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The Yankees owe their success to players outperforming expectations

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The Bombers have fought to stay afloat. How much have they beaten expectations to do so?

New York Yankees v San Francisco Giants Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

For the past few years, the Yankees have spent an almost uncomfortable amount of time playing some sort of an underdog role. While they will never truly fit the part of The Little Engine That Could, the club took on the position of a veritable surprise team in 2017, as they shocked much of the baseball world in nearly winning the American League pennant. Expectations were high for the 2019 Yankees, but when nearly every star hit the injured list, fans and analysts understandably adjusted their hopes for the Yankees. Instead, the team’s replacements have surprisingly kept winning at a fair rate.

The Yankees have performed so well in spite of adversity over the first month and change that it’s worth looking at just how much house money they’re playing with at this point. The team sustained enough injuries to key players early on to lend the season a sense of doom, but they’re still in the thick of the playoff race, knocking on the door of the first-place Rays. How much better have they actually been than we could have expected so far? Where would they stand had their motley crew of replacements actually played to expectations?

In order to compare how the Yankees have played with how we would have expected them to play, I enlisted the help of FanGraphs’ preseason depth charts projections. Using those figures, I was able to calculate how much WAR per plate appearance each Yankee projected to produce entering the year. Multiplying that rate by how many plate appearances each Yankee has accrued gives us an expected WAR figure, which we can compare to each player’s actual WAR to determine an exact level of over-performance.

Given the still-young state of the season, I won’t show you a table of just how much each player projected to produce and how much they outperformed, as such a table would simply involve a whole bunch of small, many-decimal numbers. Instead, I can summarize the findings (note: all figures current through 5/2).

On the hitting side, the Yankees’ biggest overachiever has been Clint Frazier, who has produced 0.8 WAR per FanGraphs’ calculations, when we would have expected him to produce about 0.2 WAR in his 73 plate appearances entering the year. Also carrying more than their weight are Giovanny Urshela and Luke Voit, who have each put up about 0.4 more WAR than expected, DJ LeMahieu, who has produced a quarter of a win above expectation, and Mike Tauchman, at about 0.1 WAR above.

Tyler Wade and Miguel Andujar, meanwhile, profile as the primary underachievers. Andujar’s defense gets dinged by fWAR’s harshly enough to already put him at -0.3 WAR. All told, the Yankees hitters have over-performed their projections by more than one win.

The same goes for the pitchers. Here, James Paxton and Domingo German stand out as the obvious overachievers, each clocking in nearly three-quarters of a win above expectation. The likes of Aroldis Chapman, Tommy Kahnle, and Luis Cessa have also each outperformed projections slightly. The only real drags have been J.A. Happ and Chad Green, the latter of whom got demoted for his underperformance. Again, the Yankees pitchers have beaten projections by over a win so far.

In total, the Yankees pitchers and hitters combined have beaten their projections by about two-and-a-quarter wins. From this view, if we knew the injuries that were to befall the Yankees at the season’s outset, we’d have probably forecasted them for a 14-16 or 15-15 record through the first 30 games. In reality, they won at the pace of a 92-win club, and sit in the AL’s first Wild Card spot, 2.5 games back of first place in the division.

I see a few main takeaways from this exercise. For one, the Yankees have over-performed hugely, but that was already abundantly clear. I’m more surprised that the projections suggested the Yankees would have won 14 or 15 of their first 30 games, even with a full team on the IL. More than anything, the fact that Yankees could reasonably have projected to approach .500 with 13 or more players on the IL at a time demonstrates the team’s remarkable depth.

Of course, we’re not here to watch the Yankees approach .500. We’re here to watch them compete for the World Series. Their replacements have kept them in the hunt, but if they were tasked with playing at this level all year, they most likely would prove unable to continue playing above their heads like this. In any event, reinforcements are nearing, with Andujar looking like the first member of the cavalry to arrive. Hopefully, any regression from the Yankees replacements will be more than nullified by a cavalcade of recovering stars.