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The Yankees have no clear rival in the American League

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The Yankees enter 2021 in a relatively strange spot: as undisputed, hands-down pennant favorites.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees begin 2021 in a position that’s pretty familiar on the surface. Ever since the Baby Bombers burst onto the scene in 2017, the team has entered each season as title contenders. That’s no different this year, as the Yankees are expected to seriously challenge for the World Series, and are widely regarded as the favorites in the AL East and the AL as a whole.

Something’s different this time around, though. In past years, even as the Yankees arrived at Opening Day with a loaded roster and championship expectations, the team broke camp knowing they faced stiff competition across the league. Champions in Houston and Boston cropped up, while stalwarts in Cleveland and Tampa Bay always provided a challenge.

Every year during this window, the Yankees have either looked like pennant favorites, but with close competitors nipping at their heels, or themselves nipping at the heels of a different league favorite. In 2021, however, the competition has fallen by the wayside. Not only do the Yankees enter as favorites, it’s entirely unclear who the Yankees should even be worried about. The rest of the league has fallen off so sharply that the Yankees begin the season with a cushion they haven’t seen in years.

We’ll sample the hard projections in a moment, but the fact that there’s an enormous gap between the Yankees and the AL field can be gleaned through sheer eye test. Just scan the Yankees lineup, on days when it’s healthy and even on days when guys are down. A recent discussion in the PSA Slack found us wondering if the Yankees have a dozen position players with the potential to run an OPS well over .800. The team’s lineup has the top-end talent, injuries permitting, to compete with anyone and a level of depth seen nowhere else in the junior circuit.

The Astros, Blue Jays, Twins, and White Sox all have the potential to approach the Bombers’ hitters, but none have the one-through-nine depth on display in the Bronx. Houston’s array of stars bleeds off into the likes of Myles Straw, Martín Maldonado, and Aledmys Díaz at the bottom. Shakier bets like Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jensen, and Randal Grichuk dot an otherwise starry Toronto lineup. No team can glance at their lineup card and see both stars as good as Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu at the top, and players like Brett Gardner and Gary Sánchez somehow at the bottom.

And for as much flack as we give the Yankees for running out a rotation of Gerrit Cole and question marks, nearly every other AL contender has chosen to compile a staff that follows the “ace followed by questions” template. The problem is that the rest of the field’s aces are worse than Cole, and their question marks have less upside! The Blue Jays sport Hyun-Jin Ryu and then... Robbie Ray and Tanner Roark? The Twins can throw out Kenta Maeda, and then Yankee castoffs Michael Pineda and J.A. Happ. Houston can depend on Zack Greinke, but also needs Cristian Javier and José Urquidy to overperform (and for Framber Valdez to avoid missing too much time with his broken finger).

The equation is simple: the Yankees have the high-end hitters that their competitors have, but with far more lineup depth, and they also feature a better ace, supporting starters with higher ceilings, and a deep bullpen. Look at the rosters on paper, and you’d expect the projections to call for the Yankees to lap the field.

And you’d be correct. FanGraphs pegs the Yankees for 95 wins, six games ahead of the second AL team in Houston, and eight games ahead in the AL East. PECOTA projects 99 wins for the Yankees, puts the Twins and Astros eight games back, and projects a 13-game gap in the AL East. Clay Davenport’s public projections put a nine-game gulf between the Yankees and the second-best AL team, and 11 games between the Yankees and the rest of the AL East.

Contrast that with the team’s projected position in past years. The following chart shows the projected distance between the Yankees and the top AL team. A positive figure means the Yankees were favorites, while a negative figure indicates the Yankees weren’t projected as favorites and shows how far back they stood:

Yankees’ Previous year AL Projections

Year FanGraphs AL PECOTA AL
Year FanGraphs AL PECOTA AL
2020 -2 1
2019 2 -3
2018 -6 -2
2017 -14 -13

There’s obviously some variation between projections, but the upshot is clear. Since 2018, the Yankees have entered each year either as the slight AL favorite, or just behind the Astros, Cleveland, or Boston. Moreover, each prior season has typically brought multiple heavyweights at once; both Houston and Cleveland projected better than New York prior to 2018, while Houston, Boston, and Cleveland all projected higher in 2019.

In 2021, we have just the Yankees, and what appear to be pretenders. Now, given baseball’s funky nature, surely one or two of these teams projected in the mid-80-wins morass will rise up and challenge. This isn’t to discount the chance that Chicago’s superlative young core breaks out, or that Houston’s stars bounce back and carry the Astros to another pennant. But no one team in particular stands out, and the Yankees are left without a true rival.

In my view, this casts the Yankees’ past winter in two different lights. One could look at the projected gulf between the Yankees and the rest, and determine this was the smart year to cut back, to duck under the luxury tax simply because there’s no close competition. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to posit that even the smallest amount of financial conviction from Hal Steinbrenner could have turned the Yankees from huge favorites into unholy conquerors of the world. With the rest of the AL laying down*, the Yankees arguably had a chance to step on their throats, and instead chose austerity.

*And that’s to say nothing of whether or not this team measures up to National League behemoths like the Dodgers and Padres.

Anyone who’s read my analysis of the team’s winter will know I fall in the latter camp. Either way, the Yankees’ lack of a challenger puts their offseason in proper context. The team scanned the field through the cold months and saw no reason to break a sweat, so they didn’t. They opted to bring in a team that’s certainly good enough, one that’s projected to sweep the league, and they did it on their own terms. They could have spent more to try and put even more distance between them and the pack. That they didn’t might say as much about the state of the sport as it does the Yankees.