The All-Star Break may still be a few weeks away, but we’ve pretty much reached the actual mid-point of the season. The Yankees have played 80 games, with 82 more waiting on the other side of the schedule. The season has already taken on several surprising shapes, with countless twists and turns sure to come across the summer months.
As it goes every year, the halfway point always feels like a reasonable place to stop and take stock. What has happened over the first half of the year? What’s changed? Where do the respective players and teams that have taken the spotlight over the first half stand as we turn our attention to the stretch run?
The Yankees, of course, are 52-28 and hold a comfortable seven-game lead in the AL East. From an injury standpoint, an avalanche of things could have gone better for the Bombers over the first three months, but in terms of pure results, they couldn’t have asked for much more. As they head into the second half, though, what should be the team’s goal? Obviously, the Yankees want to win the division, the pennant, and so on. But now, with dozens of games’ worth of information at our disposal, we have a much better idea of what it will take to pass those thresholds.
Earlier this week, Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs, the creator of one of the public’s best projection systems (ZiPS), performed a midseason projection update for the AL. Using ZiPS, which has been updated with players’ first-half performances so as to better estimate what they’ll do from here on out, Szymborksi projected the rest of the season and came up with the win totals that would likely be required to win each division or Wild Card spot.
In fact, ZiPS provides a wide range of expected outcomes, in the form of percentile outcomes for each playoff spot. For example, ZiPS estimates that the 50th-percentile outcome for the AL Central crown comes in at 98.8 wins. In layman’s terms, there’s about a 50-percent chance the winner of the AL Central comes in below 99 wins, and just about an equal chance that the winner exceeds 99 wins.
Let’s use those forecasts to set up targets for the Yankees. ZiPS pegs the 50th-percentile AL East champion to clock in at 98.6 wins. That seems like a fair target. The Yankees are on pace for over 100 wins, and 99 should cinch the division for them without much trouble.
Of course, ZiPS’ median projection is being dragged upwards by the Yankees’ excellent pace. In the event the Yankees fall off their current triple-digit win track and fail to win 99 games, they’ll still profile as division favorites.
In fact, the Yankees could probably fall off quite a bit and still be just fine. ZiPS puts the 50th-percentile outcome for the first AL Wild Card at 94.9 wins, and the second AL Wild card at 91.9 wins. That’s a pair of excellent outcomes for a couple of Wild Card teams, and not an unfamiliar one, given last year’s Wild Card Game was staged between the 100-win Yankees and the 97-win Athletics. Prior to last season, the second AL Wild Card was won with an average of 88.8 wins.
Even given the higher threshold for making the playoffs, that the median outcome for the postseason’s last qualifier comes so far beneath the Yankees’ current pace is, obviously, great news. To hit 92 wins, the Yankees would merely have to finish 40-42 That would require a huge drop-off in performance from the Yankees as a whole, though it should be noted that such a drop-off isn’t impossible.
As the Yankees already showed in the first half, worst-case scenarios in terms of injuries are plausible. We just saw a period in which Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino, James Paxton, Dellin Betances, and more were all on the IL at the same time. The Yankees, as one of the deepest teams in the league, survived without issue, but if the same injury bug struck again in the second half and the team’s replacements regressed somewhat, a .500-ish finish to the season would suddenly come into play.
Yet that we must envision such a hellish second half for the Yankees just to get them off track to hit those target win totals underscores how well they’re set up for the rest of the season. They weathered the storm, got to the other side with at least some healthy stars and a fat division lead, and it shows in their playoff odds; FanGraphs gives them a 99-percent chance of qualifying for the postseason, Baseball Prospectus gives them a 98-percent chance, and FiveThirtyEight estimates a 97-percent chance.
Here, the fancy projection systems have done nothing more but confirm what most of us have probably intuited. The Yankees are right on course, a mid-to-upper 90-win season should vault them right into the AL playoffs, and it would take a nightmarish set of circumstances to deny them at least a Wild Card. That’s the situation the Yankees find themselves in after one half of play. Here’s to a second half that ends up being just as interesting.