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Why are the Yankees so bad against the AL East?

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The Yankees offense has scored a full run less per game against AL East opponents than against the rest of the league.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Yankees have been, across the board, mediocre this season, but in many ways, the reasons behind this mediocrity have been...strange. Heading into action on Friday, the Yankees stood at 41-39, eight games out of the division and behind four teams for the second wild card spot. Arguably the driving force behind the team’s mediocrity has been the their performance within the division.

Against AL East opponents so far this season, the Yankees have gone a measly 17-24 (a 67-win pace), scoring only 3.6 runs/game and allowing 4.3; against the rest of the league, that record is 24-15 (a 99-win pace), scoring 4.62 runs/game and allowing 4.03. Although the offense has not performed to its standards against any opponent this year — that 4.62 runs/game pace is barely above the AL average of 4.59 — it has fared particularly poorly within the division, performing even worse at the plate than everyone but the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Before we break down this trend, let’s first go over what the Yankees offense does and doesn’t do well. Despite a batting average in the bottom half of the American League, the Yankees have a top-five OBP, courtesy of a 10.9 BB% that is second in all of baseball behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers. They are the best in the league at generating hard contact, doing so 42.6% of the time, but they have put the ball on the ground more than anyone in the American League besides the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox, leading to more groundball double plays than anyone else in the league. They strike out a fair bit — the tenth-most in baseball, in fact — but it’s not at a rate that they can’t overcome. For example, the San Francisco Giants, with a team wRC+ of 108, strike out more.

Based on this data, we can make the assumption that the Yankees have struggled more against teams that are good at generating groundballs.

Though the data may not be as decisive as one might expect — thanks in large part to the small sample sizes of teams that the Yankees faced outside the division — this assumption does hold water. And what do you know, three of the team’s four divisional opponents rank on the higher end of this spectrum, with the Baltimore Orioles (i.e., the only one that the Yankees haven’t completely stunk against) being the sole outlier.

Here’s the thing, however: none of these teams are among the league’s best at generating ground balls. Toronto and Boston rank ninth and tenth in baseball, respectively, at 44.9 and 44.8 percent, but Tampa Bay’s 43.4 percent is 17th in baseball. Granted, the overall baseline that the Yankees offense ought to be performing at is lower than anticipated, but it still feels like there has to be more to the story than this.

So what differs? Let’s use the FanGraphs team splits tool to compare the Yankees’ rate stats against AL East teams with those against the rest of the league.

This set of data gives us contradictory information — the Yankees hit both hit more fly balls and hit them over the wall at a higher rate against opponents from outside the division, but they actually pull the ball less against those same opponents (and most power comes when you pull the ball, not go the other way). Additionally, the Yankees actually have generated less soft contact against AL East opponents, although that’s at the expense of more medium contact, not hard contact. Lastly, though strikeout and walk rates are significantly better outside the division than within it, it’s not as major a change as it appears: 25.3 and 24.1 K% are both within the 9-12 range throughout the league, and 9.8 and 12.3 BB% are both top-5.

In truth, the results, not the approach, are the major differences between teams within the division and teams outside the division. In fact, had last weekend’s series against Boston not happened, in which the Yankees scored only seven runs in three games, I might even have drawn the conclusion that the Yankees simply faced the teams within their division at the wrong time, while the entire offense was slumping (since the last time the Yankees played the Rays, for example, the offense has posted a 117 wRC+ and has averaged over five runs per game). In the end, even after going through all this data — and more besides, such as defensive shifts, which would have made this piece too long to publish by including — the biggest reason that I can draw for this team not hitting well against teams within the division is simply “because they have.”