The American League East isn’t a terribly strong division right now. The New York Yankees sit in first place after 48 games, and Toronto is in last place, currently just four games back of New York. The Yankees have the fewest wins of any first-place team in baseball (25), and the Blue Jays have the most wins of any last-place team in baseball (22). What I’m saying is that it’s anybody’s division to win at this point
As of this writing, the Yankees also project to have the fewest wins for a division winner at the end of the season, per Fangraphs’ playoff odds, with 85. I’m not saying this to knock the Yankees or what they’ve been able to do so far. They’ve been good. Quite good, really, considering they’ve played one of the tougher schedules in baseball. But those projections suggest that the team’s — and the rest of the division’s — true talent level isn’t so excellent.
Moreover, the Yankees actually finished last in the East in this very site’s preseason poll, which was made up of votes from 14 writers and editors and conducted by Bryan Cole. A similar group seemed to have had a change of heart, though, as Michael Bradburn wrote earlier this week.
In this more recent poll, the following question was posed to the group, and 9 of our 10 very charming writers and/or editors who were polled picked the Yankees: "Of the teams our writers picked to finish last in their division, which one do you think could make the playoffs after watching their first two months?" Is it because those nine actually believe in the Yankees? I can’t answer for everyone else, but I chose the Yankees because I really don’t believe in the Twins, Rockies, Reds, Phillies, or Rangers. It had virtually nothing to do with New York's team.
And I’d like to stress again that I’m not trying to bash the Yankees.
So my goal is just to see if the Bronx Bombers can reasonably keep it up and finish the season atop the AL East. At first glance, I don’t really see why they can’t. The Yankees place first in pitching fWAR and third in FIP in the American League, both of which have been good enough to keep the team at the top of their division. But more surprises seem to have come from the offensive side of things thus far. Can New York beat out Boston, Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay and finish the season with a division crown? Maybe. I think so, anyway.
Now that we're all familiar with the situation, let's take a quick quiz. Which first-place team doesn’t have a position player in the top 30 in Fangraphs WAR? If you’re good at logic, or reasoning, or you just read the headline of this post, you probably guessed the Yankees. If you guessed the Yankees, you’re right! Congratulations! We also would have accepted "Houston" as an answer, but that team isn’t the focus here, so we won’t worry about them.
And it seems like a good thing, odd as it may seem, that the Yankees don’t have a top-30 player. Rather than having to rely on one or two folks to carry everyone else, the Yankees have gotten average or better production from seven regulars. Please regard this following table with a bunch of stats from Yankees players:
So, some things stick out here. We'll focus on a few of them.
You probably know about Alex Rodriguez. That seems like a pretty safe assumption, given that you’re reading this article about the New York Yankees on this website that focuses on baseball. He's hitting extremely well, which is a bit of a surprise since he hasn’t hit that well since 2007. Also, Rodriguez is 39, and he’ll be 40 relatively soon. It’s not normal for 39-year-olds to hit like Alex Rodriguez is hitting. Maybe A-Rod can keep hitting like he’s 10 years younger. I’m inclined to say he can't, but I thought he couldn’t keep doing it after April, so obviously I don’t know anything.
David Wright: Don Mattingly 2.0
David Wright's career has been similar to Don Mattingly's for several reasons. Let's hope it doesn't come to as abrupt an end.
And his power surge could be for real. Per Baseball Heat Maps, Rodriguez has an average batted ball distance of 208 feet this year. It's a huge improvement over his numbers from 2010 to 2012, where he ranged from 180 feet to 189. He's pulling the ball more often than he has in his previous few seasons, and he's hitting the ball as hard as he ever has, and those would seem to go hand-in-hand.
Now we’ll look at probably the strangest thing in the table: Mark Teixeira. He’s hit an awful lot of dingers this year, hasn’t he? And look at that BABIP! It’s so low! But Teixeira draws more than his share of walks, and hits for plenty of power. Like Rodriguez, his performance is a surprise, and also like Rodriguez, he hasn’t been quite this good for a while now. We shouldn’t expect this 35-year-old Teixeira to keep hitting like 27-year-old Teixeira, but it seems reasonable for him to continue to get on base and hit for a fair amount of power. He doesn’t really need a .336 ISO to be valuable to this team.
Now it gets boring. Those were the fun parts, I think — the guys we maybe didn’t expect to be showing off two months into the season. The next several folks on that list (McCann, Gardner, Young, and Headley) are all doing basically what they were projected to do this year. McCann was supposed to get on base a tad more, but he’s pretty much where he needs to be. Gardner’s numbers might be a little BABIP-aided, but it’s not hard to see a speedy line-drive/ground ball hitter doing what he’s doing. Young is hitting for more power than expected, but not a ridiculous amount more. Headley is almost exactly his projection thus far.
So, sure, there are a couple of older guys who are hitting much better than we thought. But there are even more players who are right where they were expected to be, or a little behind. Rodriguez and Teixeira might see their numbers drop a bit to where they "should" be, but Drew and Gregorius, among others, will likely see theirs come up a little. The Yankees currently stand in first place in the AL East, backed by a strong pitching staff. But can the bats do enough to keep them up there? Things aren’t looking so bad for the Yankees right now.
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Murphy Powell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @murphypowell.