The 2015 New York Yankees aren't projected to be a great team. It's not expected to be an awful team, by any stretch, just a distinctly average one. You might remember Matt Provenzano breaking down the team's ZiPS projections, which have the team heading towards 81-84 wins at this point, and even at the upper end of that range probably not quite good enough to be a postseason team. Use PECOTA and again you'll have a projection for the Yankees to be at or about .500.
These projections are not perfect, of course, but even if they were it would be a leap to go from saying "based on what we know now, the Yankees have the talent level of an average 80-win team" to saying that "the Yankees will finish fourth in the 2015 American League East with 80 wins." Any widely adopted projection model used at this point gives us a way of making that first statement more objectively than we can purely based on our gut instincts. No model can reasonably address the second statement.
In fact, forget declaring standings, projection models aren't even really meant to be used at guessing where teams will end up relative to other teams in October. PECOTA pegging the Yankees for 80 wins and the Red Sox for 86 doesn't mean that it expects the Red Sox to win the division, or to finish six games ahead of the Yankees, or even that it will take roughly 87 wins for the Yankees or any other team to leapfrog the Sox for the division title. Adam Dorhauer over at the Hardball Times articulates the inherent uncertainty that goes into projected win totals. The key point there, when Fangraphs pegs the expected win tally for the AL East at 92 wins, even if no team has an individual value above 86, for example, it's not an oversight. Rather, they have the estimated win totals for the five teams, but they expect at least one team to over-perform that projection significantly; after all, no team has won a division with fewer than 86 wins since 2008. It's a higher likelihood that the Red Sox or the Tampa Bay Rays will get there, based on their higher forecast values, but this certainly isn't ruling the Yankees out.
In the recent season preview published by the Pinstripe Alley editors, there is reason for optimism, primarily built on the strength of the bullpen and the talent in the rotation. Of course, the PSA season preview also covered a potential scenario where the team completely bottoms out, but that's the flip side to the possibility of the Yankees making a run. Projections give us a good view of the average, so if the Yankees are a true-talent 80-win team, then 70 wins is just as likely as 90. However, lets skate over the downside possibility for the moment and go back to the optimistic view, the view that involves October baseball. Should the season take a more harrowing path we'll all have a hard enough time living it in the summer without having to pay too much regard to it right now in the spring.
What I find interesting to consider is where the Yankees might go, should they earn the invite to the October party. A natural reaction might be to dismiss them as legitimate World Series contenders, especially if they needed a few lucky breaks to escape the regular season in the first place. However, we've seen in recent years that all it really takes is a well-timed hot-streak for average teams to have exceptional postseasons. If the Yankees can get in, even if they back their way in, they could win it all. Especially when considering the current strengths of the roster–pitching and defense–that might play well in the postseason. Strengths that helped the 2014 Kansas City Royals come within a transcendent Madison Bumgarner performance of becoming world champions.
The Royals are, of course, only one example, and we've seen teams ride strong hitting to postseason glory in the past, notably the Yankees in 2009 behind Alex Rodriguez. Perhaps there is some recency bias here then when holding the Royals up as a standard, and of course a big part of their success was one of the aforementioned postseason hot-streaks which isn't really something that can be consciously reproduced. However, the way the Royals dominated late game situations with their relief depth, taking advantage of the increased rest the postseason provides to give all their high-leverage innings to their best arms, certainly seemed like something which teams might be able to replicate. If a team has the ability to roll multiple power arms out of the bullpen of course, which as it happens, the Yankees do.
The other standout quality the Royals had last year was team defense, and they remain the leaders in Major League Baseball this year, particularly with their excellent outfield. The Yankees are right there with them though, the only other team expected to have plus defense at every position. New York is expected to have the most improved team defense this year, and a top-three unit overall. Certainly the Bronx Bombers had a lot of success in the primes of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams despite them being considered below-average defenders at key up-the-middle positions. However, without that level of offense from this team, or indeed in the league as a whole now in the current pitcher-friendly environment, run prevention might be the way to go. Plus, fielding a strong defensive unit is a great way to maximize the strengths of the pitching staff, and in October, when the stakes are highest and any given play could be the difference in a postseason series, being able to pull in the extra outs that the Royals were able to do in key situations last year might put the Yankees over the top this time around.
Add the fact that pitching Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda twice each in a seven-game series will give the Yankees at least four good chances at a win, and I'll feel very optimistic about a postseason run from the Yankees, should they get there of course.
What do you think?