Fangraph warns Yankees are losing AL East title battle

The New York Yankees are favorites to win 2023 AL East title.
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The Yankees were preseason AL East favorites. That changed two weeks into the regular MLB season. After a 14-2 start, the Tampa Bay Rays are division favorites over the New York Yankees. While the Rays are one win from matching MLB’s best start, the Yankees, at 10-6, are four games behind the Rays.

FanGraphs predicts in favor of the Rays

Days before the official MLB season started, FanGraphs predicted that Tampa Bay had a 19.6% chance of winning the division and a 61.3% chance of making the playoffs before the season. However, after their hot start, FanGraphs projects the Rays to win about 93 games and has them as the division favorites (48.8%) and playoff favorites (92.2%). Tampa Bay may end with a 93-68 record in the 2023 season.

Fangraphs gives the Yankees the second-best odds to win the AL East at 29.3% against 42.7% foreseen on March 29. With a predicted win of 90 games and 71 losses, the Yankees have 84.3% playoff chances. This is up from 81% predicted before Opening Day.

Injury-plagued lineup a concern for the Yankees

The Yankees have struggled early with injuries. Their best outfielder, Harrison Bader, has a left oblique strain. He’ll rehab in the minors next week. DJ LeMahieu missed two crucial games due to quad-tightness. Though he returned to the lineup in the Game 3 win against the Twins, the Yankees are cautious considering how bad they were at losing him to injury last season.

On the 2023 opening day, the New York Yankees placed nine of their top lineup on the injured list varying from 10 days to 60 days. It goes up to 12 after the third week into to the regular season with their big hitter Giancarlo Stanton suffering a hamstring strain.

Their pitching department was scrambling to stay relevant with a patch-up strategy. It has lost Frankie Montas, who won’t be back until August.

Carlos Rodon, their top free-agent starter acquired this offseason, began the season on the 15-day injured list with a left forearm strain. A backache is another worry for him now while he is yet to debut in pinstripes. Starter Luis Severino is also recovering.

Scott Effross, a right-handed pitcher who was traded for a top prospect at the last trade deadline, will miss the whole season because he will have Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2022 season. Lou Trivino was great for the Yankees in 21.2 innings last season. He had a 1.66 ERA, 9.14 strikeouts per nine innings, and a career-high 83.9% rate of runners left on base. But he has a strain in his right elbow and is out for 15 days.

New York Yankees team at their spring training camp at Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, FL, on Feb 24, 2023.

Their other pitcher signed in the offseason, Tommy Kahnle, has right biceps tendinitis and been moved the 15-day injured list. Kahnle has had this kind of injury before. Catcher Ben Rortvedt was put on the 10-day injured list, backdated to March 27.

The Yankees face a major injury worry with their lineup mostly comprising of veterans. More injuries as the season progresses can sap their strength to win games. Quad tightness continues to bother DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres.

On the other hand, the Rays have a young team with an average age of 28. Their best players are relatively injury free so far in the season and they have only seven on the injured list as of today.

Yankees perform and perish together

The Yankees seem to be following the principle of swim or sink together. A look at their games so far reveals that when they won a game, the margin was relatively big and all their big guns fired collectively. But in other games, they all collapsed together and the Yankees have low-scoring games in their losses.

However, the Rays mostly ride on collective team efforts. The Rays are the only team with 10 players with multiple home runs, which may be related to the competition. The Rays’ expected and actual slugging percentages are identical, so they’re doing something right. Their on-base percentage remains superb. Also, the Rays excel at preventing runs. Over the last six seasons, they’ve ranked second, second, third, second, and first in runs allowed per game among AL teams.

The Rays led MLB with 30 home runs in 12 games. Their pitchers allowed only five home runs, the fewest in baseball.

The pitching depth

During their rare 11-2 loss to the Twins, the Yankees brought in Isiah Kiner-Falefa, a utility player for the Yankees, into a pitcher’s role. With a maximum speed of 74 mph, he gave up one hit in a scoreless ninth. However, this is a clear indication of how much depth the Yankees’ pitching department have.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone takes Jhony Brito out after the Twins hit him for 9 runs in the first innings on Apr 13, 2023, at Yankee Stadium.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

In these first few series, the Yankees have used some unlikely arms in their bullpen. With Tommy Kahnle, Lou Trivino, and now Jonathan Loaisiga injured, relievers like Jimmy Cordero, Ian Hamilton, and Colten Brewer have been used. The Yankees would likely be better with Carlos Rodon (elbow strain) and Luis Severino (lat strain) instead of Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt. The latter two have started all four club losses and have a 7.53 ERA before German’s Saturday outing with a near-perfect game.

Due to a left arm injury, Yankees left-hander Carlos Rodon, who signed a six-year, $162 million contract in the offseason, has yet to debut. Back tightness slowed his rehab, according to the Yankees. Luis Severino’s injury history has continued this season. Severino is recovering from a strained lat.

The Rays’ hurlers are a key part of their success so far. Given their pitching staff’s depth, this year’s jump to No. 1 was likely for them. Zach Eflin was an excellent winter signing for them. Shane McClahanan, Jeffrey Springs, and Drew Rasmussen with a combined 2.45 ERA are the best placed to carry their pitching. Pete Fairbanks’ 25 scoreless appearances make the bullpen stronger.

Leaving aside German’s performance on April 15, the Yankees unlikely starters struggled. Clarke Schmidt has 11 strikeouts and five walks in three games with an 8.44 ERA. Domingo German had a 5.87 ERA in his first two starts. Compared to this, the Tampa Bay Rays’ starters were on fire with 7.7 runs per game and a 2.17 ERA during the same period.

Also, the Rays pitchers have allowed an AL-low 81 hard-hit balls. Their MLB-leading 45.4 percent of pitches are in the strike zone’s “shadow” or edges. Their pitchers’ soft contact has contributed to MLB’s best defense aided by their field gaming that leads MLB with 62.5% “strategic” alignments.

But the Yankees can’t be written off

Aaron Judge after winning 2022 AL East Divisional Title.

Tampa Bay dominates the AL East as of now. However, they are yet to play the Yankees to determine who is the best. The Rays are also unable to convince the betting market. DraftKings‘ odds to win the American League pennant favor the Houston Astros (+390) and New York Yankees (+400) over the Rays (+500).

The Rays’ early success has a lot to do with their schedule. The Rays have played the Red Sox, Tigers, Nationals, and Athletics, all three are among baseball’s worst. These teams lost 389 games in 2022 and FanGraphs predicted 360 losses in 2023. The four of them averaged 90 losses, the most any team has faced this year. As they confront the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay lost their first two games and the first series of the 2023 season.

The Yankees don’t have an easy schedule like them. Still, they have won their first four series and drawn one. San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Minnesota are among the toughest opponents in Major Leagues. The Bombers got an excellent start against them without losing a series.

It is too early to calculate opponents’ winning percentage. The Yankees are improving and many of their injured stars may soon be back. Their latest comeback win in the series against the Twins is a statement of their capabilities.  

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