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The ways in which the Yankees have overperformed

The Yankees have been better than we could have expected based on their historic rash injuries. How have they done it?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this season, with the Yankees staying afloat amid an avalanche of injuries, I took a look at which players had overperformed in order to keep them in the race. By my math, Clint Frazier, Giovanny Urshela, and Luke Voit had beaten expectations the most among hitters, while Domingo German and James Paxton had punched above their weight among pitchers.

At the end of that piece, however, I opined:

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.

The Yankees, of course, continued to get hurt across the entire first half, and the replacements that stepped in kept playing above their heads. At the time of that first piece, the Yankees were 17-13 and in second in the AL East, and now, at the All-Star break, they’re 57-31 and in first place by 6.5 games.

They have not stopped beating expectations, even with Murphy’s Law coming to life in the form of a new injury seemingly every minute. So, let’s reprise our look at how and where they’ve overperformed. To do so, I took FanGraphs’ preseason depth charts projections, and threw them against the amount of playing time each Yankee has received thus far to generate the WAR total they would have been projected to come up with given their actual number of plate appearances or innings pitched thus far.

By taking that projected WAR total and subtracting it from their actual WAR total, I can highlight the Yankees that have beaten expectations most and done the most to keep the team rolling. Without further ado, here’s a look at the hitters that have overperformed projections:

Yankees’ biggest hitting overperformers

Player PA WAR Expected WAR Difference
Player PA WAR Expected WAR Difference
DJ LeMahieu 367 3.4 1.4 2.0
Gleyber Torres 340 2.5 1.5 1.0
Cameron Maybin 133 1 0.2 0.8
Brett Gardner 323 1.8 1.1 0.7
Giovanny Urshela 248 1 0.3 0.7

Unsurprisingly, DJ LeMahieu has done more than anyone else to beat expectations. It should be noted that FanGraphs’ projections were actually pretty high on LeMahieu before the year, pegging for an above-average regular, and yet he’s still managed to produce two full WAR more than would have been expected in this many plate appearances.

The rest of the overperformers line up as expected as well. Brett Gardner’s power surge has been both surprising and welcome, while Gleyber Torres is cementing himself as a superstar. Urshela fits right in as a stunning overperformer, while I personally come away from this exercise as impressed as ever by Cameron Maybin. Perhaps his contributions have been forgotten since he hit the IL, but that he managed to produce a full win above replacement in such little time is remarkable. In total, the Yankees’ five biggest overperformers have managed to beat expectations by over five WAR.

Now, let’s look at the primary overperformers on the pitching side:

Yankees’ biggest pitching overperformers

Name IP WAR Expected WAR Difference
Name IP WAR Expected WAR Difference
Domingo German 76 1.7 0.8 0.9
Tommy Kahnle 34.2 0.6 0.1 0.5
Aroldis Chapman 34.2 1.4 1.2 0.2
David Hale 26.1 0.4 0.2 0.2
Masahiro Tanaka 105 2.1 1.9 0.2

The Yankees haven’t had quite the same level of overperformance on the pitching side, though Domingo German does stand out. That the second-biggest overachiever here is Tommy Kahnle tells you what you need to know about how much the Yankees’ pitchers have surprised relative to their brigade of replacement hitters.

Between their biggest overperformers on the hitting and pitching side, the Yankees have received over seven WAR more than could have been expected. The team as a whole, though, hasn’t overperformed to that extent. Overall, the team has beaten their total WAR projection by two wins. They’re dragged down by Miguel Andujar, who underperformed his projection by a shocking 1.25 WAR, and J.A. Happ, who has come in .75 WAR under expectation.

When I first looked at the Yankees’ overperformers back in May, I found that they had already beaten their WAR projection by about two wins. So, since then, the team has as a whole played to expectations; stragglers like Andujar, Happ, Edwin Encarnacion, Aaron Hicks, and poor reserves like Austin Romine and Kendrys Morales have cancelled out the surprises of LeMahieu, Urshela, and German.

Yet the team has lapped the field in the AL East, despite not beating expectations and suffering heavy injuries. How have they done it? Turns out they’ve overperformed in a different, more subtle way.

This year, the Yankees have run a .265/.340/.464 slash line at the plate, good for a .339 wOBA. That’s great! They’ve held opposing hitters to a .248/.312/.429 slash line and .314 wOBA. Not spectacular, but not bad at all! Essentially, the Yankees have outperformed their opponents by 25 points worth of wOBA for the year.

That’s a solid margin, yet that wOBA difference actually only ranks fifth in MLB. Consider the Dodgers, who have matched the Yankees with a .339 wOBA at the plate, but have held opponents to a sparkling .279 wOBA. Or the Astros, who have mashed their way to a .343 wOBA at the dish and have held down opposing hitters to the tune of a .293 wOBA. Or even the rival Rays, who have outhit their opponents by 38 points worth of wOBA.

This is all to say that the Yankees trail the Dodgers by just a few winning percentage points for the best record in the league, while their overall underlying performance has lagged behind the best teams in the league. The Yankees have the record of perhaps the best team in baseball, but the numbers of merely a very very good team. Rather than overperforming in terms of their individual players beating projections, the Yankees have actually overperformed by turning their underlying figures into more wins than one would expect.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! This overperformance likely stems from fortunate sequencing and great situational hitting. For example, the Yankees have hit .303/.379/.519 with runners in scoring position. While they likely can’t sustain that forever, the fact that they’ve found ways to win in often thrilling fashion certainly doesn’t detract from the rooting experience; if anything, it enhances it.

Even if the ways they’ve overperformed aren’t sustainable, the potential returns of Giancarlo Stanton, Voit, or maybe even Luis Severino and Dellin Betances could more than offset any regression. If the Yankees continued to trot out the same set of players the rest of the way, they probably couldn’t expect to win at the rate they have. With players recovering and the trade deadline nearing, it seems unlikely they won’t improve their roster in the weeks to come.