It’s often said that baseball is a game of streaks. It’s also often said – and I know this to be true because literally every player says some version of this – that the key to success is consistency. In other words, the key to success is making a streaky performance less streaky.
Which brings us to the point of discussion: examining which Yankees are most prone to streakiness. There are a few different ways to look at this – you can look at the monthly splits of any of your preferred statistics – but we’re going to use tOPS+.
First a primer on the metric, for anyone who’s unfamiliar. OPS is, of course, on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. It’s become one of the most commonly used metrics to assess a player’s offensive ability – how often are they getting on base and how much damage are they doing when they get hits? OPS+ takes that number and compares it against the league, with 100 representing league average. A 120 OPS+ means that player’s OPS is 20 percent better than league average; an 80 OPS+ means it’s 20 percent worse. It’s a quick, handy way to see how players stack up, on the off chance that you don’t know the league average OPS last year — it was .758, by the way.
tOPS+ is useful because instead of measuring a player’s performance against the league, it measures it against their own average. For example, in April of last year, Gleyber Torres had an OPS+ of 105. That’s 5 percent better than average. Not bad by any means. His tOPS+, however, was just 77, meaning that while his OPS was perfectly fine, it wasn’t nearly as high as the standard he set for himself last year. In fact, it was 23 percent worse.
So let’s look at how some key players on this year’s team performed month-to-month last year based on their tOPS+. (A note: I’m only including players who got consistent playing time last year, so bench players like Mike Tauchman and Mike Ford aren’t included. Neither are players who spent the bulk of 2019 on the injured list. Finally, Aaron Judge missed all of May, so that month has been left blank.)
You can get a pretty good sense of whose monthly performances were the most volatile – Torres and DJ LeMahieu stand out – and whose stayed within a narrower range – Judge and Brett Gardner. But let’s quantify that volatility further by adding together the absolute values of the swings. (For example, Torres’ swing from April to May was 55; from May to June it was 21, etc.) For our purposes, it doesn’t matter what direction the swings go in, just how wide they were.
When we do that, it becomes clearer who the streakiest players were and by what degree. Another note: You’ll no doubt see the horrible pimple that is Gary Sanchez’s July, with an almost mindboggling -10 tOPS+. Because it’s such an egregious outlier that would skew the measure of his aggregate fluctuation, I’ve left him out of the next table. He was largely consistent the remainder of the year, perhaps even surprisingly so given what has become the popular “boom or bust” narrative that fans and the media have attached to him.
Torres, Urshela and LeMahieu had the most volatile years using this methodology; Gardner and Judge (and for comparison’s sake, Andujar in 2018) were tops in terms of month-to-month consistency. That’s certainly not to say that that those players on the high end were bad. They had outstanding seasons! It’s just to illustrate that their performances didn’t follow a straight line.
Remember, as well, what tOPS+ does. It measures players against the standards they’ve set for themselves, not against the rest of the league. The example of Torres can be instructive on this point. On the season, he had an OPS+ of 128. His monthly performances measured against the league break down like so: 105, 155, 172, 75, 154 and 100. For three months – half the season – he was more than 50 percent better than league average and in one month he was 72 percent better. Those are gaudy numbers. The tantalizing thing about Torres is the prospect of him hitting those peaks more consistently. There’s hope there.
Here’s his monthly tOPS+ breakdown from his rookie season in 2018: 100, 150, 86, 94, 103 and 66. The absolute value of those swings was just 168, far better than the 239 he had last year.
He showed greater consistency in his first year. If you believe that exhibiting a skill means you have it, Yankees fans can dream on the potential of Torres marrying the more consistent approach from his rookie season with the ability he demonstrated last year to hit the ever-loving crap out of the ball. If he does that, he can take his place alongside Judge as a true lineup linchpin.