Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Yankees at the All Star Break: Breaking Down a Broken Down Team...Or, Why The Main Problem Was NOT the Starting Rotation (July 16, 2014)

How about a little break from politics for some baseball?  Time for an update on the Yankees, and how to explain their 47-47 record at the All Star break.

For the second consecutive year, the Yankees are proceeding in barely recognizable form, their lineup a surreal combination:  part Old Timers Game, part strike-like “replacement” players.  Much has been made of the weakness of the AL “Least” that has enabled the Yankees to hang on to their postseason hopes.  It is hard to fathom those hopes surviving the loss of Masahiro Tanaka for six weeks or, more likely, the remainder of the season.

The conventional wisdom is that the Yankees have suffered mostly from the loss of three starters – Sabathia, Pineda and Nova -- for most of the season, replaced by the underwhelming trio of Phelps, Nuno and Whitley. 

But that is actually not true.  It’s not the starting pitching that has left the Yanks five behind a decent but hardly commanding Oriole team.  It’s the hitting.

Based on my regression model, I had the Yankees down to win 89 games this year and be very competitive in an AL East where no one would win 90.  My regression model requires only two variables:  estimates of team OPS and team ERA.  Those estimates are built up from player-by-player estimates of playing time (plate appearances or innings pitched) and individual OPS and ERA.  (See: )

I had the Yankees achieving a 3.82 ERA and in fact they have a 3.95 ERA, only 3% off.  Whereas they are 7% off my projection for a .747 OPS, at .694.

The Yanks have won 47 games thus far, where my 89 win projection would prorate to 52 wins after 94 games.  So we have to explain who is accountable for the 5 lost wins.

But actually, to confuse matters, the Yanks have actually won more games than they “should have” by virtue of their stats.  Whether one uses my equation – which says they “deserve” only 43 wins to date, or ESPN’s “Expected Won Loss” measure based on runs scored differential, which has the Yanks at 44 wins, they have overachieved, much as they did last year.  (I am happy to speculate this overachievement is attributable to a very strong bullpen, which enables the team to win close games, while their losses are by a larger margin, a tendency which tends to lead statistical projections a bit astray).

So, the question I seek to answer is, if the Yanks have “earned” only 44 wins, when my preseason forecast said they should have 52 wins, who is accountable for the 8 wins they are short?

Running the numbers through my model yields a clear answer.


     Performance vs. Expectations
Beltran/McCann/Soriano/Ellsbury/Jeter worse OPS than expected
 .695 OPS vs. .792
Sabathia/Nova/Pineda/Kuroda worse ERA/less IP than expected
  4.57 ERA vs. 3.74; 24% of IP vs. 37%
Other hitters worse than expected
  .711 OPS vs. .712
Original relievers pitched better than expected
  3.11 ERA vs. 3.58
Substitute relievers pitched worse than expected
  4.43 ERA vs. 3.75
Tanaka has pitched better/more than expected
  2.51 ERA vs 3.50; 15% of IP vs. 11%

Yes, the Yanks have missed those injured starters, but the fact of the matter is, the backups have pitched pretty well, and my expectations for CC and Pineda were not all that great to begin with.  Phelps, Whitley, Greene, Nuno and McCarthy have a combined 4.46 ERA versus my expectation for CC, Nova and Pineda which was 3.46.  That differential is essentially worth about 3 wins, which is certainly material. (Kuroda is doing about what I expected.)

But the far bigger impact has been the poor hitting of Beltran, McCann, Soriano, Ellsbury and Jeter, who have collectively hit to a .695 OPS versus my reasonable expectation for .792 based on their performance in the recent past (see the chart below).  Given the five veterans accounted for 44% of the Yankees total plate appearances, their relatively poor hitting has cost the club about six wins.


The other hitters have been just slightly below expectations, and the relievers have collectively been on target, with the spectacular Betances and excellent Warren offsetting the atrocious performance of a bunch of stopgaps, starting with Alfredo Aceves, Matt Daley and Jose Ramirez, along with a forgettable assortment one or two inning guys (Cesar Cabral?  Wade LeBlanc?) who bombed their auditions.

And, of course, there is Tanaka, who exceeded my expectations (3.50 ERA and about 92 innings pitched) by a wide margin (2.51 and 129); he contributed two more wins than expected all by himself with his sensational first half.  

As for the second half of the season? Typically one might expect veterans off to poor starts to rebound, but Soriano has already been released, Beltran is continually injured, Jeter has been consistently in the .650 OPS range all year, and McCann seems spooked by the shift.  Only Ellsbury may have some upside, but he was off only 7% of OPS, while the others are off by double figures.

Tanaka’s injury is particularly devastating, and there is no replacement.  Despite their miraculous proximity to the AL East lead, the Yanks have to ask themselves if they are willing to gut their relatively weak minor league system for a veteran starter or two.

Absent major changes, my model indicates the Yanks will modestly improve both their OPS and ERA, with some improvement from the veteran bats and more stability in the rotation provided by McCarthy, Greene and perhaps one other decent new arm.  A .721 team OPS and 3.78 team ERA translates “by the book” to a .520 W-L percentage, or 35 wins in the last 68 games.  Let’s give Joe three more wins on top of that for his game (bullpen) management and perhaps some Cashman upgrades.  That brings us to 38 wins in the last 68 games, plus the current 47 wins at the break…and the Yanks make it in with 85 wins.  Not enough to win the AL East or a wild card, but respectable given the injury debacle.  And bad enough for Cashman to tear up last winter’s blueprint and devise another – if he’s rehired.

1 comment:

  1. When you have irrational owners/fans, it causes the people in charge (Cash-Man!) to make bad decisions.....Spending that much on McCann, Ells and Beltran was bound to come back and haunt the Trust Fund Twins (say hi, Hal and Hank). The fact that it's dooming them this early is a disaster for NYY. They're stuck with 3 guys who are only going to get worse.


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