During our AL preseason preview podcast, I had a throwaway take about the fact that this was the most difficult group of AL East teams that the Yankees had faced in several seasons and that they might struggle to make the playoffs or pull away from their divisional rivals.
But when you’re in the media, and you talk about the Yankees, there is no such thing as a throwaway take, and I received a lot of heat at the time for merely suggesting the possibility that the Yankees might have a difficult season. Fortunately, I saved the receipts.
Based upon some composite preseason projections (from sources including ZIPS, ATC, and PECOTA), the Yankees’ average divisional odds should have been around -365 (implied 78.5%) and their World Series odds should have been roughly +500 (implied 16.67%) before the 2021 season.
I projected those odds at -339, and +489, respectively, compared to listed odds of -190 and +550, but I didn’t place either high-risk, low-reward bet.
Now, more than 37% of the way through the regular-season schedule, the Yankees’ projected odds have dropped substantially, by more than 50% in terms of divisional odds, while their World Series chances have halved:
New York Yankees, Projected AL East Odds
Consequently, their listed divisional odds have increased to as high as +250 (28.5% implied) at PointsBet. Furthermore, their World Series odds have more than doubled since the preseason to +1200 (implied 7.7%) at several books, including DraftKings and Sugarhouse.
Is it time to buy low on Yankees futures?
Going by the differential between actual and expected wOBA, not only do the Yankees have the unluckiest offense in baseball this season (.304 wOBA, 20th vs. their .329 xwOBA, ninth), in terms of wOBA differential (-0.25), they have had the single unluckiest offense in the entire Statcast era, which dates back to 2015.
Their expected slugging percentage (.422) relative to their actual mark (.371) also represents the most significant slugging percentage deficit in the Statcast era.
Aside from backup infielder Tyler Wade, every single hitter on their team has underperformed relative to their expected metrics:
2021 Yankees Offense, Expected vs. Actual Stats
I won’t go into specifics on each player since MLB.com’s Mike Petriello already covered their individual struggles — but I would note that I’m not overly concerned with their offensive performance to date, even if they don’t add another piece to this roster. Instead, you can attribute a lot of their struggle to poor variance.
Based upon those expected metrics, this Yankees team should be scoring more than 5.5 runs per game, yet they’re averaging just 3.72.
Their sequencing luck has been absolutely abysmal, with a 13.3% double-play rate (average 9.8%) while scoring a run with a league-low 11.2% of their baserunners (league average 14.1%). And with average luck, their record would be closer to 40-20 than .500.
As a result, there are reasons to remain optimistic whether you’re a Yankees fan or a futures ticket holder. So don’t panic quite yet — but keep the scream pillow accessible.
One reason to be concerned? MLB’s recent crackdown on the sticky stuff and how that might impact Gerrit Cole moving forward.
New York’s $300M ace is signed through the 2028 season at $36M per year. He famously increased the spin rate on his pitches after getting traded to Houston before the 2018 season and maintained that level for his first 24 starts in the Bronx. But Cole’s most recent start — which came on the heels of some minor league suspensions — gives me some pause.
Cole’s spin rate in that June 3rd outing regressed towards his late 2017 and early 2018 levels:
It could merely be a coincidence, but I want to watch Cole (and his spin rate data) again on Wednesday (against the Twins) before making any adjustments.
Corey Kluber will miss an extended period of time, but Luis Severino, Zack Britton, and Darren O’Day are all on the mend — and when those latter two arms return, the Yankees will have one of the most formidable bullpens in the game. It currently ranks fourth by both xFIP (3.74) and SIERA (3.52).
If Cole course corrects on Wednesday, that would alleviate most of my concern regarding this team and direct me towards some Yankees’ futures. But if he doesn’t, I’ll be looking to add some longshots in the AL Cy Young market, instead.
To arrive at a 7% World Series projection — provided that the Yankees make the Wild Card Game — you would need to assume that the Yankees would be a 60% favorite against their Wild Card opponent and an average of 49% to win each subsequent playoff series, including the World Series. Or, if they’re a 55% favorite in the Wild Card Game, they would need to win each subsequent series around 50% of the time to justify that 7% projection.
That all seems reasonable in a vacuum, but the Yankees aren’t 100% guaranteed to even make the playoffs at this point, with ZIPS putting their chances at 86%. PECOTA is even less optimistic, only giving them a 71% probability. Therefore, if the Yankees only making the playoffs four out of five times from this position through 60 games, the threshold to win each playoff series is likely closer to 55%, on average rather than 50% to justify their 7% World Series prediction.
Ultimately, I’m not at all concerned about the Yankees’ offense. Not only have they been unlucky, but many players stand to improve over the remainder of the season. For me, everything hinges upon Cole’s effectiveness and the Yankees’ starting depth (particularly with Kluber out for an extended period), in addition to their willingness to add pieces around the trade deadline.
Unfortunately, Brian Cashman’s need to improve the roster is once again juxtaposed with ownership’s desire to remain under the league’s $210M competitive balance tax threshold (current payroll of $202M). And ultimately, that power struggle could determine the Yankees’ fate.
Perhaps the Yankees make a change at manager if they continue to scuffle. However, that would be more of a PR move than anything else, as a way to shake things up and get a different voice in the room. The analytics department controls most of the decision-making for this team, and I don’t expect that to change.
At a 7% World Series projection from two respected forecasts, I can’t really justify taking +1200 right now on the Bronx Bombers.
However, I would consider a World Series wager on the Yankees if the number crosses +1500 (implied 6.25%) within the next week to 10 days, provided Cole’s spin rates normalize relative to past seasons. I’m not sure that their futures pricing has hit bottom quite yet, and I’m going to try to wait just a bit longer.