Two weeks ago today, the Yankees had a seven-game lead over second-place Baltimore in the American League East, while the Toronto Blue Jays sat in fourth place, eight games out. At the time, Baseball Prospectus had the Yankees’ odds of winning the division at 85.3 percent. But the Jays were active at the trade deadline, making splashy deals for Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. Starting on July 29, they began a stretch in which they’ve won 11 out of 12 games, including a three-game sweep of the Yankees in the Bronx this weekend, holding the Yanks to just one run in the series. New York’s lead in the East has dwindled to just a game-and-a-half (and their odds of winning the division fell to a less comfortable 52.5 percent), but that doesn’t mean fans should panic. Here are four reasons why.
1. The Yankees’ bats won’t stay this cold.
The Yanks’ offense was brutal this weekend. It was the first time they’d been shut out in consecutive games since 1999, snapping a major-league record streak of 2,665 games without getting blanked in back-to-back games. On Saturday and Sunday, they were held to just three singles — the first time they had three or fewer hits without any extra base hits in consecutive home games since 1919, when they played at the Polo Grounds. They’ve scored four runs in their last five games — their worst stretch since 1973. And on Sunday, the top five hitters in the lineup went a combined 0-for-17.
But this is the same offense that has scored the second-most runs in the majors this season, and just a week ago finished a ten-game stretch in which they scored 90 runs, their best span since 2007. Their true offense is somewhere in between those two extremes, of course, but they’ve had one of the more productive lineups in baseball all season, including two of the American League’s top six hitters in terms of OPS, in the resurgent Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.
2. The Blue Jays can’t stay this hot.
A case can be made that the Blue Jays have been the most dangerous team in the East all along: They have a higher expected winning percentage than the Yankees, based on a Bill James formula that shows how a team should have performed based on the number of runs they’ve scored and allowed. Other similar calculations factoring in the quality of their opponents have the Blue Jays on top, too. But in reality, the Jays have dug themselves into a significant hole, and it took an uncommonly hot winning streak to get them within striking distance of the Yanks. Toronto may have improved their roster at the deadline, but the difference between the two teams isn’t likely to look as lopsided as it did this weekend.
3. The Yankees’ pitching has been fine.
The Yankees’ starting pitching has been middle-of-the-pack this season, but the bullpen has been stellar, and the combined WAR of their staff is a respectable fifth in the American League. Even as their lead in the East has nearly evaporated, keeping opponents off the board hasn’t been their primary concern. In their last seven games, they’ve allowed more than three runs just once — a 6–0 loss to Toronto in which some of the blame was on Joe Girardi, who stuck with a struggling Ivan Nova too long and watched him give up a grand slam to Justin Smoak. The Yankees’ starters haven’t done a great job eating up innings, but the expected return of Michael Pineda next month should help them in that department for the stretch run. In the meantime, the promising Luis Severino, who was impressive in his big-league debut last week, makes his second career start tonight as the Yanks begin a three-game series in Cleveland.
4. The Wild Card gives them a safety net.
Even after everything that’s happened in the past week, Joe Girardi’s club still has an 88.4 percent chance of making the postseason, per Baseball Prospectus. That’s because even in the nightmare scenario in which Toronto overtakes them for the division, the Yankees are in good shape to snag one of the two American League Wild Card spots. There’s a big incentive to winning one’s division, now that the Wild Card teams play a single game to determine who advances to the ALDS, but even with that coin-flip-of-a-game of possibility, the Yankees have just over a 70 percent chance of reaching the division round at the moment.