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Yankees surging since becoming sellers

It was supposed to be a lost season after selling, but the Yankees are right at playoff contention

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

At the beginning of the season, the Yankees were projected to be an 82-80 team, per FanGraphs, which is a winning percentage of .506. This was an old team, though, so there was a lot of risk of injuries and disappointing performances, especially as the grueling season progressed. However, the Yankees were right where they were projected to be at the trade deadline when they were sellers. On August 1, they had a .505 winning percentage. Unfortunately, their projections for the rest of the season at that point had them finishing under .500.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltrán were enjoying great bounce back seasons. Didi Gregorius discovered some newfound power. After suffering though a brutal start to the season where he could barely muster an extra-base hit, Chase Headley was still a below-average hitter, but was on pace to finish the season at 2-3 WAR thanks to his plus glove. The same can similarly be said about Brett Gardner. Brian McCann was only a league-average hitter, but that’s good coming from a catcher, and his continued excellence at making fools out of the home plate umpires pitch-framing had him on pace for a 2-3 WAR season according to Baseball Prospectus. Unfortunately, Starlin Castro was disappointing, and Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez struggled with injuries, nor could could they hit when they were actually playing.

The starting rotation has been led by Masahiro Tanaka, a possible Cy Young winner in a weak year, and a C.C. Sabathia who is proving that he’s not quite done yet. Michael Pineda has appeared to pitch poorly with a 5.18 RA9, but he has a 2.81 DRA and 81 cFIP. Deserved Run Average is crediting all Yankees pitchers with pitching in a hitter-friendly stadium and against strong competition. The reason why Pineda especially is favored by DRA is because he has great peripherals but has a .344 BABIP and 17.3 percent HR/FB ratio. Surprisingly, though the Yankees starters rank 17th by RA9 in all of baseball, they rank third by DRA!

Of course, games aren’t scored by deserved runs, they are scored by actual runs, and it was clear to GM Brian Cashman that things weren’t looking good for his team in July.

At the trade deadline, the Yankees had only a 0.4 percent chance to win the division and a 2.6 percent chance at a Wild Card. The team was old and mediocre. Cashman knew that there was no way he’d convince his bosses to go for a full rebuild, but a partial rebuild? He could sell the most valuable assets while keeping some of the more productive players. Sure enough, he traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltrán for a great combined haul without decimating the current team.

Seeing the Yankees as sellers resigned many into believing that their season was basically done. It was an odd stance to take, honestly. Beltrán had been at DH half the time, and when he was in right field he was playing it poorly. With a .321 BABIP and 18.5 percent HR/FB when he was traded, he was prime for regression. Sure enough, he’s been an average hitter for the Rangers and has been just barely above replacement level. Chapman and Miller are two of the best relievers in baseball, so their departure was more impactful. They’ve been worth a combined 1.5 bWAR since being traded. Throw in Beltrán, and the Yankees have only lost 1.7 wins to date. They also still had Tanaka, Sabathia, Ellsbury, McCann, Headley, Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner, and Dellin Betances

Since making those major trades, the Yankees are 24-14, which is a .632 win percentage. They are currently 76-67 and two games back of the last Wild Card slot. FanGraphs has improved their win projection to 85 wins. Their playoff chances have improved substantially, though they only have a 12.1 percent chance at a Wild Card. The American League is just so competitive this year.

The Yankees replaced their departing stars with a much needed infusion of youth, led by none other than the young catcher lighting MLB on fire, Gary Sánchez. Since getting called back up on August 3rd, he has hit a Ruthian .352/.427/.736 with 13 HR! That’s a 203 wRC+! All that while playing a solid backstop, too. He has 2.4 WAR in only 33 games. Having that kind of production from your catcher will do wonders for a competitive team.

Sánchez refuses to even be intentionally walked!

Had that gone over the fence he would’ve broken baseball Twitter!

Aaron Judge, unfortunately, has struggled mightily since his debut. He still has a weakness against pitches that are soft and away, and pitchers are exploiting that.

Aaron Judge offspeed pitch frequency
Brooks Baseball

As you can see, he swings and misses at those pitches a lot.

Aaron Judge whiff percentage vs. offspeed
Brooks Baseball

Nothing good happens when he makes contact either.

Aaron Judge AVG vs. offspeed
Brooks Baseball

If the minor league season weren’t over, New York probably would have sent back down to continue working on that weakness.

On the bright side, the Yankees have gotten surprisingly good production from Ronald Torreyes for the season, but the 24-year-old has been on fire since the trade deadline. He has hit a whopping .366/.409/.585 in that time period, and he’s even taken playing time away from Headley. It’s only 45 PA, and he will certainly regress, but it’s been a significant help. There aren’t game-by-game or even month-by-month splits of WAR available, but I’d estimate that he’s been worth 1 win since August 1st.

It’s also worth noting that Luis Severino is having a great September out of the bullpen. Small sample size caveats apply, as it’s only 8.1 IP, but he hasn’t allowed a run and has struck out nine of the 32 batters he’s faced. In fact, he hasn’t allowed a run all year as a reliever and has struck out 31.2 percent of the batters he’s faced. It could be that the bullpen is the best place for him, as many scouts figured would happen. Obviously he’s not going to have a 0.00 RA9 forever, but he could become an elite reliever like the ones the Yankees traded away.

One cannot deny that there’s also a lot of luck that has factored into the Yankees success in the past month and a half. Even though they’ve gone 24-14, their Pythagorean expectancy has them at 22 wins. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Yankees have gotten lucky, just that it’s possible.

There is a stat at Baseball Reference called tOPS+ that is used for splits, and its purpose is to show how much better a player or team has performed in a certain situation compared to how the player or team always performs. For August, Yankee hitters had a combined 120 tOPS+. That’s pretty high. They had a .314 BABIP and 14.6 percent HR/FB ratio to help them out.

What’s truly impressive about this Yankees’ run is that they’ve done it against some strong competition. They’ve faced the Mets, Indians, Red Sox, Royals, and have had two series each against the Orioles and Blue Jays.

I don’t know if this is factored in to the playoff odds at FanGraphs, but the Yankees have a brutal schedule for the rest of the season. They’re about to start a series against the Dodgers, they still have one more series versus the Blue Jays and Orioles, and they have two more series against the first place Red Sox. Still, they’re tied with the Tigers at only two games back of the Wild Card with multiple games left against the two current Wild Card holders, the Orioles and Blue Jays. Even if they miss the playoffs, which is the most likely scenario, I’d call this a successful season. Fielding a competitive team while building up a farm system that is one of the best in baseball is tremendous work by Cashman.

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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.