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Prepare for the most fascinating Yankees season of this era

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It remains to be seen if this Yankee team is the best of recent vintage, but the level of intrigue they’ll generate is not in doubt.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

What do we want in a baseball team? Do we want them to prioritize winning the game in front of them at all costs? For them to try to be competitive for as many years as is plausible? Can we wish for the most stylistically interesting team possible? Do we root for them to win the arbitration wrestling belt and fly a banner that reads “Dollars per WAR Champion”?

For most fans, I guess the answer would be pretty simple: shoot for the World Series every year, and try to put together a fun team in the process. We’ll see soon enough to what extent the 2021 Yankees fit that particular bill.

What’s not in question is whether this team will suit fans of intrigue. These Yankees will demand your attention, for better and worse. Brian Cashman and Co. didn’t necessarily put together the best Yankee club of this era. Instead, they assembled the most fascinating one.

That’s not to say this Yankee team isn’t good. Even casual MLB observers will note the roster’s strength and pencil them in as American League favorites. FanGraphs tendered the Yankees a few slightly better projections from 2018-2020, but still pegs this version for 95 wins, while PECOTA actually sees these Yankees as just as good as their most recent iterations, calling for 99 wins. By the cold algorithms, the Yankees profile as pretty close to as good as they’ve been during this championship window.

But this Yankee team isn’t really defined by its overall quality, with its expected level of play not much different than that of the 2017-2020 outfits. No, the spirit of the 2021 version stems from its unusual uncertainty. The team obviously made upside (and ducking the luxury tax) the focus of their offseason strategy. The result is an impossibly intriguing roster, replete with a massive ceiling and equally huge question marks.

The projections can be our guide here as well, thanks to PECOTA’s production of percentile outcomes. The folks at Baseball Prospectus provide 10th to 99th-percentile projections for every player. By looking at a team’s upper-percentile projections and comparing them to the median forecasts, we can get a sense for how wide the possible range outcomes truly is for that club’s campaign.

I homed in on the Yankees’ rotation, unquestionably the shakiest, and most interesting, aspect of the team. I pulled their likely starters’ 80th-percentile K/9 rates and ERA marks and contrasted them with their 50th-percentile figures. I also did so for the team’s likely starters ahead of 2020, to see just how much more uncertainty there is about this year’s staff:

2021 Yankees Starting Pitcher Projections

Starter 80th K/9 50th K/9 Difference 80th ERA 50th ERA Difference
Starter 80th K/9 50th K/9 Difference 80th ERA 50th ERA Difference
Gerrit Cole 12.9 11.8 1.1 2.17 2.69 0.52
Jameson Taillon 9.6 8.4 1.2 2.83 3.47 0.64
Corey Kluber 10.1 8.9 1.2 2.99 3.65 0.66
Jordan Montgomery 10.3 9.3 1 3.12 3.8 0.68
Domingo German 10.8 9.7 1.1 3.27 3.98 0.71
Deivi Garcia 11.1 10.1 1 3.42 4.18 0.76
Average 10.8 9.7 1.1 2.97 3.63 0.66

2020 Yankees Starting Pitcher Projections

Starter 80th K/9 50th K/9 Difference 80th ERA 50th ERA Difference
Starter 80th K/9 50th K/9 Difference 80th ERA 50th ERA Difference
Gerrit Cole 14 13.8 0.2 2.09 2.55 0.46
James Paxton 11.4 11.1 0.3 2.75 3.29 0.54
Masahiro Tanaka 9.1 8.9 0.2 3.32 3.85 0.53
Jordan Montgomery 9 8.5 0.5 2.87 3.54 0.67
J.A. Happ 8.5 8.2 0.3 3.38 3.95 0.57
Average 10.4 10.1 0.3 2.88 3.44 0.55

There’s a lot to digest in these charts, so I’ll summarize: the difference between the Yankees’ starters’ upside outcomes and their middling outcomes comes out to more than a whole strikeout per nine, and about two-thirds of a run in ERA. That’s a pretty huge gap! The same exercise for last year’s rotation showed only a 0.3 difference in K/9, and about a half-run difference in terms of ERA.

Of course, one could argue the projections are hardly necessary to spur fascination regarding this rotation. A passing glance at the names on the card should suffice. There’s not much question about Gerrit Cole’s 2021 performance, but every other hurler gives us reason to watch with intent.

Corey Kluber is a genuine mystery. 36 innings pitched scattered across the last two seasons give us little clue about the kind of pitcher he is right now. Ditto for Jameson Taillon, who combines two Tommy Johns, elite stuff, and new mechanics into an intoxicating cocktail of uncertainty. Deivi García has at times looked like a readymade number-two starter, a Quad-A hurler in need of seasoning at others. This, all without mentioning the looming specter of Luis Severino, the team’s erstwhile ace who could fundamentally shift the profile of the postseason rotation, or fail to pitch at all this year. Every pitch each of these players toss comes with the promise it could start to unravel the enigma that is this pitching staff.

The error bars on pure performance are a bit narrower on the position player side, but there’s still no lack of intrigue. Gary Sánchez and Gleyber Torres, to name a pair, enter the season at a crossroads. Sánchez’s entire career is at a pivot point, while Torres must settle whether he’s merely a good starter, or something much more. Clint Frazier made a star turn in 2020; was that a flash in the pan, or can he sustain for a full year? Gio Urshela has one full season of high-level play under his belt. Will he make it two?

Crucially, on top of all this, these Yankees back up huge uncertainty and ceiling with eminent watchability. In an era defined by the long ball, the Bombers stand out for the uncommon frequency and force with which they stroke dingers, led by Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Moreover, the rotation provides fun-to-watch pitchers and stylistic diversity. At their best, Cole and Severino are the definition of pure power pitching. García and Jordan Montgomery bring pitchability and deception. The bullpen features an eclectic mixture of hard-throwers and soft-tossers from the left and right sides.

It adds up to a club that should be as interesting to watch on a day-to-day basis as it’s been since the title team of 2009. The uncertainty about so many of the roster’s important players will keep us on the edge of our seats, while the diversity and sheer impressiveness of the team’s skills ensure a high level of watchability. This isn’t to say other Yankee clubs of recent vintage lacked intrigue of or were hard to watch, but none combined such upside, a potentially low floor, and athletic prowess the way the 2021 Yankees promise to.

On the heels of a miserable year, I personally couldn’t have asked for much more (OK, well, other than a more significant commitment to spending, but I digress). Ultimately, what we truly want from sports is something that will hold our attention, that will give us something to chew on and feel inspired about while we try to manage our lives, handle our jobs, and rebuild our society. These Yankees will do that and more. And if we’re lucky, maybe they’ll even capture World Series number 28.