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 socalled “2006
All Stars,” are turning the clock back and slugging the team into first.
It is a
compelling story. You will recall in the
offseason 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 (resigned 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 AllStar 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
weightedaverage 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 2516 record, a .610 wonloss 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: www.borntorunthenumbers.com/2013/03/yankees2013predictionisit1965i_31.html)
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)


2006

2012

2013

2013


Actual

Actual

Projection

Actual


Youkilis

0.810

0.745

0.750

0.769

Suzuki

0.786

0.696

0.680

0.608

Hafner

1.097

0.784

0.775

0.893

Overbay

0.880

0.727

0.725

0.789

Wells

0.899

0.682

0.680

0.881

Wtg.
Average

0.885

0.723

0.726

0.788

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 threequarters of
them (.727 percentage) while essentially only splitting games decided by three
or more runs.
Won

Lost


1 or 2 run games

16

6

3+ run games

9

10

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
betterthananticipated ERA. Now, we see
the other three extra wins can be attributed to pitching very well when it really
counted, in those close endofgame situations.
So to break
it all down:
Games Won


Expected
Wins

21

OTHG

1

Other
batters

1

Starting
pitchers

0

Relief
pitchers

1

Save
opportunities

3

Actual
wins

25

The Yankees
are not overachieving because of the Over the Hill Gang. No, it is all about that 43year old guy who
has yet to see the other side of that same hill…yes, Mariano Rivera.
Mo still has a couple more years. It's a pity he's calling it a career.
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