On Sunday, Derek Jeter symbolically passed the torch to a new era of Yankees. That may be creating a narrative in my head based on future events that haven’t happened yet, but it sure felt like it. Then again, it felt like a passing of the torch after Jeter’s last game at Yankee Stadium, and both the 2015 and 2016 seasons feel like fever dreams that in many ways were never truly wiped from my amygdala.
This time, though, I have something to back this up. While 2013 through 2016 was a drudgery of mediocrity (except for the latter part of last year), 2017 both feels and looks different. Not only is this team, on paper, an objectively better ball club, but there’s something that feels different, something many beat writers and commentators have touched upon, a fight and a will to stay alive that feels present even when they lose. Hell, even the game they lost on Sunday featured the tying run at the plate to finish the game of a blow out. It’s both qualitatively and quantitatively different, for sure.
Now, on to the numbers. I was recently perusing FiveThirtyEight’s ELO MLB History, which is a pretty cool data visualization project. Basically, ELO is a simple power ranking. It uses historical retrosheet data to award ELO points for victories and margin of victory, and more points are awarded if the team defeated is better. The average rating is 1500, for reference.
So, here’s a good snapshot:
This is the Yankees’ ELO ratings from around 2011 to the present. What you’ll notice is pretty obvious to any observer: the Yankees were slightly better than average between 2013 and 2016, but not by much.
What initially intrigued me, though, was the last spike. That’s this season so far. On May 8th, after defeating the Reds by a score of 10-4, their ELO rating sat at 1544. That’s not bad. When was the last time it was that high? May 26, 2013. That partially shows the limitations of ELO because we knew even at that time the 2013 team was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but the system seemed to assign some pre-2013 value compounded with a great start that didn’t last.
What can we make of this? Well, for one, the Yankees are better now than they have ever been in the past four years, at least by one metric (there are more). It definitely, in a more poetic sense, ties into this idea of torch-passing. It’s fitting that Derek Jeter sealed the book on his legacy at a moment when the Yankees are finally starting to move on from him, and by that I mean the “real” end of his career, which was his broken ankle in the 2012 ALCS.
I would caution on assigning any momentum, obviously. ELO, just like win-loss record, ebbs and flows, and I wouldn’t start subscribing to the idea that because they’re better than they’ve been, then they’re destined to improve. We don’t know that. This could be as they’re going to be, for all we know.
My point is really to just enjoy this fact, that even if it’s just that little blip, that little spike, it’s something (I’d also like to note that even in those bad times the team only dipped briefly below 1500).
It’s also important to put that into perspective, because the Yankees have just been so phenomenally good over their history. Seriously, look at the full chart:
It’s not even possible to repeat that, and we shouldn’t expect it. Based on the small amount of data we do have, the Yankees put a better product on the field in April of 2017 than they did in any period of time in the post-broken ankle era. That’s progress.