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Are the Yankees actually good?

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or are they just the least-worst team in the division?

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

With all due respect to any fans of numbers or analysis, I think we rely too heavily on sabermetrics. Instead we should probably rely on jinxes, because the wisdom of someone in the comment section spelled doom on the Rays against C.C. Sabathia just last week:

You're not dealing with economic theories here. For example, a guy like Clayton Kershaw may dominate a game and shut out a team for 7 innings. He is taken out after 95 pitches, his WHIP and ERA will improve. Another great pitcher like C.C. Sabathia could shut out a team for 7 innings, his team will be up by 6 or 7 runs going into the eighth, but he'll stay in the game to save the bullpen and give up 2 or 3 late meaningless runs.

Sabathia's line won't look as impressive as Kershaw's, but he still pitched as well as Kershaw did, you just wouldn't know that unless you watched both guys pitch. Also, he saved the bullpen from a few innings—how do you measure that worth through analytics? Is saving your bullpen more valuable than giving up a few runs in garbage time?

Moreover, sabermetrics doesn't measure the human element of the game, such as who gets hot at the right time, clutch hitting, nor does it take into account different strike zones from different home plate umpires.

That human element was the massive human who handed the saber-minded Rays a loss last night. Before that, C.C. Sabathia had not won a decision in a baseball game in nine starts heading into the game, which spans into last season.

Backed by eleven runs, Sabathia limited the Rays to only four in seven innings of work, proving it's fine to be a crap pitcher so long as you spare the bullpen and the offense behind you can put up enough runs to win one of every ten games. Sure he's not Kershaw, but he went seven innings! And the only thing that matters is run differential, right?

Well, that ignores how Sabathia was facing the Rays' "fifth starter" who was making his ninth career start over three years, and that Kershaw is likely facing the opposing team's ace.

Still, ESPN's front page this morning was more akin to the above quote with a blazing "A-Rod homers as Sabathia ends 9-start drought." This was the biggest story in baseball. Last night Kershaw didn't pitch, bur Greinke did, going seven innings of one-run ball in which a reliever nearly blew it, but then J.P. Howell got the win. That game was far more compelling from what I can tell, but the bi-line is still a has-been and a resurrected one.

So what about A-Rod? Also in this game, Erasmo Ramirez hit A-Rod (who'd homered earlier) with a pitch to the triceps. He was awarded first base, then took second base on catcher indifference but still came up limping. Amazing!

But how could the big takeaway from last night be that the Yankees are maybe, probably good?

One-fifth into the season, on a night the aged offense was vintage like a wine against a Rays replacement-starter, we also get headlines like this:

Your worst nightmare comes true: The Yankees are good

Before the season, I thought there was a good chance that would happen. The return of Alex Rodriguez would surely turn into a three-ring showstopper, complete with comedy, tragedy and plenty of opportunity for satire; the lineup was too old, and the starting rotation too injury-prone; we would be subject to countless "the Yankees miss Jeter" columns that would drive us to drink like Don Draper, if not for the fact that the Yankees would likely be stewing in their own misery.

Instead, while there is no joy in Mudville, there is plenty of it in the Bronx. After hammering the Rays 11-5 on Monday in a five-homer outburst that included Rodriguez's eighth, the Yankees are 21-12 and owners of the best record in the American League. Maybe you dreamed of an under .500 season; maybe you dreamed of Rodriguez getting released in July, the Yankees finally just eating his contract; maybe you dreamed of Joe Girardi losing his cool one evening and going on a Hal McRae-like rant in his postgame interview.

Instead, it's your worst nightmare. The Yankees are good. They're not going away, especially in what's shaping up to be a mediocre AL East.

That's David Schoenfield writing for ESPN, and he's right. The Yankees are the best team in a crap division, but it's probably better to say that the Yankees have been the least-crap team in a crap-division. The story line was "Sabathia!" last night, but one-in-ten is not a good result, and the praise if anything should be feigned.

