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The Yankees were never underdogs in the playoffs

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Despite the media narrative, there was a lot of evidence of the team we’re now just seeing.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

At the beginning of the season, there was not a single media entity that predicted the Yankees would make it to the League Championship Series, let alone the World Series. FanGraphs said their odds on Opening Day of a Championship was a paltry 0.6%. It now sits at 31.4%.

Naturally, there were a lot of questions about this club. Aaron Judge was by no means a given, and the right field starter competition between him and Aaron Hicks went down to the last day of spring training. Luis Severino came off a horrible year as a starter and made adjustments in the bullpen, but there was no guarantee of transference. The rotation had a number of what-if’s, and the bullpen was decent but there was still a hole where Andrew Miller once stood. Greg Bird was amazing in the spring, but his injury put a blot on first base until not too long ago.

So, from day one of the season, they technically were an underdog. They were not favored to win their division or even make the playoffs, and they had a young core with an unexpected arrival, other than Gary Sanchez. Yet, here they are, just one win away from the Fall Classic.

I would differ from my media friends that the Yankees were also an underdog in the playoffs, because while they did face a massive amount of adversity going down two games in both series, the idea they were some largely inferior team against Cleveland or Houston is rather farfetched. That’s because all of those question marks largely resolved themselves by the end of the year, the official survivor bias tale of any good playoff team.

You can’t say the signs weren’t there, though. Here are the top teams by Pythagorean winning percentage, which calculates winning percentage based on expected wins via runs scored and runs against.

  1. Cleveland Indians: .665
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers: .627
  3. New York Yankees: .622

According to that metric the Yankees should have won 100 games just based on runs scored and runs against. What about further degrees deeper? By third-order winning percentage, a metric that uses underlying stats for a projected record, the teams look like this:

  1. Cleveland Indians: .674
  2. New York Yankees: .653
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers: .647

The Yankees should have won 105 games by this, and the Indians a smidgen more at 109. Even by this, though, it doesn’t explain why they underperformed by such a margin, and why they all of the sudden look much better now. There are a couple of explanations.

The first one is the revival of the bullpen and the Blake Rutherford trade, which paid huge dividends in the postseason. Adding Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson effectively replaced Chasen Shreve and Tyler Clippard in their roles, so consider that a major upgrade. A lot of under-performance has to do with one-run games: some of it was luck, and some of it was the fact they gave prime innings to bad relievers. That isn’t the case in October.

The second is that the few holes this team did have were largely covered up by the end of the season. Take a look at the Yankees’ usual lineup, next to their second-half wRC+:

  1. Brett Gardner: 103
  2. Aaron Judge: 144
  3. Gary Sanchez: 132
  4. Didi Gregorius: 110
  5. Starlin Castro: 87
  6. Greg Bird: 128
  7. Aaron Hicks: 91
  8. Todd Frazier: 114
  9. Chase Headley: 119

Up and down that lineup, there aren’t many holes. While over the course of a full season they were a 108 wRC+ team, they were a 120 wRC+ team in September. In the rotation, the same could be said. Here is their rotation in the second half by ERA-:

  1. Luis Severino: 52
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: 85
  3. CC Sabathia: 81
  4. Sonny Gray: 81
  5. Jordan Montgomery: 96

Not a single one is below league average, and they’ve had the luxury of not even having to touch Montgomery. This isn’t the same team as it was in June, nor are the perceptions the same as the beginning of the season. Many of the issues this team did have, with pitching and young players coming up, were resolved to create a roster that is arguably a .600-.650 true talent team. Yankees fans across the country may be delighted and surprised by their late-season heroics, but let’s be honest: it was already lurking within them.