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Breaking down the Yankees’ excellent first half

Despite dropping the final two games in Tampa, the Yankees are rolling into the All Star break on the back of a 16-4 run. The Red Sox and Rays continue to languish in the AL East, currently sitting 9.0 and 6.5 games respectively behind the pacesetting Yanks. In fact, at 57-31, the team enters the midseason pause with the best record in the American League, ahead of the Astros and Twins.

The story of the Yankees season thus far has been defined by two fantastic stretches of play. One is the run they are currently enjoying, wherein they have won 16 of 20 against the likes of Houston, Tampa, and Boston. The other came between April 16 and June 2, when the team played to a remarkable 32-11 record. They dropped just one series out of 14 during the period, and rattled off nine consecutive series wins after the lone loss to the Diamondbacks in Arizona.

As any reader of Bronx Pinstripes will no doubt know, this success has come in spite of significant adversity. Staff ace Luis Severino and elite reliever Dellin Betances have not registered an appearance between them, each sidelined by a combination of shoulder and lat issues. Miguel Andujar played in just 12 games before making the decision to have season-ending surgery on a torn labrum. Didi Gregorius made his return less than a month ago from offseason Tommy John surgery. Giancarlo Stanton has only played nine games this season…shall I go on?

Yet, even with all those injuries, the Yankees have just closed an indisputably excellent first half. How have they done it? Let’s dive into the numbers and see what’s driven the Yankees excellent first half.

The Offense

Team Stats: .265 AVG (6th), .804 OPS (5th), 111 wRC+ (4th), .335 xwOBA (6th), 23.1 K% (t-15th), 9.6 BB% (t-6th), 149 HR (4th)

By most metrics, the Yankees have had one of the most potent offenses in the league thus far. This should be unsurprising to anyone who has followed the team in recent years. Last year’s edition of the Bronx Bombers set the all-time record for home runs in a season, and scored the second most runs in the MLB.

What has been surprising is the way in which the team has scored its runs this season. With marquee sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge sidelined at various points, the team has become more adept at hitting with runners in scoring position. Though 149 home runs is clearly nothing to scoff at, the team has hit .302/.378/.515 (130 wRC+) with RISP this year, by far the best in baseball. Contrast that with last year when they hit just .253 in these crucial situations. The team has clearly evolved away from the boom or bust mindset and can score runs in a wider variety of ways this year.

Crucial to this development has been DJ “The Machine” LeMahieu, who has put himself squarely in the MVP conversation after the first half. Overall, he is slashing a ridiculous .336/.383/.518 (138 wRC+), establishing himself as the most consistent hitter in the lineup. He has epitomized the Yankees success with RISP, hitting .468 with 51 RBI in those situations.

But while production has been shifted somewhat from home runs to clutch hitting, the main storyline of the Yankees first half offense is one of consistency from last season. This was fundamentally a very good offense last year, and early indications are that nothing has changed here in 2019. The team averaged 5.25 runs per game last year, a number that has now blossomed into more than 5.71 runs per game this season. With a complete lineup and strong underlying numbers in the batted ball data, there is little reason to believe this juggernaut offense will slow in the second half.

The Pitching

Team Stats: 4.15 ERA (10th), 4.39 FIP (14th), .305 xwOBA (5th), 24.4 K% (8th), 8.0 BB% (7th), 1.49 HR/9 (22nd)

Unlike the offensive numbers, the team’s pitching statistics hardly jump off the page. Though their ERA remains in the top third of teams in baseball, the staff has clearly been plagued by the home run ball. This contributes to their less than stellar FIP, and helps explain how a team with such excellent batted ball numbers can produce such mediocre results on the mound.

The bullpen has continued to be a strength, though it has perhaps fallen short of the lofty expectations set in the preseason. Aroldis Chapman has been the standout in the closer role, pitching to a matching 1.82 ERA and FIP. Boosted by his ridiculous 35.0 K%, Chapman has eradicated fears of burnout and utilized an improved slider to great effect thus far.

Behind him come a string of solid first half performers, headlined by Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, and Tommy Kahnle. The trio have been used in high leverage situations to great effect, and have each been a reason for the team’s success thus far. They’ve combined to strand more than 85% of runners on base, a testament to their performance in key situations. But it also potentially portends regression in the second half, and necessitates better command from each to minimize the number of runners they allow in the first place.

