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The perplexing success of the Yankees

Depth can go a long, long way.

MLB: San Diego Padres at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

This was written by Grant Brisbee in August of 2014, but let me know if it sounds at all familiar:

“The Yankees really are absurd and undead. They have more good pitchers on the 60-day DL than most teams have on their roster... Considering the Yankees weren’t flush with majors-ready prospects for the rotation, they should be several games under .500 by now. No team can withstand that kind of loss... Yet they’re ambling about, looking for brains, and pestering the Blue Jays and others for the second wild card spot. It’s ridiculous.”

This, by all measures, was not speaking of a good team. The 2014 Yankees had 77 Pythagorean wins and had a collective 94 OPS+, and yet, they were not eliminated until September 24th. This was a team with, and this bears repeating, Ichiro Suzuki as a starting right fielder, a replacement level Derek Jeter in the two-hole of the lineup, and a staff where the third-most innings were tossed by David Phelps.

The big difference between then and now is that, of course, there are young players on this current squad. The likes of Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius had yet to either show up or fully come into their own and despite that, the Brian Cashman brain trust found a way to patch it together to collect 85 wins and maintain an above-.500 streak that has lasted since the George HW Bush administration.

So they’ve had their troubles despite an immense financial advantage, and seemingly their depth and waiver wire finds have kept them above water in even the worst of times. And that’s why 2019 is like that strategy on steroids.

There is no Judge, or Giancarlo Stanton, or Severino, or Gregorius, either, this time.. Hicks missed a significant amount of time. Both CC Sabathia and James Paxton have dealt with injury issues, as well. Miguel Andujar is out for the year with a torn labrum in his shoulder.

In most scenarios, this would be a team on that 2013-14 track; they would maintain enough depth to keep them above water, sure, but there is no way they could sustain the near-100-win pace that was laid out for them in preseason projections... right? You’re right, because now FanGraphs projected standings have them finishing a whopping one game below that threshold.

Part of that, obviously, is due to the players that came out of nowhere. If you look at the ten best players by ZiPS Updated projections, some names truly come out of left field:

Yankees position players preseason vs. current ZiPS

Player Preseason ZiPS Current projected ZiPS Difference
Player Preseason ZiPS Current projected ZiPS Difference
Gary Sanchez 2.5 3.8 1.3
Aaron Judge 4.6 3.7 -0.9
Gleyber Torres 2.6 3.6 1
DJ LeMahieu 2.2 3.3 1.1
Giancarlo Stanton 4 2.7 -1.3
Luke Voit 1.9 2.2 0.3
Giovanny Urshela 0.3 1.9 1.6
Aaron Hicks 3.2 1.7 -1.5
Clint Frazier 1.1 1.3 0.2
Mike Tauchman N/A 1.2 N/A

Sure, losing a collective 2.2 wins out of Judge and Stanton—which is not even guaranteed at the lowest bar—is bad, but it’s more than compensated by DJ LeMahieu being projected to finish the year with a .293 batting average, a trait even previous good Bombers teams have missed out on.

One more point on contact, which is worth noting. That seemed to be a conscious effort on the part of the front office, especially in light of the contact-based Red Sox storming past them last October. So while the team was 24th in Contact% last season, they’ve bumped that up to 13th this season. Last year the team was 23rd in SwStr%, and now: just 13th.

Combine that with out-of-nowhere's like Gio Urshela, who is hitting an unbelievable .336, and you have a team that is clicking despite the injuries. Add in those aforementioned young players like Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez and you have the extra bump those nadir years were missing when they merely hung on.

Yankees pitchers preseason vs. current ZiPS

Player Preseason ZiPS Current projected ZiPS Difference
Player Preseason ZiPS Current projected ZiPS Difference
James Paxton 3.2 4.5 1.3
Masahiro Tanaka 3.1 4 0.9
Domingo German 0.7 2.6 1.9
JA Happ 2.9 2.2 -0.7
Aroldis Chapman 1.3 1.7 0.4
Jonathan Holder 0.8 1.5 0.7
Tommy Kahnle 0.4 1.1 0.7
Zack Britton 0.8 1 0.2
CC Sabathia 2.1 1 -1.1
Luis Cessa 0.7 1 0.3

On the pitching side you have the black hole of missing Luis Severino for an indefinite amount of time, so filling the void is James Paxton quite nicely. Paxton is sporting a 12.74 K/9 and 2.81 ERA despite an injury that caused him to miss a few starts, but he’s still on pace to casually put up a four-win season.

The bullpen, likewise, has always found a way. Despite Dellin Betances out and Chad Green needing time to tune up in Triple-A, Aroldis Chapman has been his usual self, Adam Ottavino has lived up to the advertising, and Tommy Kahnle has rebounded to his 2017 self with a 1.52 ERA.

This is not the 2014 Yankees. With the American League as weak as it is, they are primed to be one of the better teams despite all of the injuries and perceived flaws. That’s because just like the team used depth to keep them afloat without the farm system, they now have the young core to add the extra 15 wins to take them from an 85-win floor to... 100. That’s also before those juggernauts return, and then this team becomes a new beast entirely.