As July begins, the halfway point of the season has arrived. It is an interesting time, as teams take stock of what they have as the trade deadline draws closer. With the NBA and NHL playoffs over, and the NFL still far from getting started, many sports fans don’t have much to distract them from MLB’s stretch run.
For the Yankees, the first half has been a mixed bag. The team has had a generally frustrating season, interspersed with occasionally inspiring stretches of quality play. However, despite a record sitting at almost exactly .500, the Yankees have emerged as something of a paradox; they are at the same time better and worse than their record.
Stay with me. It might seem a reach to propose that the Yankees, who have so thoroughly embodied mediocrity thus far, are better and worse than their Win-Loss figures. Yet a closer inspection of the team’s performance and underlying talent level suggests that New York is at once undeserving of their win total, as well as an underachieving collection of talent capable of more than .500.
First, let’s start with the idea that the Yankees are thoroughly worse than their record indicates. This idea is not unfamiliar, as recent iterations of the Yankees have been quite versed in posting solid records despite poor run differentials. The 2013 Yankees won 85 games while being outscored by 21 runs, and the 2014 squad won 84 games while being outscored by 31 runs.
Such a phenomenon has occurred again in 2016. Entering play on Friday, the Yankees were outscored by 31 runs in 78 games. Their run differential ranked 11th in the American League. They outperformed their Pythagorean record of 36-42 by three games. A team that scores and allows runs at this rate over the course of a 162 game season would be expected to go 75-87. In spite of all this, the Yankees found themselves just three games out of a playoff spot.
Moreover, the performance that led to those uninspiring run totals has been even less impressive. FanGraphs’ BaseRuns metric, which attempts to strip out the effects of sequencing and luck in order to estimate the record a team “should” have, evaluated the Yankees’ play as worthy of a 35-43 record. By BaseRuns, the Yankees’ run differential was an estimated -37, which translates to a .449 winning percentage. A .449 win rate over a full year equates to a 73-89 record.
There is simply no way to objectively look at the Yankees’ performance and conclude that they have not been worse than their serviceable record. They’ve scored 4.13 runs per game and allowed 4.53 runs per game. The team owns a collective .703 OPS at the plate, while the pitchers as a whole have allowed an opposing OPS of .739.
However, the Yankees also seem better than their record. While the team is rather hopelessly devoid of stars, what New York does possess is a group deep with useful players, many of whom have under-performed this season. Entering the season, it was difficult to poke holes and find glaring weaknesses in the roster.
There are more rigorous ways to quantify the Yankees’ level of talent. Prior to the 2016 campaign, FanGraphs projected the Yankees to win 82 games. Baseball Prospectus projected the team to win 85 games. Before the season, there was clearly an expectation the Yankees could play above .500 ball and compete for a Wild Card spot.
Now, with half a season in the books, the projection systems are still at least somewhat optimistic about the level of talent on New York’s roster. FanGraphs’ projected standings posit that the Yankees will carry a .511 winning percentage through the rest of the year. Likewise, PECOTA pegs the Yankees for a .511 rest of season winning percentage.
The Yankees are also well-acquitted with the projection systems’ overall WAR forecasts. FanGraphs’ depth charts peg the Yankees for 20.4 WAR the rest of the way, 5th in the AL. PECOTA provides a 17.1 WARP estimate, 7th in the AL. By any measure, the projections pegged the Yankees as an above-average team prior to the season, and they forecast them to stay that way from here to the campaign’s conclusion.
Thus, the Yankees are actually an under-performing team, with talent beyond what their record suggests. It is not hard to spot where the under-performance lies. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, a year after combining for 4 WAR in the first half, have combined for nearly two wins below replacement in 2016. Starlin Castro and Brian McCann went cold after hot starts. Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda can’t seem to decide whether they want to fulfill their considerable potential, or continue to leave fans frustrated.
Still, even after a disappointing first half, the Yankees aren’t bereft of talent. Perhaps this is why the team’s front office brass has so bristled at the idea of selling. They likely view the team as full of players who can, and will, do better (though this sentiment isn’t nearly enough to excuse their pure dismissal of the idea of selling).
So the Yankees, based on their still decent level of talent, are better than their mediocre record. At the same time, the Yankees level of performance through three months has been definitively poor. They are worse than their record. With these two opposite forces pulling in different directions, there is almost a poetic symmetry to how the Yankees have landed directly in the middle at .500. With three more months to go, it remains to be seen if either side will win out, or if New York will continue to sit in purgatory.