The bigger concern is clearly the rotation, which has unquestionably been missing the presence of Severino every fifth day. The team’s starters have been plagued by inconsistency and lack of depth, throwing the sixth-fewest innings in all of baseball and pitching to a 4.61 FIP, 20th in the league. The home run ball has been an issue for the entire rotation, headlined by JA Happ’s 2.01 HR/9.

While none of them have been notably awful, none have been notably successful either. Masahiro Tanaka was surprisingly named to the All Star team as a replacement, and it is perhaps telling that the rotation’s best starter boasts an ERA of just 3.86 with an attendant 4.24 FIP. If there is one place the front office will be looking to solidify on the trade market, it will certainly be the rotation. Several names have been floated as potential targets, and the Yankees would do well to add an arm regardless of Severino’s potential comeback.

The Defense

Team Stats: .979 FP (t-27th), -21 DRS (23rd), -3.8 UZR/150 (23rd)

There is some definite cognitive dissonance in the advanced metrics and eye test with these statistics. It is important to begin with the disclaimer that defensive statistics are notoriously fickle, and have a tendency not to normalize for long periods of time, even spanning entire seasons. That being said, there are a few takeaways that can be made from looking at these numbers.

The first is that this iteration of the Yankees will never be a standout defensive squad. Luke Voit is a massive liability at first, and that puts a drag on the rest of the infield defense. The Yankees defense actually grades out worse this year than last year, and a big reason is that Tyler Austin, Neil Walker, and Greg Bird were adequate first basemen, whereas Voit is a terrible one.

The second is that the outfield defense suffered tremendously in the absence of Judge and Stanton (and to a lesser extent Hicks). Judge is a legitimately elite defender, and replacing him with Frazier took a big plus and turned it into a big minus. Similarly, Stanton is solidly above average in left and Maybin, while adequate when stuffed in right, was abysmal when moved over to left. And whereas Gardner was among the best defensive left fielders in baseball last year, his move to center reduced him to a net zero.

The last observation is that the Yankees are rarely able to play their infielders in their best defensive positions. LeMahieu is Gold Glove caliber at second, but slightly below average at third. Gleyber is well above average at shortstop, but plays a below average second base. The defensive metrics say Didi and Urshela have both been below average at their native positions, which my eyes say is a load of BS. It is important to remember that a traffic cone would be an upgrade over Andujar at third, and both Urshela and LeMahieu have been far better than him despite not being great. But the reality is that offensive considerations preclude Boone from optimally aligning his infield defense, which puts a drag on the entire team’s defensive solidity.

Final Thoughts

The Yankees have had a great first half, one that is certainly more worthy of celebration than criticism. The offense has continued to evolve and improve, and the team’s ability to come through in the clutch has been a particularly welcome addition to an already well stocked arsenal. The bullpen likewise has been solid with flashes of excellence, and is likely to play a continuing role in the Yankees success as a team.

They will likely have to, unless the rotation can make major strides in the second half. The two biggest issues for the starters continue to be home runs and pitch counts, which have led to fewer comfortable wins and more extended bullpen outings than would be ideal. To succeed in the postseason, the Yankees will need a combination of improved performance and key reinforcements to solidify what is currently a shaky staff.

The defense is what it is, and can hopefully hover somewhere around average to help win at the margins. The health of Judge and Hicks in the outfield as well as Andujar’s absence make the potential for improvement great, but the returns thus far have been less than impressive to say the least.

If I had to, I would probably give out grades to the following aspects of the Yankees first half performance as follows:

Offense: A/A+

Rotation: B-

Bullpen: A-

Defense: C+

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but the rotation clearly has to be the focus of Cashman and the front office. While the team has demonstrated the ability to win in the regular season and hopefully clinch a division title, the playoffs will be a different beast. Tanaka and Paxton must be better, and Yankees fans can only hope for Severino to return this season. But even in a best case scenario, an addition via trade would be welcome, and would establish the team as firm favorites for the World Series this fall.

The Yankees first half was about as good as could have been hoped for, especially given the injuries the team had to weather. The next task is clinching the AL East for the first time since 2012 and securing home field advantage throughout the postseason. After that, only one hurdle remains to be cleared: returning the Commissioner’s Trophy to the Bronx and clinching the elusive 28th championship.