On Thursday, July 19th, the New York Yankees began a series against the Athletics at Oakland. They lost that game, got swept in the series, and from that day until August 7th, won only 6 out of 18 games. Of course, because they are the Yankees, many fans panicked. They criticized the Yankees for performing badly in the clutch and blowing leads and Brian Cashman for failing to make bigger moves at the trade deadline. On August 8th, even Cashman himself admitted that the Yankees were “playing poor baseball”.
Well guess what? Ever since Cashman made that statement, the Yankees have been on fire, winning 7 of 9 games (prior to last night’s victory over the Red Sox) and taking 3 of 4 from the Texas Rangers, one of the best teams in baseball. So what happened? How did they suddenly start playing so much better than they did before? My answer might surprise you:
They aren’t playing better than before.
That’s right. The Yankees were playing at basically the same level when they went 6-12 as they were when they went 7-2.
How can that be, you may ask? Let’s first take a look at their run differentials.
Runs Scored: 79 Runs Allowed: 71 W-L Record: 6-12 Pythagorean W-L: 10-8
Runs Scored: 58 Runs Allowed: 41 W-L Record: 7-2 Pythagorean W-L: 6-3
The Pythagorean W-L simply takes the number of runs scored and runs allowed and estimates what a team’s win-loss record should be given those numbers. As you can see, the Yankees actually scored more runs than they allowed during that awful stretch. Since then, they have an even better run differential, but not by much. In the first stretch, the Yankees should have won 5 out of every 9 games, and in the second, they should have won 6 out of 9. So OK, they’re playing a little bit better. But not much. In fact, taking random variation and noise into account, we can’t say one way or another when they were better.
You might be thinking, “But Matt, they still lost those games! It doesn’t matter how many runs they scored – all that matters is whether you win or lose!”
This is somewhat true: all that does matter in the end is whether the team won or lost. But when we’re trying to determine how well the Yankees are playing, shouldn’t we look at more than just their record? When we want to evaluate a pitcher, we don’t just look at W-L record, especially in a small sample. Yeah, that might be indicative of how well the pitcher is performing, but we’ll get a much better picture by looking at Quality Starts or ERA or FIP or whatever other metric you prefer.
The same goes for teams. Though wins are all that matters in the long run, we can’t just judge how well a team is performing just by looking at their wins – we have to look at the whole picture. A major part of the picture, especially in a short period of time, is run differential. Runs scored and allowed is going to give us a much better idea of how well a team is playing in a small sample than wins and losses.
8 of the 12 losses during the Yankees’ bad stretch were by one run. In some ways, these one-run losses are the worst kind, because the team came so close to winning. But the very thing that makes them so tough for fans to watch makes them the best type of loss for the team. Any number of factors can change a one-run loss into a one-run win. Had a foul ball turned into a fair ball, or a ball into a strike, or a close play at home from safe to out or vice versa, these games could have turned out much differently.
It’s easy to get frustrated when your team has a cold streak, especially for Yankees fans, who are so used to consistent dominance. But before you make harsh criticisms towards the players and management or sweeping statements about the team, try to take a step back and seriously look at not just the wins and losses but the other numbers as well. The Yankees played solid baseball during that 6-12 stretch. Not great baseball, of course, and they certainly had room for improvement, but they did not deserve the criticism they received from fans.
The Yankees are hot right now, and we should enjoy that. But they will surely hit another rough patch before the season is over, and when they do, remember how easy it is for those rough patches to end. Remember that the Yankees are an extremely talented team, and the results that the team puts up may not always be indicative of how they’re actually playing.