It’s the off-day before the postseason begins. I didn’t think the Yankees would get in, but here we are anyway. With that all said, we don’t need any more of a recap of what went down this weekend. If you’re here, you know.
So let’s get right to some scattered thoughts today, shall we? This will kick off our playoff coverage and hopefully be the start of a very fun month here at Views.
1. That’s All Over Now: Now that it’s safely in the rear-view mirror, I think it’s fair to call the 2021 season the most excruciating regular season in modern Yankees’ history. There are other contenders, of course. In 2008, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 in the final year of the House that Ruth Built. Nobody in their right mind would call 2013 or 2014 fun, the 2015 team was a nightmare down the stretch (remember those late-season games in Toronto?), and they had a fire sale in 2016. And yet I think we’d all agree that this was the worst of the bunch.
This about sums it up:
I know that everyone is sick of these graphs by now, but just look at those swings. Even from June-July, which looks relatively calm when compared to the end of the season, has plenty of swings. It was an up and down season from the very beginning. There were two points – right after the All-Star Break, when basically the entire team was out with COVID-19, and in early September – when I was actually convinced the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs. I almost didn’t want them to, either.
But that didn’t happen, of course. The Yankees finished at 92-70, which is their lowest win total since 2017. (Last year, when they had a lower winning percentage, exempted for obvious reasons.) They’re in the Wild Card now. Disappointing, yes. I thought for sure they’d win the AL East in 2021. In any case, they’re in the dance now.
I bring all of this up because none of that matters now. It’s cliché to say, but it’s true. The playoffs are a new season entirely. We’ve seen the Yankees play red-hot baseball for a month before, and if they do it again, they’ll wash away the pain – and nobody will care at all about how dumb the regular season was. The Yanks are a super talented team on paper, and I doubt many teams want to face them. (Tampa Bay excepted, who I think would actually choose to play the Yankees.) The goal for most of this season was to get into the tournament by any means necessary. They snuck in as the second Wild Card in Game 162, but they accomplished that goal. Now, if they’re up to it, they can erase that whole season.
2. We Finally Got Our Wish: Congratulations to long-suffering fans of the New York Yankees. On the eve of the postseason, their favorite team actually has one of the most dominant pitching staffs in all of Major League Baseball. Rejoice! Here are their rankings in some key categories:
- fWAR: 22.3 (4th; 2nd in AL)
- ERA: 3.76 (6th; 3rd)
- FIP: 3.90 (6th; 3rd)
- Strikeout Rate: 26.2% (4th; 2nd)
- Walk Rate: 8.5% (8th; 5th)
- Batting Average Against: .228 (6th; 4th)
- Exit Velocity Against: 87.8 mph (4th; 1st)
That right there is what I’d call a top-5 pitching staff overall. And despite a frustrating season, it was both sides of the staff that succeeded: NYY starters rank 6th overall in fWAR and NYY relievers rank 3rd. It was a true top-to-bottom dominant performance all season long. The only stain on the record is home runs – they rank 14th in HR/9 – and there were too many bullpen meltdowns. As I wrote previously, though, the latter is a function of simply playing way, way too many close games. Blown games are bound to happen when every game is a one- or two-run nail biter.
In other words, the Yankees actually have one of the most formidable pitching staffs in the league going into the postseason. Last night’s game was a good indication of that. They are very, very difficult to hit and they likely will be during October, too. That I’ve made it this far without mentioning the fact that they have an ace with a Cy Young-caliber season in Gerrit Cole says it all.
After years of complaints that the Yankees were too offense-heavy, too reliant on the home run, and not elite enough on the bump, the Yankees will enter tomorrow’s postseason dance with a top pitching staff. If they get beyond the one game play-in, the team will prevent runs. The biggest question will be if they score enough runs themselves for it to matter.
3. The Road Ahead: Ugh, what an excruciating roadmap for a pennant. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it will be a heart-thumping postseason if the Yankees go all the way. Not only will they play Boston at Fenway Park in a do-or-die game, they’ll play that game for the right to play Tampa Bay on Thursday night in the Trop. If they can escape that death trap, a repeat of the 2017 and 2019 ALCS may very well be in order. Point is that this is all setting up to be an excruciating October. I want to take a step back and place it into context, though. Let’s look at the Yankee playoff exits in recent memory:
- 2017: lost in ALCS Game 7 to the Astros
- 2018: lost in ALDS Game 4 to the Red Sox
- 2019: lost in ALCS Game 6 to the Astros
- 2020: lost in ALDS Game 5 to the Rays
It’s honestly tough to imagine a more gut-wrenching set of losses. The 2018 and 2020 losses don’t bother me nearly as much as 2017 and 2019, but they still hurt. What I’m getting at here is that we’re likely going to see some rematches with history. These playoff games won’t just be playoff games – they’ll be rivalry games and they’ll start in Fenway Park. Brutal.
At the same time, though, that’s why we’re fans, right? This is what we want to see. And it also provides a ripe opportunity for revenge. The very best championships are the ones in which you go through a difficult road and eliminate your biggest foes. If they erase the sting of some recent exits, all the better. The Yankees will have an opportunity to exact revenge on some bitter rivals over the next few weeks – or they’ll once again fall short at the hands of one. The stakes are going to be high, and my heart is racing even just thinking about it.
