We’re over a month into the season, and slowly moving into a world where we can responsibly discuss the standings and (at least some) statistics. There’s still a whole, whole lot of baseball left, though, and enough weirdness to keep things interesting. Before today’s games, the only division in all of baseball where the standings match the run differentials is the AL East, even if there are still some surprises in the actual order. While the Rays being this good and the Red Sox being this bad are both at least a little surprising, relative to preseason expectations, the real surprise has been the Yankees’ performance, given what their roster has been through over the last month.
The number of injuries that the Yankees have endured this far in the season is truly remarkable. They started last offseason knowing that they’d be without shortstop Didi Gregorius, and their ace Luis Severino went down during Spring Training. But it wasn’t until the season actually started that things really, really started to get wild. Here a partial list of Yankees players that have been placed on the IL so far in 2019, along with their bWAR from last year:
OF Aaron Hicks (4.7)
OF Aaron Judge (5.5)
OF Giancarlo Stanton (4.0)
C Gary Sánchez (1.2)
1B Greg Bird (-1.6)
2B DJ LeMahieu (3.0)
SS Didi Gregorius (4.2)
3B Miguel Andújar (2.2)
SP Luis Severino (4.8)
RP Dellin Betances (1.7)
And that list, which I would not feel comfortable betting against in a Wild Card game, doesn’t include a whole mess of players. For example: Troy Tulowitzki (who the Yankees brought in for depth because of the injury to Gregorius), starter Jordan Montgomery (who had Tommy John surgery this time last year), Ben Heller (who hasn’t pitched since 2017), CC Sabathia (who missed the beginning of the season), Clint Frazier (because the list looks better without him on it) or Jacoby Ellsbury (who knows if we’ll ever see him again).
What that list does include, however, is a former Rookie of the Year, a former MVP, an ace and one of the best relievers in baseball since 2014 (Betances’ fWAR of 11.3 is second only to his teammate Aroldis Chapman over that time). It also adds up to about 30 Wins Above Replacement (29.7 bWAR, to be precise), which is a whole lot of wins to remove from the board.
Those are the kind of losses that should sink a team, and yet the Yankees remain unsunk. They are only two-and-a-half games behind the Rays and are currently in possession of a Wild Card spot That’s, quite frankly, amazing, and yet it’s also very, very on brand for the Evil Empire. Down all those players of import, New York’s lineup has still scored 5.27 runs per game (4th in the AL) and posted a 110 wRC+ (4th), a .337 wOBA (5th) and 5.1 fWAR (4th). And despite the removal of such dinger-mongers as Stanton, who had 38 in 2018, and Judge, Hicks, Andújar and Gregorius, who each had 27, they’ve still already managed to notch 47 dingers, good for 6th in all of baseball. How have they done it? By actually being ready for it, and then by getting a little lucky.
While DJ LeMahieu is currently on the IL, he didn’t arrive there until this past weekend, and he’s been one of the Yankees best performers this season, hitting .310/.363/.430 (113 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR) while providing solid defense at second and third. When the Yankees signed him to a two-year, $24 million deal this offseason, there were certainly some fans that were upset that they went that route rather than pony up for Manny Machado, but LeMahieu has been the better player so far in this (admittedly) young season.
In terms of how LeMahieu has been successful at the plate so far, he’s been riding a .345 BABIP that makes him look like he’s returned to his previous environs at Coors Field. But, he’s demonstrated the ability to run out a higher-than-normal BABIP away from Coors Field in the past, such as in his excellent 2016, where he put up a .351 BABIP over 300 PAs on the road.
While he’s not a particularly fast player, he drives the ball hard (even if he’s not an elite power hitter), coming in just behind Mike Trout in average exit velocity last year (45th in MLB). He’s also an elite all-fields hitter, coming in behind only Adam Eaton since 2012 with the highest percentage of opposite field hits (35.2 Oppo%). Hitting the ball hard to all parts of the field means more balls are going to find holes, even if we’ll probably see his BABIP fall back down a bit as the season continues.
Outfielder Clint Frazier, like LeMahieu, has spent some time on the IL as of late, but he’s been rather excellent in the 18 games he’s appeared in. Although he’s struggled very much in his first couple of call ups in 2017 and 2018, it’s worth remembering that he’s a former top prospect who came over in the Andrew Miller trade with the Indians. This season, though, he’s finally delivered on that prospect promise and has hit .324/.342/.632 (152 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR) over 73 PAs. He’s done all that while posting an abysmal 4.1 BB%, but he’s found success attacking pitches in the zone and managed to hit for the kind of power that the Yankees were hoping for when they acquired him.
Luke Voit came over in a relatively unheralded trade with St. Louis last July, and then he rewarded his new team, hitting .333/.405/.689 with 14 HRs over 148 PAs with the Yankees. That might have been a tall order going forward, as there wasn’t anything in his minor league numbers to suggest that either his .380 BABIP with the Yankees or 40.5% HR/FB ratio on the year were to be expected. The 28-year old slugger has at least been delivering on the promise of the latter so far this year, though, with a 36.0% HR/FB ratio that’s helped him rack up 9 HRs and leads the team.
Giovanny Urshela is the player who’s been most surprising, though. Prior to this season, his first in New York, he hit .225/.274/.315 in limited action with the Indians and Blue Jays, which was good for a 57 OPS+. This season, though, he’s already hit .339/.400/.500 for a 139 OPS+ over 70 PAs. While it’s tempting to see his .377 BABIP and write the whole thing off as a small sample size, there are some encouraging signs. His strikeout rate (12.9%) is lower than ever and past the stabilization point of 60 PAs, thanks to an increased ability to make contact on pitches outside the zone. He’s making more hard contact than in the past, resulting in more line drives. All that being said, there wasn’t really any reason to expect this, so we should probably chalk this one up to the baseball gods doing the Yankees a favor, as is their historical prerogative.
That’s a healthy mix of players with history of some degree of success in the majors, prospect pedigree and surprises. While you’ll hear a lot about the idea of a “next man up” mentality getting a team through injury plagues like the Yankees have been enduring, but that’s not possible without having a quality collection of players to turn to, and you have to give credit to GM Brian Cashman. And we should certainly give manager Aaron Boone some credit, too. He’s been able to steer the ship through as tough waters as any team can face in the early season and, so far, without any truly ill effects.
While there is certainly some good fortune involved, the mixture of proven talent and promise has kept New York from rolling out a below-replacement-level, AAA-team in the absence of their best players. That fortune has come from outside as well, as the Red Sox have failed to take advantage of their rivals’ misfortune. Most of the players New York has been missing are scheduled to return sometime in May or June, which should definitely scare other teams around the league. Because if the Yankees have been this good without their best players, imagine how good they might be by the time summer is in full swing.