It dawned upon me today that, as we near the end of June, I have yet to write an article about the Yankees. This is tantamount to heresy in the baseball-writing community, and I must atone for my sins. Having said the requisite three “Hail Jeters,” I’ll move on to correcting the error of my ways and asking: What should we make of the Yankees and their season to date? Is there any reason to worry about New York as we approach the halfway-mark of the 2018 campaign?
After a cursory glance at the standings, this might seem a silly endeavor. The Yankees are currently neck-and-neck with the Red Sox for the lead in the AL East. Their 52- 26 record gives them a .667 winning percentage, which is tied with Boston for the best in baseball. Their run differential is +105, which is good for third across both leagues, behind only the Astros and the Red Sox. They're only +2 wins over their Pythagorean record and +1 over their BaseRuns records, so it's not as if New York is in the same camp as Seattle.
Given all of that, it's unsurprising that the odds-folks like the Yanks' chances, too. Currently, Fangraphs has them at a 99.9%% chance to make the postseason and a 13.9% chance to win the damn World Series. Baseball Prospectus pegs their postseason chances at a cool 100% chance to make the postseason and an 12.2% chance to win it all. However, the Yankees, despite the overall happy picture that the above statistics and projections paint, are not without their fair share of problems.
Earlier this week, catcher Gary Sanchez suffered a hip/groin strain. While he’s currently only on the 10-day DL, he’s expected to miss three to four weeks. Sanchez hadn’t been living up to the (admittedly high) expectations that he set for himself over his first two seasons, either, hitting just .190/.291/.433. That’s good for a 97 wRC+, which is perfectly adequate for a catcher, just not what we expected from this particular catcher, who had a 171 wRC+ over 53 games when he was called up in 2016 and a 130 wRC+ in his first full campaign last year.
While a great deal of Sanchez’s lack of success this year has been due to bad luck, as he’s sported a ridiculously low .194 BABIP (compared to .317 in 2016 and .304 in 2017), there’s a contingent of the fanbase that’s been clamoring for less Sanchez for some time now, anyway, and now they’ll seemingly get their wish for more Austin Romine. The reason for all that clamoring is that Romine has been hitting .289/.350/.500 (131 wRC+) over 100 PAs.
Obviously, that last number should spark some sample-size concerns. Romine is a career .230/.275/.340 (63 wRC+) hitter who’ll turn 30 this offseason. While stranger things have happened than Romine turning in an excellent season on the whole, the odds are not in his favor, and he has had what appeared to be breakouts before, only to come crashing back to earth (which already appears to be happening right now).
Obviously, the hope is that Sanchez comes back and returns to his former form. But, let me just say that, as someone who is closer to 40 than 30, I am growing increasingly familiar with the joy of hip pain, and I can’t imagine dealing with it as a catcher. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of time to see what happens with Sanchez before the trade deadline is upon us.
If the three-to-four week recovery timeline turns out to be correct, the Yankees are going to have to make a serious decision about whether to roll with some serious question marks at catcher going forward, as there’s basically zero depth after Romine. While the Yanks currently rank 5th by fWAR in MLB at catcher, there is certainly no guarantee that that will continue.
There have been some other issues on the offensive side of the ball, such as Giancarlo Stanton being slightly less than what was expected. But he’s still hitting .268/.341/.517 (131 wRC+) and is far from a problem in the lineup, even if the current Stanton isn’t worth what the Yankees are currently paying him (although they, of all teams, can certainly afford it). Some players have overperformed, some have underperformed, but the offense has been more than adequate overall, with 15.8 fWAR on the ledger that is good for third in baseball.
But once we turn our attention to the other side of things, things get a little less clear. At first glance, the pitching doesn’t look to be a problem. If we sort out the teams by pitcher fWAR, the Yankees come in second place, behind only the Astros (and we’ve already said some pretty good things about Houston’s rotation). If we remove the relievers (who have been excellent, as expected) from the calculations, New York is still pretty high up the list, coming in 5th in MLB, with 8.3 fWAR. The problem becomes clear when we look at how all those wins above replacement have been distributed among the various starters.
Luis Severino has blossomed into a true ace, and his 2.10 ERA, 2.21 FIP, 10.64 K/9, 2.10 BB/9 and 0.48 HR/9 are supremely excellent. He’s having a Cy Young Award level season so far, and his 4.2 fWAR is second only to Max Scherzer (4.4) in all of MLB. The issue is that he’s provided over half of the WAR that the Yankees have gotten out of their starters in 2018.
CC Sabathia has been perfectly adequate and performed better than expected (3.18 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 7.19 K/9, 2.36 BB/9, 1.18 HR/9, 133 ERA+), but he’s just about the only active pitcher who has an ERA+ better than 100. Sonny Gray (4.93 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 86 ERA+) has had serious issues with his command (3.81 BB/9, 14th worst amongst qualified starters). Masahiro Tanaka (4.58 ERA, 4.90 FIP, 92 ERA+) has been a little better, but he’s had issues with the longball (1.98 HR/9, which would be the third worst mark in baseball if he’d pitched enough innings to qualify). He’s also currently on the DL, but should be back before the All Star Break and possibly much sooner. Jordan Montgomery’s 2018 was off to a somewhat promising start (3.62 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 118 ERA+), but we learned earlier this month that he needed Tommy John surgery.
One of their solutions to deal with these issues was to call on Domingo German (5.32 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 79 ERA+) to start, but he has looked like he probably belongs back in the bullpen. Jonathan Loaisiga has fared much, much better (1.93 ERA, 2.24 FIP, 224 ERA+), but he still only has 14 innings under his belt and his walk rate over those three starts (5.14 BB/9) would certainly be a problem were it to continue.
The good news is that there are certainly some options available should the Yankees wish to upgrade the rotation. The bad news is things could get pricey for the Yankees, as just about every contending team (minus the Astros) could always use another solid arm in the rotation. Boston just learned this week that (my particularly beloved) Steven Wright is headed to the DL and they were already down Drew Pomeranz. An arms race, as it were, in the AL East is a distinct possibility, and that’s not a good thing for keeping the prices down.
We just learned that the Mets are formally making deGrom and Syndergaard available for the right price (and deGrom did come into the season sporting a new, Yankee-friendly ‘do, after all). There’s a wide array of other choices (Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, etc.) that the Yankees could target if they want to give up less in the way of prospects but receive less in return.
As it stands right now, this rotation, with the exception of Severino, wouldn’t strike fear into the hearts of opposing hitters in a postseason best-of-five or best-of-seven series against, say, Boston or Houston. If New York had to burn Severino in a Wild Card game (a distinct possibility), things would look even more bleak for them making it out of the divisional round. Even if they have the best bullpen in baseball, that bullpen is going to get progressively tired as the season wears on without some sort of reinforcements in the rotation.
Barring a complete and historic collapse, yes, the Yankees will make the postseason. But we have long lived in a world where Yankees fans expect more than the postseason, more than a pennant. They expect a trophy, and the Yankees certainly look like they might need to make some moves if they want to increase their chances of that happening.