Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Yankees at the One Quarter Mark: Why Are They Exceeding Expectations? It's Not What You Think (May 18, 2013)

I’ve read many articles and heard many commentators discussing the surprising Yankees, offering theories on why the Yankees are doing so well in the first quarter of the season.  The most popular notion is that the veterans the Yankees picked up off the “scrap heap,” the so-called “2006 All Stars,” are turning the clock back and slugging the team into first.

It is a compelling story.  You will recall in the off-season the Yankees lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones, a fairly devastating blow to the offense.  And then, in short order, the Yankees lost Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson for lengthy periods before the season started.  And then, once the season started, Francisco Cervelli bit the dust after a hot start.  This essentially left Robinson Cano as the only holdover starter year over year.  (Brett Gardner was injured for virtually all of 2012.)

To the rescue came the Over the Hill Gang (I will refer to them as "OTHG" henceforth):  Ichiru Suzuki (re-signed to replace Swisher), Kevin Youkilis (A Rod), Vernon Wells (Granderson), Travis Hafner (Ibanez) and Lyle Overbay (Teixiera).  In truth, only Ichiro and Wells made the All-Star team in 2006, but all of them did indeed have fine seasons – a superb collective weighted average OPS of .885.  And all of them have faded mightily since, achieving a collective weighted-average OPS of only .726 in 2012, quite a dismal level for players who play power positions.

And yes, the Yankees are off to an amazing start.  And yes, the OTHG is indeed outperforming their 2012 selves and doing more than plugging a few gaping holes.

Great story!  Except for one thing:  it is simply is not true.  The Yankees’ surprising start has little to do with the OTHG.

So what is the real reason?

First. Let’s establish the terms of the discussion.  The Yankees, after 41 games, are in first place in the tough AL East with a 25-16 record, a .610 won-loss percentage that projects to 99 wins.  This is obviously an excellent record, especially with the injuries – but how can we analytically compare it to what was “expected” of them?

I’ll use my Yankee predictive model (see: as a basis for comparison.  I had them winning 90 games for the full year, based on a projected Team OPS of .757 and Team ERA of 3.86 (figures I derived from trend data, expected at bats and inning pitched, and a regression equation).

Thus, I might have expected them to have won 23 games by now, 41 games into the season.  But even though I knew about most of the injuries at the time of the projection, I did not project the 41 game number; I assumed all the injured players would come back at various points.  So I adjusted my model using the actual plate appearances and innings pitched each player has after 41 games, but still using their projected (not actual) performance; based on those figures, the model says the Yanks would have had 21 wins, 2 less than the model.

So, the analytical question is:  why do the Yankees have 25 wins at this point instead of 21? 

Well, it is not because they are wildly exceeding their expected performance statistically.  While the pitching has been a bit better than expected (3.67 ERA versus a projected 3.86), the hitting has been right on (an OPS of .729 versus a projected .725).  So you can chalk up 1 of the 4 wins to “better pitching,” specifically better relief pitching, with an ERA of 3.31 versus 3.91. 

As for the hitters?  Well, the OTHG has indeed outperformed expectations, but they are hardly “turning back the clock to 2006."  Collectively, their weighted OPS is .788, well above the .723 from 2012, but a far cry from 2006’s .885…in fact, it would be perfectly accurate to say that the OTHG has turned the clock only “halfway back” to 2006.

           On Base plus Slugging (OPS)


Wtg. Average

In fact, if the OTHG had actually performed as planned through the first 41 games – that is, at roughly 2012 levels – the Yanks would have won exactly one fewer game.  That excess production has been wonderful, but worth exactly one win to the team.

And this excess contribution has been exactly offset by the rest of the team.  Most of the rest – Gardner, Nix, Nunez, Francisco and Boesch – have underperformed, and that has completely offset the extra win the OTHG has achieved….hence overall the team is hitting exactly as planned.

So how to account for the other three extra wins? 

The real reason the Yankees have overachieved?  Because they are this year’s Baltimore Orioles.  They have been winning close games, those decided by two or less runs, by an astonishing margin, nearly three-quarters of them (.727 percentage) while essentially only splitting games decided by three or more runs.

1 or 2 run games
3+ run games

And that has more to do with superb late relief pitching.  The Yankees have had 20 save situations this year and have saved 18 of them or 90%.  And that of course is all about Mariano Rivera, who is 16 for 16, at 100%.  The average major league team has 15 save situations and saved 11 of them, or 69%.

If the Yankees had saved only 69% of their save opportunities, they would have won four fewer games.  So while their batting is slightly below expectation, and pitching is slightly above, and those have offset, their very clutch pitching is sensational, and this is causing them to win a much higher proportion of close games that an average team.  And do better than their overall stats would imply.   Obviously one of those four wins has already been attributed to the relief staff because of their better-than-anticipated ERA.  Now, we see the other three extra wins can be attributed to pitching very well when it really counted, in those close end-of-game situations.

So to break it all down:

Games Won
Expected Wins
Other batters
Starting pitchers
Relief pitchers
Save opportunities
Actual wins

The Yankees are not overachieving because of the Over the Hill Gang.  No, it is all about that 43-year old guy who has yet to see the other side of that same hill…yes, Mariano Rivera. 

1 comment:

  1. Mo still has a couple more years. It's a pity he's calling it a career.


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