For much of 2017, this season has felt like found money for the Yankees. Entering the year, it appeared that New York's farm system was poised to return the Yankees to glory in 2018, 2019, and beyond. That the team didn't project to be terrible in the interim was a nice consolation prize, but genuine contention wasn't quite expected just yet.
Instead, of course, the Yankees found themselves in first place for several weeks. At their high-water mark of 15 games above .500, they owned a four game lead over the Red Sox. A season in which New York looked like legitimate contenders had seemingly come out of nowhere, a year or two before the rest of the league likely considered the Yankees to be true threats again.
A brutal rash of injuries and a string of losses have taken the air out of the sails, but that doesn't mean the season has been lost. The Yankees still control a playoff spot. They are still in the driver's seat when it comes to the Wild Card. FanGraphs estimates their playoff odds at 68%, while Baseball Prospectus is even more optimistic, placing their chances at 74%.
The Yankees likely would have gladly taken 70% playoff odds prior to the season if given the chance (FanGraphs gave them a mere 14% before the season began). Even with the nightmare West Coast trip, the spate of injuries to key players, and the swift fall out first place, the Yankees are on track for the postseason and still playing with house money.
Yet from another perspective, this season doesn't feel like found money. If anything, a quick look at the Yankees' underlying numbers makes this season feel awfully like a missed opportunity.
Consider that even after this dreadful recent stretch, the Yankees still own the second-best run differential in the American League at +103. Going a level deeper, the Yankees have the second-best BaseRuns differential in the AL +104. That means that the Yankees could have been expected to post a 52-31 record based solely on the batting line recorded by their hitters and the line yielded by their pitchers. The eight-win discrepancy between their actual and BaseRuns records is the league's largest.
Going even further, we can look at Baseball Prospectus third order winning percentage, which like BaseRuns looks only at a team's underlying numbers, but then adjusts for strength of schedule. Yet again, the Yankees rank second in the AL, with a third order winning percentage of .643. If the actual standings reflected BP's third order winning percentages, the Yankees would be 53-30 and would hold a six game lead on Boston.
No matter how you slice it, even after a miserable month of June, the Yankees have still clearly outplayed their opponents on the whole. If they actually were sitting on 52 or 53 wins, with a nice lead over the trailing Red Sox, they would be clear favorites in the AL East, with an excellent chance to avoid the play-in Wild Card game.
They have missed the opportunity to take a comfortable lead in the division, and instead are looking like longer shots by the day to take the AL East. They've missed the opportunity in large part because of failures in the clutch.
The Yankees’ .267/.345/.498 overall slash line is among the best in the league. Their .232/.306/.422 line in what Baseball Reference defines as "high leverage" situations is among the game's worst. They have a .728 OPS in plate appearances in the 7th inning or later in which the tying run is at least on deck. Similarly, the Yankees' pitchers have yielded a .700 OPS overall, a fine mark, but a .744 OPS in high leverage situations. Not as big of a drop-off, but still enough to make a difference.
After posting a 24-12 record in one-run games last year, and a 105-76 record over the past four years, the Yankees are 9-17 in one-run games this year. This is the main reason there is such a gulf between their "expected" records and their actualized record. Conspicuous lack of execution in high leverage spots in close games is the primary reason the Yankees have missed an opportunity to jump from Wild Card contenders to dangerous threats to win the pennant.
That the Yankees can swing so suddenly from dominating one-run games to losing them left and right goes to show how variable performance by that metric is, and illustrates the role plain luck can play. The Yankees are unlikely to play this poorly in the clutch going forward, and should win a better share of one-run games the rest of the way. However, what's done is done, and after dropping a bushel of close games in the first half, the Yankees have missed their chance to truly wrench open their championship window early. That they still have a decent shot at postseason means they're still playing with found money: the problem is that they should've found a whole lot more.