With the last out of the 2016 season, so begins the analysis of what went right and what went wrong this year for the Yankees. Here is a simple fact: by true talent, this was a below-.500 team. They only had four players worth 3.0 rWAR or more (Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Gary Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius), and their cumulative statistics aren’t great: a 91 OPS+, a 105 ERA+, and a -22 run differential.
By those metrics, the Yankees should have won something like 79 games. Instead, they won 84, just five games shy of a wild card spot. That kept them mathematically in the race until just a few days ago, which is utterly remarkable. They didn’t give him up, so I’ll give them that.
A question, then, is: why did the Yankees somehow outplay their talent, and how have they done that consistently for the past few years? First, on this year. There were a few things in the Yankees’ favor. The first is the bullpen. The Yankees had their best pitching come from out of the pen, as they had a collective 87 ERA-. Having Dellin Betances, as well as Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman for half of the season, didn’t necessarily make them bulletproof late in games, but it helped them work with tighter margins.
Secondly, there was just plain luck; sequencing has something to do with it. A lot of randomness in baseball can just be chocked up to whether a team’s hits were clumped in important spots, and the Yankees seemed to do just that. Here is a chart I made of all teams this year with their OPS, as well as their OPS in games that were within two runs in the seventh inning or later—I call those games “close-and-late”. If you look at the differential between overall OPS and “close-and-late” OPS, you see this sequencing in effect:
The Yankees were the sixth-best team in this OPS differential, meaning they were sixth-best at ratcheting up their performance in important situations.
This can’t be the only reason, though. This is a pattern in recent history. In 2013, the Yankees outplayed their run differential by six games, and in 2014, they outplayed it by seven games. They underplayed it by a game last season, but the point stands: I don’t believe this is an accident.
This starts with the manager. It is well-documented by the sabermetric community that Girardi manages an effective bullpen. There’s going to be someone who shouts at me to disagree, but there isn’t a single metric to back up the statement that he makes the wrong decisions with the bullpen. FanGraphs just yesterday found that Girardi ranks in the top three in optimal bullpen use, and just a year ago, Ben Lindbergh at Grantland found that Girardi was second in that same metric.
I think that paints a nicely sized picture. Optimal bullpen management adds a few wins here, and the right hits at the right time add a few wins there. The Yankees were lucky enough to get these things in conjunction this year, and that kept them in the race despite what the numbers would tell us.
What this also means, though, is that the Yankees are starting with a .500 win to improve upon in the offseason, and not one within five games of a playoff spot. They need to make major improvements in the offseason, because eventually this luck runs out.