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What the Yankees have already lost in the early going

The season has only just started, but the Yankees have already lost a significant amount of ground in the division race.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have not had a strong start to the season. They’ve muddled along around .500, and have suffered a few particularly ugly defeats, notably a 14-1 shellacking on the road in Boston, and an embarrassing 9-1 loss at home to the cellar-dwelling Marlins. They’ve sustained injuries, come up short in key moments, and have just overall been middling so far.

Get past the general malaise and the tough losses, though, and you can still see a great team. Even with the injuries, the Yankees have a deep roster and stacked farm system. Not only that, they haven’t even been nearly as bad as it has felt thus far.

Matt detailed yesterday the role poor luck in the bullpen has played in the Yankees’ frustrating opening salvo. Unfortunate sequencing and failures in high leverage spots have left the Yankees with a worse record than they probably deserve. A few timely hits in a few clutch spots and the Yankees’ win-loss mark would be much more palatable.

This might feel like a trend, given similar things happened with the 2017 team. Regardless, it’s extremely likely that this type of stuff will even out in the long run. As a team, the Yankees have posted a .782 OPS on offense. They’ve limited opponents to a .702 OPS. If they out-OPS their foes by 80 points all year, they will win plenty of games.

Yet while the Yankees themselves should be fine, they’ve still lost something crucial in the early going. No, it’s not the Yankees we should be particularly worried about. It’s their competition in the AL East.

The Yankees entered 2018 expected to win the division. It seems strange that that expectation could have changed dramatically by April 20th, but it has, thanks primarily to the excellent starts by the Red Sox and Blue Jays. The ground the Yankees have lost to those teams, even in just a few weeks, already threatens to have a profound impact on their 2018 season.

In fact, the Yankees, despite their start really not having been all that bad, may have lost more than any other contender. Coming into the season, there were a handful of “superteams” that were expected to rise above the rest. That hasn’t at all come to pass, and of those projected juggernauts, the Yankees’ division odds have easily fallen the most:

MLB Change in Division Odds

Team Change in Division Odds
Team Change in Division Odds
Yankees -28.0%
Nationals -18.4%
Cubs -15.6%
Dodgers -8.9%
Astros -4.7%
Indians -3.4%

Per FanGraphs, the Yankees have seen their chances of winning the division fall below half of what they were entering the year. Their 28% loss, from 53% to 25%, gaps the Nationals and their 18% drop. The Yankees and Nationals are solid foils for each other at the moment, two teams with big expectations off to middling starts made much worse by a huge start by a division foe, the Mets in Washington’s case.

The Yankees division chances haven’t been halved because they have been terrible. They haven’t fallen because the roster projects worse than it did a month ago: FanGraphs projections forecast the Yankees to put up the second-most WAR in the majors from here on out, trailing the Astros by a mere 0.1 WAR.

The Yankees are in a much worse position because the Blue Jays are playing well and because the Red Sox are beating the snot out of the rest of the league. Toronto entered the year looking like a decent team, but they’ve raced out to a 12-5 record. The Red Sox looked like primary Wild Card contenders before the year, but have a league-best 15-2 record.

Boston has genuinely outpaced the competition in April. They lead the league with a 128 OPS+. They lead the league with a 166 ERA+. There’s no rocket science needed here: if you hit way better than everyone and allow fewer runs than everyone, you will win almost constantly.

Thus, FanGraphs gives the Red Sox a 68% chance to take the AL East. Nearly all of the Yankees’ odds have simply been transferred to Boston. The season has only just started, but the entire complexion of the division race has already shifted dramatically.

The Yankees still have fine playoff odds, above 80% by FanGraphs’ calculations, but most of that is tied up in a potential Wild Card appearance. The Yankees dealt with the Twins in the AL Wild Card game last year, but it wasn’t without a scare, and the Yankees lost the 2015 Wild Card game to Houston. This team knows as well as anyone how a long season of hard work can be lost in that sudden-death playoff.

That’s really the upshot of this uneven beginning. The Yankees still look strong, but even if they play to their talent level from here on out, they might be staring directly at another Wild Card matchup. That’s a tough break, after a start that hasn’t been nearly as bad as advertised, but it’s the reality with Boston having crushed everyone in their path. The division race certainly isn’t over by any means, but after just a few weeks, the Yankees have already lost some crucial ground.