4. Looking Ahead to Tomorrow Night: Okay that’s enough context. There’s a baseball game to be played. There’s really not much to say about this one specifically. We all know the drill. In fact, we saw this matchup a few Fridays ago in Boston, when Yankee starter Gerrit Cole took on presumptive Boston starter Nathan Eovaldi. The Yankees won that game handily, but I wouldn’t bet on the same outcome this time. Derek will work up a nice, in-depth preview of the Wild Card Game that will go into all of the specifics and details. I’ll spare you those now, but I do just want to say that I like this matchup for New York.
The Yankees chose to play Boston in Fenway in the event of a four-team tie yesterday and there is good reason for that. Sure, the Yankees had some logistical concerns I’m sure – does anyone actually want to go to Toronto and deal with the turf and COVID screening? – but I think they also just like the matchup with Boston. They’ve won 6 in a row against the Sox and finished the season 9-10 against them despite that horrific start. I feel pretty confident that the Yankees can get the job done tomorrow.
That Cole is on the mound makes it all the better. The Yankees ace struggled a bit against Boston in 2021 – 24 hits and 12 earned runs in 22 innings – but that’s irrelevant. The Yankees will go into Fenway feeling confident against the opponent with the best pitcher in the tournament on the mound. That the Yankees won’t be facing Boston’s best pitcher in Chris Sale only adds to it. Anything can happen, but I like where the Yankees stand right now from the 30,000 foot view. More specifics to come, of course.
5. Playoff X-Factors: The one-game play-in really changes a lot of this section, since anything can in one game. Let’s make an assumption that the Yankees are going to make a big run, though. I think there are 5 x-factors (not counting the obvious ones in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton) that will play a huge, huge role in getting that done. I’ve listed those below in no particular order.
I’m at the point where I want Aaron Boone to manage the Rays next season regardless of what happens in October. I do not think he is a good manager, nor do I even think he’s replacement level. He’s bad. There’s no feel for the game, no urgency, and key players consistently underperform or stop developing under his purview. But he’s what we’ve got right now, so there’s no point in complaining until the games start.
He’s the biggest x-factor, in my opinion, and I don’t think it’s close. Boone was a horrible manager in the 2018 postseason, but was pretty good in both 2019 and 2020. (I do not think the opener situation last year was his fault or decision, so I won’t pin it on him exclusively.) They will need him to be good this year. The Yankees are talented but have underperformed and thus will need to maximize every edge in October play. A lot of that will fall on Boone. The days of “stealing outs”, leaving pitchers in a batter obviously too long, getting cute with matchups, and not using the best lineup should be behind us. Let’s hope he’s up to it.
The Yankees 24-year-old infielder was the subject of much consternation all season, but he’s really turned it around. In 140 plate appearances since August 1, Gleyber is hitting .305/.350/.445 (116 wRC+) with just an 18.6% strikeout rate. There are quibbles – he isn’t walking and there are no homers, just doubles – but that’s a damn fine performance down the stretch right there.
It’s encouraging, too. Leaving aside any long-term concerns about Gleyber for the moment, he’s always been a big-game playoff performer. Our man is a .342/.432/.605 postseason hitter in 21 games. He’s shown up in every single matchup save the 2018 Wild Card Game, and he’s been a key cog in the Yankee playoff machine ever since. It’s why so many fans fell in love with him in the first place. (Remember Game 1 of the 2019 ALCS?) With DJ LeMahieu out, Gleyber will probably be hitting leadoff. I think he’s up to the task, but if he’s not, the Yankees will be in trouble.
Where to even begin with Aroldis Chapman. The Yankee closer is one of the best in baseball, and there honestly aren’t many relievers I’d want to close out games for New York. He’s that good. But wow has he been hit hard over the last two postseasons in the big moment. He’s served up huge backbreaking and season-ending homers in elimination games in 2019 and 2020. That obviously cannot happen again this year if the Yankees are serious about making a run.
Nestor Cortes, Jr.
I’m not sure how the rotation will shake out moving forward, but I’d imagine Corey Kluber would start a prospective Game 1 in Tampa Bay. Jordan Montgomery and Jameson Taillon would mix in there, but I’d also expect to see Nestor Cortes at some point. The dude has been a lights-out feel-good story all season, but the bright lights of the playoffs shine differently. If the funky-delivering fan favorite can keep up his regular season success, he’ll offer a much different look for New York – one that they haven’t had in postseasons past. That could very well work to their favor.
Last but certainly not least is Clay Holmes. The mid-season acquisition has been dominant in New York. We all know it. He’s a flame-throwing sinker baller who kills all the worms. Without Zack Britton, he’ll definitely be asked to step into some key high-leverage moments. He’s not Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, or Jonathan Loaisiga, sure. Those guys will get the biggest moments. But Holmes being effective can take the load off the true back end relievers and make the Yankees that much more difficult of an opponent. I have faith in him, but his performance will be a true bell weather for the success of the Yankee pen.