Despite a serious temptation to write about the Mets and their latest dong-fueled Metsing things up, the last article I wrote was about the Giants’ season falling apart, so I think we need to get some (mostly) positive vibes up in this joint instead. For that, we need do no further than move from Queens to the Bronx, as the Yankees just recently finished up a four-game sweep of the defending champs at Wrigley Field and are doing pretty well, to say the least.
By most standards, New York started off the year as fringe contenders. With the Red Sox looking like clear favorites to take the division again, the Yankees were given an outside shot at making the playoffs at all. Baseball Prospectus gave them a 30.0% percent chance and Fangraphs was not anywhere near as high, pegging them at a cool 15.9% chance. Times have changed though, with the Yankees going 21-9 over their first 30 games, giving them a .700 winning percentage that is the best in baseball. Baseball Prospectus now has them at 66.1% and Fangraphs has more than quadrupled their chances at 71.1%.
The Yankees’ success to date has hinged largely upon their offense, which currently leads all MLB by fWAR with 9.2. By wRC+, Yankees hitters are the best in baseball with 130. So it seems like an appropriate time to take a look at some of what’s been going on and see how likely things are to continue.
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve almost certainly already seen plenty of Aaron Judge highlight reels by now. The towering home runs (he is currently tied for the MLB lead with 13) from the towering right-fielder (he’s 6’7”) just keep coming and show no signs of stopping. While he was definitely considered a top-prospect, he wasn’t a top-top-prospect, coming in at no. 90 at Baseball America, 45 at MLB and 63 at Baseball Prospectus. Now, though, he’s tied for the league lead with a .455 ISO, tied for second with 2.2 fWAR and in second by his lonesome with a 221 wRC+.
Of course, all of those stats come with the caveat that Judge is currently sitting on a 46.4% home run to fly-ball ratio. We talked about this already with Eric Thames’ crazy start to the season and the same thing that went for Thames’ HR/FB% (which was 52.4% when that article was written a couple of weeks ago and is already down to 36.4%) goes for Judge: There’s simply no way he’s going to continue to hit balls out of the park at this rate. It just doesn’t happen over a full season. That being said, he has plenty of room to trend downward and still be a very, very valuable player for the Yankees, just because he’s set the bar so high.
Verdict: He’s Probably Going to Not Keep This Up
Hicks’ New Bag of Tricks
While Judge is certainly the Yankees’ MVP right now, they wouldn’t be sitting on the best record in baseball without some other folks contributing as well. If the Yankees’ offense were Radiohead, Judge would be their Thom Yorke, but Aaron Hicks would be their Jonny Greenwood. And while it may not matter that Greenwood has a few years on Yorke, it certainly does when it comes to baseball players.
In his prior four seasons, the 27-year-old Hicks has a slash line of .223/.299/.346 and an OPS+ of 76. This year, however, he has been almost as good as Judge, hitting .342/.462/.644 for a 199 OPS+ in his 92 PAs. The key to his success this year, as fully explained by Dave Cameron at Fangraphs, has been his selectivity when it comes to pitches down in the zone combined with an eye for the zone that has always been one of his assets.
Despite the adjustments that Hicks may have made, as with Judge, it’s unreasonable to expect Hicks to keep this up at this rate. Pitchers are going to adjust how they attack him. But, again, as with Judge, he doesn’t have to give any of what he’s done back and he certainly looks to have improved his approach and it’s paying dividends for now.
Verdict: It’s Too Early to Say, but He’s Probably Not Going to Keep This Up
A Starlin is Born?
While we’re on the subject of 27-year old players who are suddenly surprising, Starlin Castro is also having a very good start to his season. Castro has long confounded his supporters and failed to live up to his extremely polished prospect pedigree. Right now, though, he’s leading the league in hits (44) and AVG (.358).
Unfortunately, his .400 BABIP (versus a career .321) does a fairly good of explaining away a big chunk of the success that Starlin is currently enjoying at the plate. While he’s certainly experiencing some improvements in some areas of his approach, the BABIP screams “luck” and almost guarantees that we’re going to see some regression coming soon.
