The Yankees go into late August with the best record in the American League. They are in a dead heat with the Dodgers for the best record in baseball. They haven’t lost a home series since early April.
But all of that doesn’t matter much in October. There’s the matter of homefield, which we’ll address shortly, but ultimately, what your roster has done for 162 games means little compared to what the 25 men you put forth in a month and a half do.
So the Yankees, despite their record, need a few things to go their way to win a title. Everyone does, but the Yankees more so than other contenders after they sat out the trade deadline and watched the Astros add an ace. Zack Greinke may not have consented to a New York deal, but he’s in Houston nonetheless.
Therefore, let’s look at how the Yankees can thread the needle and find their way to a World Series title. To me, it can broken down to four simple categories: Homefield advantage, offense superiority, competent starting pitching and a dominant bullpen, all needing to be managed just right with a dash of luck, too.
Here are the home/road splits for the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers:
|Home Win %||71||75||75|
|Road Win %||59||54||55|
That paints a pretty picture; All three teams are dominant at home and simple good on the road. The Yankees lag slightly at home but make up for it with the best road mark. This doesn’t account for the strength of schedule for each slate, but you can tell that any team with homefield advantage would be favored for good reason. The 2017 Yankees may have been homefield advantage away from winning the whole dang thing.
Furthermore, the small amount of data we have on these teams facing each other, namely the seven games between the Yankees and Astros this year, adds to that picture. The Yankees took three of four in the Bronx and the Astros took all three in Houston. Many of those were close games, and the ones in Houston took place just two weeks into the season. But homefield advantage mostly held.
Ultimately, the Yankees can survive without homefield advantage, but they have 35 games left to win enough so they don’t have to worry about that.
The Bombers have lived up to their nickname this season. They’ve averaged 5.93 runs per game through 127 games and they haven’t been at full strength for a single contest. If they were fully healthy, the Yankees might have two separate lineups that could compete for the postseason.
As said above, that doesn’t matter much in October. A similarly powerful offense failed to overtake the Red Sox last fall. You don’t get to face the Orioles 19 times in October. If the Yankees face either the Twins or Indians in the ALDS, they could be on track to face three of the top six teams by pitching WAR, ERA and whatever statistic you name.
The point being: The pitching gets better, yet the Yankees are going to need to keep their offense at a similar level. Their depth won’t win them this title so much as the starting nine will.
We’ll see how they do against the Dodgers, but they’ve fared OK against the Astros’ top pitchers this season. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole each left trailing in their April starts against the Bombers, while Verlander allowed three runs and won against J.A. Happ on Old Timers’ Day. Greinke, meanwhile, pitched well against the Yankees, but a B-grade lineup grinded him and didn’t allow him to be his normal economical self.
Still, both with the Astros’ potential willingness to extend their starters in October and the ability to shorten your bullpen, it’s going to be tough on the Yankees’ hitters. Even a pitcher like Aaron Sanchez, who they bombed in Toronto, could be a weapon against them in short relief.
When not facing the Astros, they’re still going to have to make up for the shortcomings in their own pitching staff and hit well for the majority, if not all, of a series.
Competent Starting Pitching
Right now, the Yankees can likely count on three starters in October: Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German and James Paxton. Tanaka has improved recently and has an October track record. German has been the team’s best pitcher. Paxton has been shaky, but he’s going to have to step up for the Yankees whether they like it or not. He’s shown glimpses of doing so.
Those three starters are going to have get the job done. Period. Luis Severino looms over everything, but even if he’s back, those three will start in a playoff series. They’ll have to manage opposing lineups for at least two times through, if not more.
As for a fourth starter, you only need to fill that once a round, but Game 4 of a series is always crucial. Last season, CC Sabathia came up short in the ALDS and the Yankees were promptly eliminated. This season, it’s unclear whether he will even be given the chance.
So how do the Yankees approach the fourth starter? The hope is that Severino could come back and take a large portion of the innings, even if it’s in a 3-4 inning burst and not a full-length start. He hasn’t pitched yet, even in a Minor League game.
Chad Green could work as an opener, but can the team go to Nestor Cortes or Luis Cessa behind him in October? No. They need a bulk innings pitcher because you can’t afford to waste all of your bullpen’s bullets on one game.
So you’re left with either a piggyback situation with the best of Green, Severino, Sabathia and Happ. It’s not ideal.
Still, Denny Neagle started Game 4 of the 2000 World Series. Sonny Gray started Game 4 of the 2017 ALCS. Kenny Rodgers started 1996 World Series Game 4. The Yankees won all three of those games. Unless Severino can go full tilt, the key is to just get through 4-5 innings with the game still in reach and let the top bullpen arms take it from there.
A Dominant Bullpen
The offense is the most important part of the Yankees’ October, but the bullpen is a close second. If leveraged correctly, New York can bulldoze opposing teams with its collection of arms. It’s all about proper strategy and subsequent execution.
The stat to mention here is 22-0: That’s the Yankees’ record when they use all four of their top relievers. Of course, that excludes games where one of the first three blow the game before they can run through all of them, but it’s a nice picture, right? Get through five innings and hand it to the big four and you’re golden.
But wait, there’s more! Green hasn’t been used in late relief often this year as he’s been occupied as an opener. Even if he’s the Game 4 opener for the Bombers this October, he can still play a role in other games.
Furthermore, there’s the Severino and Dellin Betances of it all. Let’s assume Severino can’t make it back as a starter. They still need him and/or Betances back. Add in those two and you have seven elite relievers at Aaron Boone’s disposal in October. That means that you can find ways to avoid using them in three straight games while still giving all your medium and high leverage relief innings to the equivalent of Houston and LA’s aces.
Here’s the key: Boone has to use them aggressively without wearing them out. The Yankees’ wore out their top relievers in the Wild Card Game two years ago and that affected the rest of their postseason run. The Brewers used Josh Hader and their bullpen aggressively last October yet ran out of steam by NLCS Game 7 (They didn’t stand a chance against Boston). We’ve also seen what happens when you leave your top relievers on the sidelines.
In the five-game ALDS, Boone won’t have to worry about pitching any pitcher on three consecutive days. In the ALCS and World Series, that becomes a question: Will he break his streak of not doing so? Perhaps if he needs a key out in Game 5, but with a full group of relievers, he doesn’t have to worry quite so much. If Severino and Betances aren’t unavailable, or certain pitchers become suddenly unusable, that balance becomes that much harder to weigh.
The Yankees have a good opportunity to winning the World Series. Their playoff odds are just about 100 percent and they may just have the comfort of homefield advantage. However, they’re going to have walk a fine line to get to the Fall Classic, let alone thrive there. Now, we just have to wait to see.