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On the Yankees and changing expectations

What does one hot month mean?

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

So back in April, when we did our yearly Pinstripe Alley predictions, I very strongly felt that this was a 90-92 win team. I thought they’d have a strong rotation, great bullpen, and an offense prone to both hot streaks and the cold streaks that come along. Critically, I thought they’d be the third-best team in the division — not a bad team by any stretch, but not good enough to quite keep pace with the Jays and Rays.

Now that we’re a month into the season, the Yankees have won 72 percent of their games, a 117-win pace that they will surely not sustain for the rest of the season, but they do also boast the best run differential and second-best Base Runs record in the American League, so its not like they’re here by accident. So, do I need to change my mind about this team?

The total of 29 games represents 17.9 percent of the total season, a little more than one sixth of the slate that make up baseball’s marathon. I think that we can start to tug at some of those assumptions I made in the first paragraph, albeit with the caveats that there’s a lot of baseball left, and two good or bad weeks will make us all re-evaluate our picks again.

With this Yankee squad, it really is all about the pitching, and there are definitely signs that we need to adjust our early, high expectations for the staff. With every start, Nestor Cortes proves more and more that he’s a bona fide MLB rotation anchor. Is he going to be the best pitcher on the staff over 30-32 starts? I’d bet not, but his stuff is real and the performance is real so far. Michael King had his first bad outing of the year on Sunday against the Rangers, but the changes to his stuff and delivery are also legitimate changes.

We already knew that the Yankees would have a strong pitching corps, but they’ve taken it to a new level with the performances of Cortes, King, Jordan Montgomery taking a step forward, etc. They have a top five K-BB — my favorite single pitching stat — and while their ERA is outperforming their FIP, a good chunk of that difference is covered by having a better defense behind the pitcher, which the club certainly has.

So, I think we can comfortably say that the Yankee staff is a little bit better than we collectively thought it would be, and should continue to be going forward. That takes some of the heat off the offense, but what about the lineup’s performance this season anyway?

The way that I see it, there are at least two waves (potentially three) of the Yankee offense so far this year. During those first two weeks of the season, the club looked like everyone was pressing, including getting shut out twice in one week against the Jays and Orioles. Then came The Winning Streak, when the offense blasted 7.2 runs per game over 11 games, and finally, we have perhaps the half-wave, the last five games against the Jays and Rangers, where the boys at bat have looked pretty sleepy (Aaron Judge’s fireworks notwithstanding).

In a way, this is all to be expected. Nobody hits .300 over a full season — they hit .200 in April, June and August, then .400 in May, July and September. Baseball is just a game of streaks, because you have a week where your mechanics are a little wonky or you tee up three-to-four line drives that find gloves.

Still, I think we kind of saw this lineup performing this way. When they’re hot, they’re hot; 7.2 runs a game isn’t anything to sneeze at, and even with this recent snoozefest, the Yankees entering Tuesday with the fourth-best offense in the game. There are certain stabilizers that the team didn’t have for the full season last year, like Anthony Rizzo being a real and consistent power threat from the left side, but the truly terrible performance of the bottom third of the lineup, mixed in with regular hot-and-cold streaks from the “big” hitters probably means that the offense will drop from their current ranking, although still be fine enough to get by.

Prior to Tuesday, FanGraphs updated their projections for the Yankees to 95 wins, and I think that’s where I am, too. The pitching really is better than I thought it would be, enough of a step above to probably notch two wins or so more than I thought in April. I’m also higher on the offense than I was last year, even if I’m not quite sure it’s a top-five lineup in the game. Still, its a damn sight better than last year’s 19th-best collection of bats.

When the data changes, your conclusions should change too. There are real signs of strength from the first month of the season, and I expect them to keep the Yankees on a slightly better pace than I thought five or six weeks ago. I’m still not going to buy them as a 100-win team, or certainly a 115-win team, but they’re in a much better spot to challenge for the division than they were in the preseason projections.