Four reasons why the first-place Yankees are the best story in baseball this season
The Yankees took over sole possession of first place in the American League East on Friday
The New York Yankees won their fourth game in a row on Friday, edging out the Tampa Bay Rays to gain sole possession of first place in the American League East for the first time since Opening Day. Calling the Yankees baseball's best story would normally qualify as big-market pandering. This year's group is different, however. The Yankees have found their way to the catbird seat despite losing nearly 100 more days to injury than any other team -- a predicament that has forced them to replace multiple headliners in their lineup with afterthoughts.
Just how have the Yankees weathered an injury cloudburst en route to first place? Let's explain.
1. Good pitching
Entering the spring, the Yankees appeared well-positioned to field an above-average pitching staff -- especially after a winter that saw Brian Cashman invest in James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Adam Ottavino, and Zack Britton. The Yankees have lived up to those forecasts.
Coming into Saturday, the Yankees had the seventh-best staff ERA in the game. Additionally, New York was tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the most pitchers (12) with 10-plus innings and an ERA+ of 100 or better. That's enough to fill out a pitching staff with.
The rotation has been led by four pitchers in particular: the aforementioned Paxton (out injured), Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Domingo German -- who opened the season in the rotation only because ace Luis Severino was hurt. Veteran southpaw J.A. Happ, for his part, has been able to keep runs off the board despite being too prone to the long ball. Remember, this is a group without its best pitcher. Yet heretofore they've been among the game's best starting fives.
The bullpen wouldn't seem as impressive given Yankees relievers as a unit have a below-average ERA. Look a little closer, though, and it becomes apparent that their standing can be blamed on non-essential contributors. Of their top-seven most used arms, only one (Chad Green) has an ERA+ below 100; four of the seven have an ERA+ over 150, including Tommy Kahnle, Ottavino, and Aroldis Chapman. As with the rotation, the Yankees bullpen is functioning without one of its top talents: Dellin Betances has so far missed the season.
2. Unexpected offensive contributions
If you had told someone in March the Yankees would rank outside the top-10 in adjusted weighted runs created -- and it would seem like a victory … well, you would've heard a thing or two about what would be what if the Boss were still alive. Seeing as how the Yankees have received nearly as many plate appearances from Austin Romine as they have Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Andujar combined, we think it's fair to say their tie for 12th place is a win.
The Yankees have fielded an above-average offense due in part to the hot-hitting ways of the usual suspects, like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge (when healthy), and Gleyber Torres and free-agent addition DJ LeMahieu. But their top performers also include the likes of Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, and Cameron Maybin, as well as Clint Frazier and Thairo Estrada (in a smaller sample). Even Kendrys Morales has pitched in during his brief time with New York.
Those are not the players who were supposed to be pivotal to the Yankees' attack. Heck, some of them would've seemed unworthy of donning the pinstripes entering the season. The absences of Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, as well as a few other key contributors -- Aaron Hicks, Andujar, and Didi Gregorius -- have caused the Yankees to dig deep in order to field nine every night. Somehow, those efforts have worked out much better than expected.
3. A fortunate schedule
Hey, if you're telling the story about how the Yankees are in first place, you have to tell the whole story. That includes noting that they've played one of the easiest schedules to date.
You can only play the schedule you're given and so and so forth, but the Yankees have played 14 games (out of 43) against teams with records of .500 or better. To be fair, the Rays have played an equally light schedule, per Baseball-Reference's strength of schedule metric, with 16 games against winning teams in 42 total contests. Both the Yankees and Rays are .500 in games against teams with winning records, so it's not making a difference in the division race.
4. Beating who they should
If you have eyes on contending, you better take advantage of the easy portions of your schedule. The Yankees have done that, winning 20 of 29 games against teams with a losing record. Their .689 winning percentage in those games puts them eighth in the majors, alongside the Rays, Minnesota Twins, and Houston Astros -- or, the other top AL clubs this season.
The Yankees probably would've been fine with that standing before all the injuries happened. Considering who they're playing without, you can see then why they have a strong case for being recognized as the best story in baseball.
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