Baseball Prospectus released its PECOTA projections to the world last week, predictably igniting arguments across the country. Why are the Dodgers so high? Why are the Cardinals so low? Won’t someone think of the Royals? While the rest of the baseball world fought over such trivial matters though, we skipped right to the good stuff. By how many games will the Yankees win the division, and how unanimous will Gary Sanchez’s MVP be?
Okay. So maybe the 2017 Yankees aren’t the Most Interesting Team in the World. They’ve won between 84 and 87 games in each of the past four seasons, and PECOTA thinks they’ll be roughly the same this upcoming season, projecting them for 82 wins.
I suppose this shouldn’t come as a shock. Not only have the Yankees refrained from adding major pieces to the roster over the last couple offseasons (save for Aroldis Chapman, twice), but they’re turning over more roster spots to unproven young players than at any point since the mid-90s. Some of those youngsters project to be among the best players on the team in 2017, but others PECOTA understandably views as more volatile. All in all it makes sense that the Yankees would again forecast as a team in no-man’s land…not bad enough to have a shot at a top draft pick, but also probably not quite good enough to challenge for anything other than a wild card spot even if things should break right.
Despite their projected win total lacking an exciting twist though, the method at which PECOTA estimates they’ll arrive at that total actually is pretty interesting. Last year pitching paved the road to 84 wins, with the top four Yankees by WARP coming way of the mound: Masahiro Tanaka (5.9), Michael Pineda (4.9), CC Sabathia (4.5) and Dellin Betances (3.0). In terms of position players, no one topped Brett Gardner’s solid-but-unspectacular 2.7 mark, and some veteran mainstays of the lineup were actually viewed as sub-replacement level by BP’s metrics, with Jacoby Ellsbury coming in a -0.4 and Mark Teixeira a grisly -1.9.
The good news is that PECOTA sees the Yankees taking several steps forward with the bats in 2017. The bad news is that they’re expected to give most of those gains back in the pitching department. Let’s wade into the projection waters and pick out some of the more interesting individual lines to see where the 2017 Yankees will differ most from last year’s version.
Arguably the biggest change to the 2017 lineup will come at first base, where Teixeira’s retirement makes way for the return of Greg Bird.
Bird quickly became a fan favorite upon his call up in 2015, slashing .261/.343/.529 in 178 plate appearances. A torn shoulder labrum kept him sidelined for the entirety of the 2016 regular season, but all systems seem to be go after a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League. Despite his strong showing in limited time two years ago though, PECOTA remains a bit bearish on him, pegging him for a .244/.328/.457 line and 1.1 WARP in roughly 500 plate appearances. Conservative as that might seem, it would still represent a three-win upgrade over Teixeira’s lousy 2016 campaign, and the biggest single positional gain on the team.
The Ellsbury signing has not worked out quite as the Yankees had hoped, made more apparent than ever this past season when he bottomed out statistically. His True Average sunk below .250 for the second consecutive year, and his fielding metrics painted him as a bigger liability than ever in center field (-15.7 FRAA). In all, it was just the second time in his career that he posted a sub-replacement level season, with the only other instance coming in 2010, a season where he missed all but 18 games with broken ribs.
PECOTA thinks Ellsbury’s bat is what it is at this point, projecting him for a .247 TAv that isn’t markedly different than either of his past two efforts. It does, however, see a sizeable defensive improvement of about 14 runs. If that rebound comes to fruition, it would help swing Ellsbury back over the replacement-level line and make him worth 1.2 wins in 2017.
Right Field / Designated Hitter
These two positions went tandem last year, as the duo of Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez, firmly entrenched to begin the season, eventually gave way to a game of musical chairs. A-Rod permanently lost his seat with a brutal performance through the season’s first few months (-1.2 WARP in 243 PA), eventually leading to his release in mid-August. Beltran, on the other hand, played well enough that the Yankees were able to ship him off to Texas during their summer firesale. Rookies Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin, along with Brian McCann, Aaron Hicks and Billy Butler, picked up most of the slack in the two vacant lineup spots, but their results were wanting.
Judge in particular struggled to adjust during his two-month cup of coffee, striking out 42 times in just 95 plate appearances and slashing .176/.263/.345. With an opportunity to establish himself as the team’s future in right field, he will have to get off to a stronger start this time around. PECOTA thinks he’ll accomplish that, forecasting a .235/.323/.434 batting line and 2 WARP in 465 plate appearances for the massive righty.
At DH, meanwhile, Beltran’s strong four months of production will be replaced by a full season of Matt Holliday, whom PECOTA tabs as an upgrade (.279 TAv and 2.3 WARP), and the newly-signed Chris Carter will likely serve in A-Rod’s stead as a secondary DH option and powerful bench bat. Even if you chop Carter’s one-win projection in half due to playing time concerns, he’d still project as a win and a half better than what A-Rod offered a year ago.
Not only is there not a single Yankee pitcher that projects to improve upon his 2016 output, but PECOTA doesn’t see any of the team’s key arms coming particularly close.
It’s not entirely clear why PECOTA holds such a strong grudge against Tanaka, but he projects to give back more than three WARP from his 2016 total. Some of that can be attributed to playing time; the Yankee ace is slated for 176 innings, about 20 fewer than last season. Given that Tanaka’s previous career-high was 154 and he pitches with a partially-torn UCL in his throwing arm, a more conservative workload is a reasonable assumption. It’s the regression almost everywhere else that feels a bit extreme, including career-worsts in walk rate and ground ball percentage, as well as a DRA almost a run and a half higher than his career average.
Pineda and Sabathia don’t fare much better, dropping more than two full runs of combined DRA and five total WARP. In all, the loss in projected production for the top half of the Yankee rotation negates nearly all of the gains made on the position player side, and the uncertainty in the back of the rotation won’t do much to alleviate the pressure if this regression comes to pass.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight Sanchez in an article about the team’s 2017 projections.
The Yankees essentially got full-time production from two catchers in 2016. McCann had a season typical of his Yankee career, posting a .256 TAv with above-average defensive numbers while serving as the team’s primary backstop through July before giving way to Sanchez, who was even more productive in half the playing time. Together the pair was worth approximately five wins, making the Yankees catcher spot one of the most productive in baseball (note that a portion of McCann’s value was accrued at DH after Sanchez took over).
In order for the team to improve on that production though, Sanchez would need to keep his torrid 2016 pace going through most of this season as well. PECOTA does like Sanchez quite a bit, but expecting a 50-homer sophomore campaign is probably a little too much to ask. While a slip in the Yankees’ overall production behind the plate feels inevitable, fans should feel encouraged by the 31-homer, .278 TAv, 3.9 WARP line that PECOTA fixes to Sanchez, projecting the 24-year-old as the most valuable player on the team.
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