No the difference maker in the American League has been the offense of New York, which has voltron'd a .330 wOBA and 108 wRC+ out of a .251/.326/.432 slash line. The offensive WAR ranks fifth at 5.1 in the AL.

Meanwhile the Rays have a .235/.311/.382 slash line with a .307 wOBA. This turns out to be league average, which is not a bad result given the extent of injuries suffered, with a 100 wRC+.

The Rays offense is middle of the league in longballs with 31 HR (7th) and .147 ISO (7th), but are low in runs scored at 126 (12th). However, the Rays pitching has allowed only 122 runs (4th), which is two less than New York. Keeping that differential in the black will theoretically keep this hobbled Rays team afloat.

So yes the Yankees offense is chugging along 8% above league average this season, and their runs scored differential is +36, not merely +4 like the Rays. But the Rays are not negative in either regard, and that's enough with so many players injured, and that's just one aspect of the game. How's the pitching?

The starting rotations are comical in this division, but let's look into some surprising numbers among the American League rotations:

AL Rank
Team W L ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
1 Yankees 14 8 3.90 3.69 21.1% 5.5% 3.7
4 Rays 10 11 3.61 3.63 23.6% 7.2% 3.1
11 Red Sox 9 13 5.63 4.08 20.2% 8.8% 1.7
13 Orioles 10 13 4.67 4.63 18.5% 9.9% 1.2
15 Blue Jays 12 11 5.21 5.39 14.0% 9.8% -0.2

Above are the numbers generated by Fangraphs when you filter for "Starters" in the American League.

The Rays have needed eight separate starters this season, and they aren't done yet cycling through pitchers with rookie replacements holding down three of five starting slots at the moment. And yet there they are, not far behind New York's starting staff.

The Yankees are buoyed not by the starters, it's their impressive bullpen, which has accumulated a 2.22 ERA and 3.02 FIP, with numbers just shy of the Astros for the best bullpen on paper.

Fangraphs awards the NY bullpen 2.3 WAR, however, and that leads Houston by nearly a full win. The Rays bullpen is just middle of the pack in the division, with 0.5 WAR on the season at seventh in the AL.

Schoenfield's premise is not that the Yankees are actually good, though, and that's what's bothersome about the morning hype over an eleven-run victory. Just check his conclusion:

Girardi has to be careful not to overuse Betances and Miller, and the Yanks have received much of their offense from their shortstop and second baseman.

But in a flawed division, the Yankees appear to be the least flawed team right now.

It's like I said earlier. The Yankees have been the least-crap team in a crap division.

Imagine how that might change if the Rays didn't have 21 injured players this season.

Rays Notes

- Blake Snell and Tyler Goeddel received player and pitcher of the month awards for the Rays farm system. Each should have helium on the prospect lists come July.

- Nick Franklin could be back in the majors in the coming week, reports Matt Stein, quoting Kevin Cash as saying, "We'll definitely have some decisions to make on the roster in the upcoming week."

- Steve Kinsella on Asdrubal Cabrera's first month with the Rays.

- The Rays had a strong case for Brian McCann blocking the plate last night, but lost the challenge.

- More attendance problems: Monday's "crowd" of 10,619 was smallest of any Yankees-Rays game at the Trop ever, reports Marc Topkin.

- Also behind that link, Topkin wonders if Colome was tipping his pitches last night.

Just some informed speculation I'm sure.

Links

- The first pitch before last night's game featured a first responder proposing to a domestic violence survivor he'd aided. Touching story.

- Mike Bates on how the Astros got so good so quickly.

The Hardball Times on radar guns in baseball.

- Barry Bonds is filing a grievance against MLB for collusion

Josh Hamilton autographing a baby.

- Andrew Cashner's story about his mother's fight against leukemia is impactful.

- Five teams who might be selling come the trade deadline. Scott Kazmir, come home!

- Finally, if you didn't read Ian's editorial from yesterday on the state of the Rays, do yourself a favor and check it out.