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The Yankees will only go as far as their stars take them

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How do the Yankees’ “Big Three” on offense and pitching compare to other contenders?

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There’s a strange refrain around the 2018-19 New York Yankees’ offseason. The Yankees probably didn’t get any worse this offseason, but they also didn’t do much to improve the roster. James Paxton aside, most of the team’s offseason moves were fairly minor. Still, they have received a good deal of criticism and concern from the fanbase.

Moves like signing DJ Lemahieu and Troy Tulowitzki, as well as keeping the often-injured Jacoby Ellsbury around, are not the factors that will determine if the Yankees can close in on contenders like the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros. No, if the Yankees want to bridge the gap on their archrivals, they’ll have to get better production from their stars, both on offense and when pitching.

First, let’s start by identifying a “Big Three” of hitters and pitchers on each team. These should be core players that the teams built around last season. For this study, here’s what I came up with as each team’s Big Three:

I threw the Dodgers in there because they have reached the World Series the last two years, and they may be the Yankees’ most likely World Series foe.

Those are some awesome cores for each team! Looking strictly at the names and ages on that chart, it seems like the pecking order here should go something like:

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. New York Yankees
  3. Houston Astros
  4. Los Angeles Dodgers

However, the Yankees’ Big Three actually put up some of the worst statistical performances last year out of this group, which could be a prime reason for their mediocre 15-15 record last year against these teams (including postseason). It’s worth looking closer at some of these stats, starting with offense.

Consider the overall WAR of each team’s Big Three. Notice two Yankees in the bottom four of the table.

Now, WAR is a finicky statistic, and it is also a counting stat based on full-season numbers. In that respect, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez did not play full seasons last year. Still, Sanchez easily had the worst season of any of those players, and while Judge’s WAR may have increased by at least another win if he avoided injury, it would still have likely been behind Betts and Bregman.

Combining the WAR of each team’s Big Three ends up looking like this:

  1. Boston = 20.6
  2. Houston = 15.4
  3. Los Angeles = 13.0
  4. New York = 10.6

But hey, WAR, what is it good for? After all, Judge and Sanchez’s health likely had a big part to do with the poor WAR scores. Next, let’s look at wRC+, a far better way to evaluate offensive performance. In this metric, 100 is considered average. To the numbers:

And the team standings:

  1. Boston = 159
  2. Los Angeles = 145
  3. Houston = 137
  4. New York = 122

There’s a lot to unpack here. There’s only one hitter out of each team’s Big Three that hit below average last year, and that’s Sanchez. Also, while Stanton’s 127 figure is not bad by any stretch, it’s not what the Yankees had in mind when they acquired him, and it’s even below his career average. Although Judge held his own when healthy, Stanton and Sanchez really didn’t compare favorably to their peers offensively. This will have to improve in 2019 for the Yankees. Assuming a return to health, there’s no way that the Yankees, an offense-first team, should be last out of the serious contenders in two major offensive categories again.

Moving onto pitching, we’ll start with WAR once again because it creates a baseline for overall player and team performance.

  1. Houston = 16.7
  2. Boston = 11.9
  3. New York = 10.9
  4. Los Angeles = 9.4

Note the inclusion of James Paxton in this year’s table. While the Yankees are basing their offensive improvement off of health and continued development, the Yankees actually went out and acquired an impact pitcher to bolster the Big Three in James Paxton. If we substitute Paxton’s WAR in place of Sabathia’s, the Yankees would actually leapfrog Boston and slide nicely into the second spot. Subbing in Nate Eovaldi for Rick Porcello in the Big Three probably won’t impact Boston’s WAR too much, and Houston is due for a slight decline with the possible departure of Dallas Keuchel. Surprisingly, the big names in the Yankees’ rotation actually compare quite well with their biggest rivals.

Let’s take a look at one more stat to evaluate the teams’ key pitchers: ERA-. Similar to wRC+ but inverted, 100 is a league-average figure, and the lower the number is, the better. Here’s the leaderboard:

And the team standings for this metric:

  1. Boston = 74
  2. Houston = 75
  3. Los Angeles = 79
  4. New York = 83

It’s a little interesting that New York brings up the rear here, in this park-and-league-adjusted statistic. Still, like the WAR argument, the addition of Paxton can help the Yankees climb up these rankings.

In order for the Yankees to close ground and actually start beating these teams, these stats show that they’ll need more heavy lifting from their stars. The Yankees’ offense was both good and unlucky last year, but that isn’t going to make Boston, Houston and Los Angeles feel bad for them. As for pitching, the addition of Paxton could be a game-changer, giving the Yankees a true “Big Three” that they haven’t had with their pitchers since CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte stormed through the 2009 postseason.

Statistics like this don’t prove everything, but it’s a good indication that the 2018 Yankees stars were not as good as their competition. Only time will tell if a winter of rest, rehab and marginal additions will be enough to close the gap on the rest of the MLB’s best.