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The Yankees have been lucky, but the AL East ensured that it didn’t matter

In many ways, the Yankees have been fortunate this year. Playing in the AL East has not been one of them.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is a finicky sport. The vagaries of chance have an inordinate impact on who wins and who loses. While it’s easy to suggest that luck evens out over the course of a grueling season, it doesn’t, and certain teams end up being the special beneficiaries of good fortune.

This year, the Yankees have been one of those teams. Regardless of how you slice it, the Yankees appear to have benefited from luck, in the form of winning more games than a team with their statistics typically would.

Basic run differential is an easy place to start. Scoring more runs than your opponents is a clear cut task, and one that the Yankees have failed at more often than not in recent years. For the third time in four seasons, the Yankees will, in all likelihood, finish with a winning record despite being outscored by their opponents.

In 2013, New York won 85 games with a -21 run differential. In 2014, they won 84 games with a -31 run differential. This year, they have been outscored by 22 runs, but again are on track to run a win total in the mid 80’s.

The simplest explanation for this is the Yankees’ record in one run games. They have the second best winning percentage in MLB in one run games with a 24-12 record, second only to the Texas Rangers, who have an insane 36-11 record.

Dominant relievers like Dellin Betances, as well as Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, make it easier to win one-run games, as do strong bullpen managers like Joe Girardi, so there might be some signal in this noise. Still, some of the Yankees’ knack for winning with a bad run differential has to be chalked up to luck.

Moreover, there are more accurate ways to measure a team’s performance than looking at runs scored and allowed. FanGraphs’ BaseRuns controls for the effects of sequencing in order to better project the true performance level of a team. Unsurprisingly, BaseRuns doesn’t have kind things to say about the Yankees.

BaseRuns estimates the Yankees “should” have a record of 75-82, much worse than their real record, and worse even than their 76-81 Pythagorean record. Their bad BaseRuns record stems from the fact that they have been outplayed on both sides of the ball. As a team, the Yankees own a .721 OPS at the plate, while their pitchers have allowed a collective OPS of .735.

However, in reality, the Yankees’ good fortune has been rendered moot. Sure, they have been lucky, on a per plate appearance basis, at turning baserunners into runs, and preventing opposing baserunners from turning into runs. They have been lucky at the game-by-game level as far as turning runs into wins. Where they haven’t been lucky is the schedule.

The Yankees have had the misfortune of playing in the best division in baseball. As of this writing, three AL East teams are in playoff position. The division will probably be host to four teams with winning records. The only team that won’t finish with a winning record, the cellar-dwelling Rays, even has an above average BaseRuns winning percentage of .501. The AL East simply doesn’t have any doormats.

In interleague play, the AL East is 59-41, which equates to a 96-win pace over a full season. Against the AL Central, the AL East is 87-76. Against the AL West, they are 84-78. No matter who has come to town, the AL East has proved superior.

The perilous division has all but nullified the Yankees’ good fortune elsewhere. They have outperformed their underlying numbers, but those underlying numbers are bad in part because of the schedule. Having to play the AL East in nearly half their games is a major penalty, and consequently, they sport a .451 winning percentage against AL East competition. In games against the AL Central and AL West, the Yankees have actually a .621 winning percentage.

Since it is 2016, there are metrics that account for strength of schedule. The best of them is probably Baseball Prospectus’ third order winning percentage. Third order winning percentage essentially strips out sequencing effects, like BaseRuns, but then applies an adjustment for schedule, in attempt to drill down and get the best estimate of a team’s true performance as possible.

By third order winning percentage, the Yankees have an estimated record of 81.6-75.4. The Yankees’ actual record through Tuesday’s games was... 81-76. So basically, it has been a wash! At least according to Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees’ good fortune when it comes to sequencing and run differential has been almost exactly outweighed by the rigors of a tough schedule.

In some ways, this is good news. For as mediocre as they look at times, the underlying numbers do suggest that the Yankees haven’t actually been terrible. Of course, the bad news is obvious; this division has been brutal, and there’s no guarantee that things will get easier in the future. Let’s just hope that if the division does regress next year, the Yankees fortune in other areas doesn’t areas doesn’t regress with it.