Verdict: He’s Almost Certainly Not Going to Keep This Up
In Other Positive Offensive News
Judge, Hicks and Castro aren’t the only folks on the Yanks’ offense who are surprising, though. Jacob Ellsbury is also halfway (with 1.0 fWAR) to his fWAR total from 2016 (2.0) and has already surpassed his total from 2015 (0.9). As he’s signed through 2020 and still owed $68 million after this season, any improvement would be appreciated.
While most of Ellsbury’s individual offensive stats have improved this season, the single biggest positive change for Ellsbury at the plate this year is that he’s walking more than ever before, with an 11.0 BB% in 2017 vs. 7.3% for his career. He is chasing far less than he has before, with his 21.8% O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) much lower than his 27.1% career rate.
Brett Gardner is basically doing what he’s done most of his career in terms of AVG and OBP, but he’s tacked on an additional 100 points of SLG which has enabled to him to reach half of his fWAR total from 2016 in a single month, much like Ellsbury. Gardner has been showing improvements in his selectivity, swinging at less pitches outside of the zone and making more hard contact than ever before. Chase Headley, like both the other players we mentioned in this section, is also reaping the benefits of improved selectivity at the plate and putting up numbers similar to those he did back when the Yankees traded for him.
These sorts of stats take far longer than a month to stabilize, so we can’t say for certain whether this trio of 33-year old veterans have all been able to change their approach and basically hop in a Delorean to take them back to before their decline. It’s almost inevitable that they aren’t all able to keep this up, though.
Verdict: It’s Too Early to Say, But They’re Probably Not All Going to Keep This Up
Will the Yankees Ever Catch a Break?
When we were discussing Judge earlier in the article, talking about the Yankees’ rookie phenom who is absolutely obliterating the ball like he’s peak Barry Bonds, it probably took you all the way back to this time last year when a different Yankees’ rookie phenom was absolutely obliterating the ball like he was peak Barry Bonds. This year, though, catcher Gary Sanchez has only played in five games, where he “struggled” (small-sample-size alert) and hit .150/.190/.300 before hitting the DL with a strained bicep. He came back just in time for the four-game sweep of the Cubs and has been “looking better” (small-sample-size alert) in each successive game, hitting .281/.410.375 in the series.
After a ridiculous season in which Sanchez hit .281/.410/.375 and put up a 166 OPS+/177 wRC+ at the most demanding position on route to a second-place Rookie of the Year finish, there were some pretty high expectations for Sanchez going into this season. Nine games doesn’t give us a lot of data to work with, and I’m going to make any ridiculous proclamations,. Since I have to draw a conclusion, though...
Verdict: He’s Probably Going to Be Better
Bird Hasn’t Been the Word
Greg Bird has had about as bad a start to the season as one can, hitting .100/.250/.200 over 72 PAs. That’s after a spring training where he was tied with Bryce Harper for the lead in home runs. He hit the DL a week ago, when found out that he’s been dealing with a right ankle contusion all season and it may have (read: probably) been affecting his swing. Hopefully he’s back soon and the injury doesn’t linger, and (barring that) it’s pretty much impossible for him not to improve on what he had done to date this season.
Verdict: Barring Continued Injury, He’s 100%, Absolutely, for Sure Going to Get Better
All in all, it’s probably safer to bet your money on the Red Sox lineup and staff overall, even with the head start that the Yankees (and, although we haven’t talked about them, the Orioles) have. But the point isn’t to belittle anything that the position players who have been outperforming expectations on the Yankees have been doing. There are some encouraging trends in some of the ostensibly overperforming players that look like there might be something in the clubhouse water when it comes to selectivity at the plate.
There’s certainly no reason to believe that everybody is going to immediately fall off a cliff at the same time and there are some players who can step in to contribute in the event that some of the surprisingly successful players falter. Regardless of what happens, New York has basically played themselves into contention in a little over a month and, as always, bet against the Yankees at your own peril.