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The Yankees are both exceeding and underperforming expectations

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How have the Yankees manage to exceed expectations, while also failing to live up to their sparkling underlying numbers?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

No one expected the Yankees to play as well as they have this year. Well, I shouldn’t say no one. Perhaps you knew, in your heart, that Aaron Judge would have a median outcome that involved hitting like Babe Ruth for extended stretches. Maybe you could feel it in your bones that Luis Severino was ready to breakout, Jordan Montgomery was poised to suddenly emergence, or Michael Pineda would pitch competently. Maybe the ascensions of Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro have been all too predictable to you.

If you, hypothetical reader, knew all these things to be coming, I'd have to ask: why didn’t you tell the rest of us? Because most of baseball has been left surprised by how much the Yankees have exceeded expectations. Sure, some analysts pegged the Yankees for a Wild Card spot, but hardly any preseason prognosticators picked them to win the AL East let alone make a deep playoff run (outside of here, of course).

Projection systems certainly didn't set the Yankees' expectations at "legitimate first place team", instead forecasting them generally to win somewhere between 80 and 84 games. Yet here we are. The Yankees have exceeded expectations more than just about any other team in baseball. Just intuitively, most of us probably feel this to be true. More rigorously, here's a chart, depicting the largest difference between preseason Fangraphs' projected winning percentage and actual winning percentage through Thursday:

MLB’s Biggest Overperformers

Team Projected WP Actual WP Difference
Team Projected WP Actual WP Difference
Rockies 0.48 0.618 0.138
Diamondbacks 0.477 0.612 0.135
Yankees 0.488 0.603 0.115
Astros 0.557 0.672 0.115
Brewers 0.436 0.522 0.086
Twins 0.46 0.532 0.072
Nationals 0.571 0.6 0.029
Reds 0.417 0.446 0.029
Dodgers 0.597 0.621 0.024

There the Yankees are, behind the Rockies and Diamondbacks, a couple of typically awful but so far excellent teams. They’re head of every AL team in terms of exceeding the objective expectations of projections, though. It’s a strange dynamic that a Yankees team being good is a surprise.

In fact, simply looking at the Yankees' great win-loss record might even sell them short. If we examine the Yankees' underlying numbers, it's easy to make the case that they've exceeded expectations by even more. Here are the largest differences between projected winning percentage and expected winning percentage based on FanGraphs' BaseRuns, a useful metric that strips out the effects of sequencing when evaluating a team's quality:

MLB Overperformers by BaseRuns

Team Projected WP BaseRuns WP Difference
Team Projected WP BaseRuns WP Difference
Yankees 0.488 0.685 0.197
Diamondbacks 0.477 0.613 0.136
Rays 0.497 0.567 0.07
Reds 0.417 0.486 0.069
Rockies 0.48 0.547 0.067
Astros 0.557 0.621 0.064
White Sox 0.42 0.478 0.058
Brewers 0.436 0.492 0.056
Marlins 0.486 0.518 0.032

The Yankees' disparity between their projected true talent and their actual underlying numbers is genuinely massive, and completely gaps the field. That's because their BaseRuns winning percentage is a sensational .685 (equivalent to a 111-win pace), by far the best in the baseball.

Does that mean the Yankees, in exceeding expectations so hugely, are actually underperforming? In a way, yes. The level of play the Yankees have exhibited has been wildly beyond any reasonable expectations, but in playing this well to earn a 38-25 record, the Yankees have actually underperformed.

Look back at the Yankees' winning percentage, as well at their BaseRuns winning percentage. The gap between the two is over 80 points, largest in the league. BaseRuns estimates the Yankees "should" be 43-20, five wins better than they actually are. The Yankees have outscored their opponents by a league-best 114 runs, good for a 42-21 Pythagorean record. The four-win discrepancy between their actual and Pythagorean records is also the largest in baseball.

By any objective metric, the Yankees have somehow managed to underperform in terms of wins and losses, despite exceeding in terms of performance. Why is that? It appears that relative struggles by the lineup in key situations have been the primary culprit.

The Yankees as a team have run a .275/.352/.472 slash line. That's outstanding. With two outs and RISP, however, that line drops to .225/.321/.447. That subsequent .768 OPS is still pretty great in general, but it's far worse than the Yankees do in typical situations.

This is a good place to use tOPS+, which takes a player or team's OPS in a particular split and compares it to it's overall OPS. So, for example, if a team has an 80 tOPS+ with one out, that means that they have, as a whole, hit about 20% worse with one out than they do overall.

The Yankees tOPS+ with two outs and RISP is 86. Their tOPS+ in what Baseball Reference defines as "high leverage" situations? 72. In tie games? 90. In games that are within one run? 84. Compare that to their tOPS+ of 107 in low leverage situations, or their 117 tOPS+ in games in which the teams are separated by five or more runs.

The takeaway from this is that the Yankees have done more damage in less important situations than they have in high leverage ones. So, yes, they haven't been "clutch". I certainly wouldn't say that means the Yankees will fail to be clutch in the future, but it's incontrovertible that they have so far done worse in clutch situations than they have otherwise.

If that split was reversed, and the Yankees were performing better in clutch situations than in lower leverage ones, they'd have an even better record than their already surprising actual record. In some ways, this is good news. The Yankees have beaten expectations and have even more room to grow, based on their underlying performance.

The bad news is that due to some failures in the clutch, the Yankees haven't fully capitalized on their awesome play. This team already looks highly likely to make the playoffs, but a club that hadn't underperformed its underlying numbers, and instead posted something like a 43-20 record? That team would be starting to resemble World Series favorites.