On Monday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Yankees played their 81st game of the season, officially passing the halfway mark. Through the first half of 2017, the team is playing at an 88 win pace, sporting the second-best run differential in the American League, and showcasing deserving All Stars at multiple positions. It’s quite a difference from an often lackluster, usually downright boring 2016 club. Just how different are the two squads, exactly? It’s worth a closer look.
With a lineup that featured an aging Carlos Beltran and far too little first base help, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 2016 Yankees struggled to hit in the first half. They posted a 91 wRC+ while their lineup contributed just 7.1 fWAR, ranking them 13th in the American League in both categories. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, two keys to the 2015 playoff run, were nonexistent in the 2016 lineup. They contributed negative value through the first half, dooming the Yankees to their mid-season sell off.
Fast forward a year, and it’s hard to recognize the current Yankees’ lineup. Gone are Brian McCann and Dustin Ackley, as the team now features the vaunted Baby Bombers playing critical roles. Much has been written about Aaron Judge and his MVP candidacy already (196 wRC+, 5.1 fWAR), but the Yankees feature improvement at nearly every position on the diamond.
The three outfield positions have combined for 10.8 fWAR, more than double what the Yankees’ outfield accrued over the entire 2016 season. The emergence of Judge and renaissance of Aaron Hicks have played tremendous roles in the outfield success. Brett Gardner’s power surge has also helped. Yet it’s when one pivots to the infield that the real improvements show.
McCann actually did a serviceable job as the Yankees catcher in 2016, posting a 118 wRC+ in the first half. That level of production pales compared to the hitting of Gary Sanchez, however, as the Kraken followed up his rookie season with a 144 wRC+ in the first half of 2017. This is despite missing time with a serious biceps injury and being slowed recently with a hamstring problem.
The middle infield has been a sterling improvement for the Yankees as well. While the personnel haven’t changed, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius both have taken steps forward in their development, becoming a top-tier double play duo. They’ve combined for 4 wins already this season and both have the opportunity to be at the All Star Game, which is amazing after the two amassed 2.2 fWAR in the first half of 2016. Maybe this level of production is sustainable, but it’s played a huge role in the Yankees being as good as they are.
Remember when Luis Severino was bad? I mean really bad. As in, the 12th-best pitcher on the entire staff by fWAR through the first 81 games of 2016 bad. The 23-year-old right-hander’s resurgence has been one of the best storylines across baseball, as has the performance of the previously-suspect New York rotation.
Buoyed by Severino and Jordan Montgomery, and supported by a strong showing from CC Sabathia, the Yankees will start the second half of 2017 with the fourth-best rotation in the league. They could see that ranking improve if Masahiro Tanaka can capitalize on a recent run of strong starts.
One of the hallmarks of the Joe Girardi era in New York has been the ability of the Yankees to consistently outplay what their record should be. Using the Pythagorean win formula, the Yankees were about three wins better in the first half of 2016 than they should have been, but have actually underperformed their run differential so far in 2017:
Pythag isn’t super-predictive, but the takeaway here is clear. If the Yankees continue their modus operandi in 2017, winning by lots and losing by little, we should be in for a better second half than what we saw in 2016.