Competing Interpretations of the 2018 Yankees

As the 2019 season approaches, most Yankee fans hope, perhaps even expect, that this year ends not with the team handed a defeat by the Red Sox, but rather with a celebration in the Bronx or at some yet undetermined National League ballpark. The question of whether or not the team is good enough to achieve that goal will be answered over the next nine months, but how we look at that question has a lot to do with what we think happened in 2018.

One way to understand the 2018 season is that the Yankees managed to win 100 games despite some pretty bad breaks. Star catcher Gary Sanchez wrestled with injuries and when healthy had an alarmingly bad year given what he had done in 2016 and 2017. Greg Bird, instead of being a valuable left-handed bat, was dreadful, posting an OPS below .700, thus creating major problem at first base for most of the season. Injuries and slumps cooled off Didi Gregorius who, in the first third or so of the season, looked like an MVP candidate. Aaron Judge also lost 40-50 games to injuries, a problem that was made worse by the concussion suffered by highly touted prospect Clint Frazier. This view also recognizes the problems confronted by the pitching staff. Mid-season acquisition Zach Britton pitched nothing like he had in the not too distant past. Jordan Montgomery’s season, following a promising rookie year, was prematurely ended by injury, while Sonny Gray, who was recently traded away, was a disaster pretty much all year. 

There is another way to look at the 2018 Yankees. Instead of mediocre veterans, with limited pop in their bats, at second and third base, the Yankees got great production from two rookies Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. Key players like Andujar, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton managed to stay healthy almost the entire year. Hicks continued to develop into one of the game’s top centerfielders. Stanton’s 38 home runs and 126 OPS+ were hardly his best season, but nonetheless meant the addition of a another powerful bat in the Yankee lineup. Although Judge suffered some injury problems, when he was healthy he solidified his standing as one of baseball’s premier players. Late season pickups Luke Voit and Andrew McCutchen proved extremely available in August and September. Similarly, the key pitchers in the bullpen remained more or less healthy throughout the season while starters Luis Severino and JA Happ substantially exceeded expectations in the first and second half of the season respectively.

There are elements of truth in both these views-the Yankees got some good breaks and some bad breaks in 2018. To realistically evaluate the Yankees chances in 2019 it is essential to recognize this, but also to recognize that this is true of all teams. Fans of any team can point to reasons why their team got bad breaks last year and will be better next year-even Red Sox fans can point to Dustin Pedroia’s injuries. The problems we encounter too frequently as fans is that we are more familiar with the injuries of travails of the team and players we follow, so think the teams we like have been dealt a uniquely bad hand. Similarly, that makes it easy to overlook the good breaks our team got. Another way to think of this is that many Yankee fans attribute Bird’s bad year to bad luck while thinking of Voit’s late season exploits as proof of Brian Cashman’s genius, when the reality there was a lot of luck involved in both these things and that they kind of evened out over the course of the season.

It is too easy for fans of any team to rationalize away the bad luck and become more hopeful than is probably appropriate about the coming season. In fact, that mental trickery probably essential to being a fan. When the last out of the World Series is made, fans of 29 teams either need to think “wait till next year” and if unable to do that, need to find a new hobby.

 As the Yankees head into the 2019, supporters of the first narrative need to be prepared for all the things that went well in 2018 to backslide a little in 2019. Torres and Andujar may not continue uninterrupted climbs into stardom. Stanton could get hurt; Judge could slump. That last one may seem unlikely, but the possibility of Severino continuing to be effected by the minor, and largely unreported, injuries that plagued him during the second half of last year, or simply not reemerging as an elite pitcher is much greater. On the other hand, those who believe that the Yankees benefited from good breaks in 2018, probably should recognize that Sanchez will likely be better this year than he was last year, that the bullpen, by swapping out Robertson for Ottavino is likely to be excellent again and that right field is unlikely to be the black hole that it was when Judge was hurt last summer. Like all teams the Yankees have some players, Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia for example, who are getting older and from whom we can expect decline, and others like Judge and Sanchez, who are only now entering their prime years. 

This means that the roster changes made by the Yankees, adding James Paxton, Ottavino and DJ LeMahieu, while losing Robertson and Neil Walker, are so important. Largely because of the upgrade from Robertson to Ottavino and the addition of Paxton, who could be a very good starting pitcher, this is an improvement. The question of whether or not it is enough to catch the Red Sox remains unanswered, but to say the will catch the Red Sox because the Yankees will have fewer injuries or slumps in 2019, as many fans implicitly do, would be a big mistake.

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