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Are the Yankees doomed?

The Yankees’ 2019 season has been a nightmare so far. Are they hopeless?

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Last summer, I wrote a piece titled “The sky isn’t actually falling for the Yankees”. I was compelled to because, well, it felt like the sky was falling. The team suffered a few key injuries, dropped winnable games to bad teams, and some fans were up in arms regarding apparent refusal to take on money to improve the roster.

Does this sound familiar? An absolute avalanche of injuries has struck the Yankees to begin 2019, the team has bungled away a number of games to teams they have to beat, and ownership’s relative frugality last winter looks more aggravating by the day. Now seems as good a time as ever to ask: Are the Yankees doomed?

I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone for sensing that this season has been cursed, irreparably damaged. The feeling of imminent demise comes from two obvious sources; the veritable All-Star team on the injured list, and the pile of losses to the American League’s dregs. The Yankees have placed an unfathomable amount of talent on the IL, and have dropped series to the Orioles, Tigers, and White Sox. If you subscribe to Bill Parcells’ idea of “You are what your record says you are”, you’ve probably seen enough. Look past the surface, though, and I’m not sure the Yankees really are doomed, despite the constant river of maladies.

Last season, the Yankees posted a .249/.329/.451 slash line, good for baseball’s second-best league and park-adjusted offense with a 111 wRC+. In 2019, the Yankees have hit .256/.343/.465 with a 118 wRC+. They are producing at a higher level overall now than in 2018.

Similarly, the Yankees’ pitching staff posted an 87 ERA- in 2018, along with an 82 FIP-. So far this season, in light of last night’s jaw-dropping performance from James Paxton, they’ve posted an 85 ERA- and an 80 FIP-. These are obviously all small sample numbers, but there’s no evidence to suggest the Yankees’ actual level of play has really dropped from last season, in spite of uneven starts to the year from J.A. Happ, Zack Britton, Chad Green, and more. On the whole, the staff has struck out batters, walked batters, and allowed runs at average or better rates.

While the Yankees own an undeniably poor record, they have, on a per-plate-appearance basis, outplayed their opponents at every level. They only have themselves to blame for failing to turn that production at the plate and on the bump into more wins, but over the course of a long season, if the Yankees continue to outperform the competition at this pace, they will almost certainly win a boatload of games.

Of course, the Yankees have outperformed the opposition in part because the opposition has been so poor. Prior to the year, FanGraphs projected the Orioles, Tigers, and White Sox, for 61, 68, and 72 wins, respectively. The Astros stand out as the only formidable team the Yankees have faced thus far. We cannot extricate the Yankees’ technically good statistics from the bad competition they’ve been compiled against.

Yet the Yankees’ easy schedule should be easily outweighed by the level injuries they’ve suffered. It doesn’t take any level of advanced analytics or sabermetrics to deduce that having Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Troy Tulowitzki, and Greg Bird on the shelf Is Not What You Want. The Yankees have played bad teams, yes, but they’ve outplayed those bad teams while trotting out their B-Squad.

The most compelling argument that the Yankees are doomed, however, stems from the potential longer-term consequences of these injuries. On their face, most of the Yankees’ ailments appear minor. Sanchez should return within days. Stanton shouldn’t miss more than April. Hicks has yet to set a definitive rehab schedule but hopefully won’t linger on the IL past May. Betances could be back by the end of May. CC Sabathia has already returned.

The scenarios in which the Yankees miss the playoffs likely stem from a few of those injuries proving more troublesome than they appear now. Perhaps Sanchez comes back raking, or maybe lower-body issues plague him all year. Maybe Hicks submits a redux of his 2018 campaign, or looks more like his 2016 self, when he missed nearly half the season with various bumps and bruises. Stanton’s biceps injury sounds minor, but what if it hampers him all summer?

Odds are, one or two of the Yankees’ early injuries will impact the team more than currently expected. It’s also plausible that most of them will linger. If they do, that’s what could torpedo the entire season.

Even so, the median scenario at this point still involves a Yankees’ postseason campaign. FanGraphs depth charts projections, which theoretically account for all the missed time the Yankees’ stars should be expected to incur, pegs the team for the most WAR the rest of the way, as well as the most wins in baseball going forward. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects the Yankees for the second-most wins in the game from now until season’s end. You can and should quibble with each forecasts’ playing time estimates (FanGraphs, for example, pegs Severino for 153 innings, which unequivocally will not happen), but even more pessimistic estimates would leave the Yankees looking one of the league’s best teams.

I think the evidence as a whole suggests the Yankees are quantifiably Not Doomed. This isn’t to say there exist no timelines in which the Yankees’ injury woes don’t improve and ultimately lead to a disastrous, playoff-less season. The most likely outcomes for the year, though, still include around 90 or more wins and a playoff appearance. The team has played better than its record suggests, should recover enough injured players to win far more games than they lose going forward, and hasn’t yet lost so many games so as to put themselves in too deep a hole. These first few weeks have been a borderline farce, but the Yankees should, eventually, find themselves back on an upward trajectory.