Marvel Comics runs a series titled What If. The idea is a novel one: take an existing Marvel storyline and change some key element. What would have happened? What if the Fantastic Four had different superpowers? What if Wolverine killed the Incredible Hulk? What if Peter Parker were bitten by a radioactive hamster instead of a spider?
Ok, so that last one isn’t real, but it could be, and that’s what’s great about What If.
March is the month for baseball what-ifs. The snow is melting, the slates are clean and hope is fully in bloom. Fans of every team, no matter Cubs-rich or Padres-poor, have something to dream on. What if everything goes right this season? What would that even look like? What if nothing goes right? Do we even want to know?
When Baseball Prospectus released their 2017 PECOTA projections a few weeks back, I used them to preview what the upcoming Yankee season might look like. The results were not exactly enthralling. At the time, PECOTA saw the Yankees as an 82-win team (since updated to 80), which is essentially what they’ve been for each of the past four seasons. It’s a boring projection, but it’s probably the right one. The Yankees’ win total landing somewhere in the low-to-mid eighties is the most likely scenario for 2017.
It’s March though, so why settle for what’s boring and likely? Why not ask…what if?
What if everything goes right?
What if Gary Sanchez hits 100 homers and Masahiro Tanaka throws ten perfect games and the Yankees never lose a—
Ok, so we need some parameters. We want something on the unlikely side of the scale, but we don’t want to break the scale altogether. Luckily, PECOTA can help. The team’s 80-win projection is the system’s average result, their 50th-percentile outlook. If we want a glimpse into a world where the Yankees have adamantium claws and wield the Infinity Gauntlet though, we can check their 90th-percentile projections.
One of the more interesting things here is that, even when viewed through the rosiest-colored glasses, the team is short on players with superstar-level ceilings. Sanchez and his 6.0 WARP figure (courtesy of 37 home runs and a .292/.359/.540 batting line) serves as the lone exception, with no other lineup member even breaking 4.5 wins.
The Yankees’ strength then is in its lack of weaknesses. Every non-Sanchez starter is worth more than three wins in our new, alternate universe. Youngsters like Aaron Judge and Greg Bird will understandably attract a lot of the notoriety with impressive stat lines, but the veterans do more than hold their own. Strong rebounds from Matt Holliday, Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury alone would represent a nine-win upgrade over what the same trio produced last season. Throw in a career-best season from Brett Gardner (.286/.366/.435) and double the baseline projection for the team’s middle-infield combo, and you’re left with an elite one-through-nine worth something like 36.4 WARP, more than twice their 50th-percentile projection of 17.5.
The pitching staff is a bit harder to parse, as open competition in the back-end of the rotation and constant shuffling in the bullpen make it hard to nail down the proper workload split. As one climbs the projection ladder, playing time increases right along with performance. Because each projection is done in a vacuum, we can’t be haphazard about adding up WARP totals. When PECOTA projects a random Yankee bullpen arm to throw 53 innings in his 90th-percentile projection, it isn’t considering that we’re taking every other bullpen arm at their 90th-percentile workload too, and in reality there just aren’t that many innings to go around. For that reason, let’s limit our scope to the team’s projected starting rotation and elite bullpen duo.
I touched briefly on PECOTA’s pessimism over the Yankee rotation in my preview piece, and it has only gotten gloomier as the projections have updated in recent weeks. Still, the Yankees do pretty well here, with Tanaka and Michael Pineda leading the pack with a combined 9.3 WARP. Of the two, Pineda’s projection is easily the harder to swallow, as he hasn’t come particularly close to this kind of output in his Yankee tenure. Tanaka, on the other hand, outdid his line just last year, and the notion that he’d fail to reach his strong 2016 totals even in his 90th-percentile outlook suggests that the system might be shortchanging him a bit.
PECOTA doesn’t view either Chad Green or Luis Severino as full-time starters, so even their top-end projections have limited innings upside. That said, their 4.9 WARP in 265 combined innings is strong enough that the Yankees would happily sign off even if we penciled in replacement-level innings to fill in the gaps. Combined with a virtual repeat of CC Sabathia’s solid 2016 season and the expected bullpen dominance, the souped-up staff would finish with an extra 11 WARP compared to their baseline projection.
So what does that mean for the team’s overall outlook?
If we consider only the values of the listed players (that is, the starting lineup, rotation and two relievers) and conservatively assume replacement-level play everywhere else, the Yankees would be worth something like 58 WARP, which would put them in the 108-win range. No team since the 2001 Mariners has won that many games in a season, but a closer comp might be the 2016 Cubs, a team that won 103 regular season games but owned a pythagorean win total of, you guessed it, 108.
What if nothing goes right?
Just as the thought of a 108-win Yankee team fills you with joy though, a cold chill rattles your bones. You look around and realize this is no longer the wondrous land of 90th-percentiles. The storm clouds have gathered overhead and the vibrant colors have washed away. You’re on a dark, barren planet populated with nothing but tears and Clint Frazier’s sheared hair.
Welcome to the fallen world of 10th-percentiles.
Oh. Oh no.
All of the veteran rebounds we were so excited about a few minutes ago are now dust. Ellsbury’s renaissance, Bird’s triumphant return, Judge’s heroic rookie campaign…all shattered. No member of the starting lineup cracks even half a win of value outside of Sanchez, who tumbles by nearly 5 WARP all by himself. Even including Sanchez’s 1.3 mark, the Yankee lineup is worth a grand total of 1.2 WARP.
And still, somehow, the pitching is worse. While Pineda mercifully still manages to be worth a win, every other rotation member is sub-replacement level in this terrible new existence, combining for -3.2 WARP. Dellin Betances joins Sanchez and Pineda as the only members of the Yankee roster to remain marginally effective, as even Aroldis Chapman fades into obscurity.
So, dare we ask?
For the sake of consistency, we again assume replacement-level play from all other members of the team. The total production of the listed Yankees is 0.4 WARP, giving them a win-expectancy of roughly 50 games. The last team to approach that level of ineptitude was the 2013 Astros, a team made famous for the perceived notion that they tanked for draft picks.
So, there you have it. The Yankees’ extreme upside is matched only by their soul-shattering downside. Based on that, we can boldly predict that the Yankees will win somewhere between 50 and 108 games this season.
Well, ok. Probably something like 80.
Lead photo: Butch Dill / USA Today Sports