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Why the Yankees’ projected win total sits a little low, for now

Let’s dive into the context around a seemingly pessimistic ZiPS projection.

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Don’t you just love projections season? It’s the time of year when fans across the league are filled with anticipation for the season to start up again and are in desperate need of anything in the news cycle. Standings projections are the perfect way to put that energy somewhere, and get angry at a stranger for having a personal vendetta against your team.

Okay, jokes aside, projections are a very good way for folks to understand the construction of their team and the context of their competition. We should think of them as a contextual summary rather than an end all be all.

Depending on the strength of your division, the difference between 90 and 94 wins could be significant. Depending on the depth of your rotation, the difference between 90 and 94 wins could be significant. Depending on the depth of your lineup and upper minors' talent, the difference between 90 and 94 wins could be significant. I think you get the point, right? There are loads of factors that go into affecting wins and losses. You could have a team as talented as the Yankees, but if the division is stacked with formidable opponents, then the projected win total may surprise you.

As it stands, the AL ZiPS projection has the Yankees pegged for 89 wins. That is the second most in the league and only one behind the Houston Astros. If I were to bet, the Yankees will fall closer to 100 wins than 90 wins, but that doesn’t mean the projection system isn’t providing us valuable insight. I’m going to do my best job at explaining why the Yanks’ projection is a bit lower than you might expect starting with something I already mentioned: strength of schedule.

The American League East is the lone division with four teams projected to win at least 80 games. The only team not to is the Boston Red Sox, and even they have a 79 win projection. We all like to make fun of them as much as we can, but their roster is at worst average. Compared to the rest of the division it isn’t, but remember, no other division is nearly as strong. As Dan Szymborski says in his explainer, you can’t possibly project three teams to win 95 games while also having a fourth with 90-win upside. It’s just not possible. Therefore, there has to be some evening out for a median projection.

Next, there is the fact that the team’s offensive variance is one of the highest in the league. Under this current construction, the offense is heavily reliant on Aaron Judge. Perhaps there is no other player capable of carrying a lineup like Judge can, but if he is to sustain even a medium-severity injury, the offense goes from great to just slightly above average pretty quickly. Also, there are a few hitters on this team who I think will outperform their median projections if they are healthy. Mainly, I’m thinking of DJ LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton. Each player’s 50th percentile outcome sits at a 106 OPS+ and 119 OPS+, respectively. When each was healthy last year, they easily beat these projections. I know health is big factor for both, but the fact that they have such high upside projections makes it easier to see a path for the offense to be elite for a sustained period.

Next, and lastly, there is the unfinished product argument. Syzmborski touches on it when mentioning that the Yankees and Astros almost always add to their roster around the trade deadline, and as a result increase the team’s floor relative to Opening Day. By the time we get to August, the team probably will have addressed whatever holes or inefficiencies that we see on their present roster, including left field and the crowded infield. Anthony Volpe will almost certainly be in the fold, and the lineup will have a more complete one to nine look than the uncertainty we see now. I know it might not make sense to you to think with these assumptions, but the fact of the matter is that history on the Yankees’ side for them to improve the team mid-season.

All these things considered, it’s hard to argue against a median projection of 89 wins. What I’d be interested in knowing is how many above average outcomes do the Yankees need to get to say, 95 wins, or even 100? Every team has different levels of win variance, and in my opinion, the Yankees offense most certainly gives them one of the league’s highest. Only time will tell!