On Friday night, the Yankees begin a nine-game stretch that will finish out their regular season and determine whether they qualify for the playoffs or whether their season will have been something of a disaster.
Back in March, the Yankees had been a popular pick to win the American League pennant, and merely making the postseason — not exactly a major accomplishment for this franchise — seemed like a foregone conclusion. They were seen as simply too deep to fail at that task. But with a little more than a week to go, they’re clinging to a one-game lead over Toronto for the second and final American Wild Card spot; their Fangraphs playoff odds, at this very moment, are at just 56.9 percent. It’s just about a coin flip right now whether the Yankees, who entered the season with the American League’s highest payroll and no shortage of hype, will avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in five years and just the fifth time since 1994.
It’s not like preseason predictions considered the Yankees an unstoppable juggernaut. In fact, forecasters typically zeroed in on two specific ways the season could go very, very wrong. But, as it turned out, neither of those fears has really come to pass.
One common concern was the team’s health, and especially that of its two most dangerous power hitters. Though the Yankees were expected to have one of the deepest lineups in baseball, the biggest of their many Big Boys were seen as injury risks: Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton each missed more than half the team’s games last season, and from 2018 through 2020, they appeared in the starting lineup together only 129 times in 384 regular-season team games.
But in 2021, the pair have stayed mostly healthy — and, not surprisingly, have been quite productive, mashing a combined 67 home runs, many with terrifying exit velocities.
The other big worry heading into this season was the team’s rotation. Three of their regular 2020 starters didn’t return, including the reliable Masahiro Tanaka, and former ace Luis Severino would begin the season recovering from his February 2020 Tommy John surgery. (Severino finally made his first appearance in 707 days earlier this week, throwing two scoreless innings in relief on Wednesday.) The team’s somewhat terrifying plan going into April was to lean heavily on pitchers who, because of either injury or suspension, had pitched very little over the last year.
The results of that experiment have been a mixed bag: Corey Kluber has an ERA under four and threw a no-hitter but also spent three months on the injured list. Jameson Taillon, who is currently injured, shaved more than a run off his ERA in the season’s second half. Nevertheless, the rotation in general has been stellar, posting the fourth-best ERA in the American League and the third-best WHIP thanks to the excellence of Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery’s career-best season, and a surprisingly deep bench of replacement starters.
So how exactly do the Yankees find themselves fighting for their playoff lives right now? Part of it is the surprising depth of their division. The Yankees and Rays were expected to be contenders (the Rays are atop the AL East by six games), and the Blue Jays are a team on the rise, but of 37 ESPN experts polled before the season, not a single one picked the Red Sox to win even one of the Wild Card spots. Four of the six best records in the American League come from the East division, including the Sox, who currently sit in the top Wild Card position. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ mediocre 11-8 record against the extremely in-last-place Orioles has been a killer, especially as other teams in the division have properly beaten up on Baltimore.
There are internal disappointments, too. Over the past three years, Brian Cashman has had a knack for turning unwanted players into major contributors. Luke Voit was playing for the Cardinals’ AAA team when the Yankees traded for him in 2018; last year, he led the American League in home runs. Gio Urshela batted .233 in 19 games for Toronto in 2018 and then batted .314 in 132 games for the Yankees the following year. DJ LeMahieu signed with the Yankees on a modest two-year deal in 2019; in parts of eight seasons, he’s had an OPS above that of the league average just once (albeit in a year he won the NL batting title). After signing with the Yankees, he batted .327 in 2019 and a league-best .364 last year.
Those three cheap pick-ups developed into trusted members of the team, making up a third of the team’s projected lineup this year. All have underwhelmed. LeMahieu and Urshella both have an OPS under .720, and though Voit’s been better since returning from an injury in August, he’s still having by far his worst season as a Yankee (and Cashman was sufficiently spooked by his health and production that he traded for some insurance, picking up Anthony Rizzo during the Cubs’ fire sale).
Should the Yankees survive the next week and clinch a playoff berth, the best hope for fans is that the October version of the team performs something like the one everyone expected to see in the spring. One doesn’t even need to squint that much to see how it could happen: Gerrit Cole is as good as any ace in baseball, and all the arms behind him have, at various points this season, been very effective. There’s still enough potential in their lineup that even a few hot bats can offset the inevitable slumps. The bullpen has been statistically excellent (even if it has made fans avert their eyes at times), and Aroldis Chapman seems to have arrived at peak form just in time. Everything would have to click for a long playoff run — and no, it’s not terribly likely that it’ll happen — but it’s what fans have to hang onto.
No matter what happens over the next nine games, there will be much to discuss in the off-season, up to and including the job status of manager Aaron Boone. We’ll soon know whether that postmortem will begin prematurely.