[Please note: This post was written yesterday before Kansas City won and the Yankees, Astros and Twins all lost.] The Yankees are 33-25, tying them with Houston, Minnesota and Kansas City for the best record on the American League. The Yankees have been on top of the AL East for most of the season, but this is the first time that they are on top of the whole American League.
They've scored 271 runs (4.67 per game) and allowed 236 (4.07 per game), giving them a perfectly-matched 33-25 pythagorean record. Despite a killer back end of the bullpen, they are just 8-8 in one-run games. They've had key players (Ellsbury, Tanaka), miss a lot of time. Arod and Teixeira might come down to earth, but there is no evidence that the Yankees are just getting lucky to start the season.
Are they the best team in the American League? Let's compare them to the teams they are tied with:
Houston Astros (34-26, 4.13 RS/G, 3.90 RA/G, 11-8 in 1-run games, 32-28 Expected)
I don't buy the Astros. They got off to a great start, mostly by hitting a lot of home runs. But over time, the home runs died down a bit, and their high-strikeout, low-OBP offense got exposed pretty quickly. Other than Jose Altuve (hitting just .295/.335/.402), the highest-average hitter on their roster is the stone cold Jake Marisnick. Chris Carter is terrible. George Springer is overexposed. They're playing Luis Valbuena at 3rd base. These guys aren't bad, but there is a limit to how good a team is going to hit with a 25.1% strikeout rate. The Yankees, for reference, are an above-average 19% this season.
That doesn't mean the Astros are all bad. Dallas Keuchel and their bullpen are great. They do hit home runs. They did just promote Lance McCullers and Carlos Correa, who are excellent prospects and could be star-level players pretty quickly. They have further reinforcements at Triple-A in Jon Singleton and Domingo Santana, and plenty of money to bring in a big contract at the deadline. But I'm not convinced that the base they're building on top of is much more than a .500 team.
Verdict: The Yankees are better
Minnesota Twins (33-25, 4.28 RS/G, 4.03 RA/G, 11-7 in 1-run games, 31-27 Expected)
The Twins are a terrible team that has somehow managed to outscore their opponent. Jeff Sullivan wrote a great post showing that they are relying on a lot of clutch hits. Their hitters just aren't that good - they're scoring a lot more runs than their OPS would suggest. Fangraphs projects them to be the worst team in the AL for the rest of 2015.
And frankly, this should not be a surprise. The Yankees have benefitted from very strong comeback performances from very talented players, along with a few solid performances from guys that you'd expect to be solid, and a few elite performances from guys you'd expect to be elite. The Twins? They're getting ace-like performances out of Kyle Gibson and Mike Pelfrey. Their second best hitter (after the excellent Brian Dozier) is probably Trevor Plouffe. This just isn't a good collection of talent. Go to Vegas and bet against the Twins.
Verdict: The Yankees are much better
Kansas City Royals (33-23, 4.32 RS/G, 3.52 RA/G, 33-23 Expected)
The Royals have a weird combination of solid hitting on the infield corners and DH (Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas are all hitting .359, .370, .363 wOBA, respectively), great outfield defense, the league's best bullpen (3.26 FIP, a hair worse than the Yankees, but the Royals pen is much deeper), and maybe the 2nd or 3rd worst starting rotation in the league. Their starting pitching is just terrible. Edison Volquez and Chris Young have good ERAs (3.26 and 2.25), but I don't think anyone is willing to bet on them to be good all season long. After that, Jeremy Guthrie, Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas are just horrible. The Yankees have the 4th best starting rotation in the AL by ERA this season.
And really, I don't buy the big three hitters. Kendrys Morales is a good player. Hosmer and Moustakas have disappointed Royals fans and fantasy baseball players for years. They keep putting together little streaks where it looks like they are going to be all-stars and fulfill their potential. Then they crash and become pumpkins for the rest of the season. I'd bet one of the two is a pumpkin from here on out.
And after that, the roster has a whole lot of meh. Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez? Decent players, but nothing special. Jarrod Dyson, Christian Colon, Omar Infante? As terrible as anything the Yankees have. And I do not trust Ned Yost to maximize the value on his roster even a little bit.
Verdict: The Yankees are better.
There are other contenders in the American League. Boston still has the top Fangraphs projection for rest of season record. Detroit could turn its stars around and get out of their slump. Cleveland was my preseason World Series pick, and has started to call up young reinforcements. The Angels have Mike Trout. The Blue Jays have the best run differential in baseball. But I don't think any of these teams are clear favorites over the Yankees, who have a decent lead over most of them in wins already.
The AL is flawed, and clearly worse (at the top end at least) than the National League right now. But I think the Yankees are the best team in the AL. The projection systems agree. Fangraphs gives them a 67.5% chance to make the ALDS, 20% chance of making the World Series, and 10% chance of winning it all, all best by far in the AL. Baseball Prospectus still has them in the lead, but with slightly worse odds: 59% chance of making the ALDS, 7.8% chance of winning the World Series.
So, I think we can all take a deep breath and say it. The New York Yankees are the best team in the American League.