That sounds about right. Given their division, the unpredictability of health (Aroldis Chapman is currently on the 10-day DL), and the lack of previous performance from a number of key players, the Yankees should drop a bit over the course of the year but should definitely be strong contenders for a postseason appearance.

Not bad for a young team in only their third year A.D.

 


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