As far as regular season games go, the Yankees’ next series is about as do-or-die as you can get. Going into the last week of the season, the Yankees are sitting in position for the first wild card spot, a single game up on the Red Sox. After sweeping the Red Sox at Fenway to reclaim the top wild card position, the Yankees have to be riding high, but this upcoming series against the Toronto Blue Jays may be even more important – the Jays are nipping the heels of both Boston and New York, just two games behind the Yankees and one behind the Sox, and the Yankees will be tasked with this formidable squad while the Red Sox take on the 50-106 Baltimore Orioles.
Their Story So Far
The story of the 2021 Blue Jays is really the story of what can happen when you have multiple MVP-caliber offensive talents clicking at the same time. In any division except the AL East, the 87-69 Jays would be playoff favorites, due mostly to their offensive prowess. They have multiple legitimate MVP candidates (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., with an otherworldly 170 OPS+ and 46 home runs, and Marcus Semien, with 43 home runs and a 136 OPS+); the team is first in baseball in OPS+, third in the league in runs scored, fourth in the majors in OBP, and first by a significant margin in home runs.
Lest one think the Jays are an offense-only team, they also have the Cy Young frontrunner in Robbie Ray leading their rotation (163 ERA+), followed by Hyun Jin Ryu (13-9, 4.34 ERA), Steven Matz (13-7, 3.88), Jose Berrios (5-4, 3.50), and Alek Manoah (8-2, 3.35). While Ray is the only one having a real ace-like season, the Jays are just two points behind the Yankees in team ERA+ (115 to 113) and have allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL.
For all of their fearsome qualities, however, the Jays’ playoff hopes have risen and fallen in response to the Yankees’ success or lack thereof, and with the Yankees’ latest winning streak they have just a 28.5% chance of making the playoffs via Fangraphs. Even more so than for the Yankees, every one of the last six games of the season is a must-win for the Jays, and the Yankees should expect to meet a team playing like there’s no tomorrow.
|Cavan Biggio||3B||Elbow||Expected back shortly|
|Joakim Soria||RP||COVID IL||Expected back shortly|
|Lourdes Gurriel||LF||Hand||Expected back shortly|
|Thomas Hatch||SP||Hamstring||Out until early October|
|David Phelps||RP||Lat||Out for the season|
|Kirby Yates||RP||Elbow||Out for the season|
Spotlight: Robbie Ray
With as well as Gerrit Cole has pitched this year, the Yankees would likely be looking at their first Cy Young Award winner in 20 years if not for Robbie Ray. The 29-year-old Ray has been mostly mediocre-to-average throughout his eight-year major league career, save for outliers on each side: in 2017 (when he pitched to a 163 ERA+ over 28 starts) and 2020 (when he combined for a 6.62 ERA in 11 starts between Arizona and Toronto). 2021, however, has been a career year for him, and he leads the league in pitcher bWAR (7.0), ERA (2.68), WHIP (1.037), innings pitched (188.0), and strikeouts (244).
Ray is a four-seam heavy pitcher who, throughout the ups and downs of his career, has consistently high strikeout rates, as he’s posted a K/9 ratio above 11 for each of the past six seasons. In 2021, he has experienced a moderate uptick in overall velocity, and has also figured out how to combine his strikeout stuff with great command, which is something he had struggled with in the past. His walk rate in 2020 was a whopping 7.8 per 9; even excluding the shortened season, Ray had averaged 4.1 walks per 9 innings from 2014 to 2019. This year, his walk rate has dropped drastically, to just 2.3 bases on balls per 9.
The fact that Ray tends to have many fewer runners on base this year as compared to his previous seasons offsets the fact that he does give up significant hard contact. His hard hit percentage (42.8%) and average exit velocity (90.3mph) are both somewhat worse than league average, but if there are rarely runners on base when those balls are hit the damage done can be significantly limited. Overall, Ray may be getting a little bit lucky this year (his FIP, while still great at 3.42, is about three quarters of a run higher than his 2.68 ERA mark), but it mostly seems as though he’s figured out how to use the stuff he’s always had to his best advantage.
Ray has also been remarkably consistent all year, as he’s only had three starts where he’s given up more than three earned runs, and no starts where he’s given up more than four. One of those four earned run starts came on May 27 against the Yankees, against whom he’s taken two of his six losses this year in two starts (with a 5.59 ERA over 9.2 innings). Small sample size, but the Yankees hope they can continue their run of relative success this year against one of the best pitchers in the league.
Below is the Toronto Blue Jays’ projected lineup via RosterResource.
- George Springer, CF (.242/.335/.516, 128 OPS+)
- Marcus Semien, 2B (.268/.339/.543, 136 OPS+)
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B (.315/.405/.601, 170 OPS+)
- Bo Bichette, SS (.291/.337/.463, 116 OPS+)
- Teoscar Hernandez, RF (.302/.351/.533, 137 OPS+)
- Alejandro Kirk, C (.247/.330/.444, 109 OPS+)
- Corey Dickerson, LF (.283/.336/.434, 109 OPS+)
- Lourdes Gurriel Jr., DH (.285/.328/.481, 118 OPS+)
- Santiago Espinal, 3B (.291/.354/.379 , 102 OPS+)
RHP Jameson Taillon vs. LHP Hyun Jin Ryu
Jameson Taillon returns from an ankle injury to make his first start since September 6. In that game, also against Toronto, he pitched well despite taking the loss, surrendering three earned runs on four hits over seven innings. One of the Yankees’ best pitchers for a several-month midseason stretch, Taillon suffered a few rough starts in late August and is looking to re-establish himself as the season draws to an end.
After finishing as a top-3 Cy Young candidate each of the past two seasons, Hyun Jin Ryu is having something of a down year, with a 4.34 ERA over 29 starts. His last start against Minnesota was one of his worst of the season, as he surrendered five earned runs in just two innings.
RHP Gerrit Cole vs. RHP Jose Berrios
Gerrit Cole pitched relatively well in a win against Boston last week, throwing five scoreless before surrendering a three-run home run in the sixth inning. He is 11 strikeouts shy of Ron Guidry’s single-season team record of 248 – certainly doable for someone like Cole if he has a good game.
Jose Berrios was a midseason acquisition from Minnesota and has pitched well for Toronto in 11 starts, going 5-4 with a 3.50 ERA – he has 12 wins and a 3.48 ERA between both clubs this season. He pitched well despite a loss in Minnesota last week, striking out 10 over six innings while surrendering three runs.
RHP Corey Kluber vs. LHP Robbie Ray
Corey Kluber has been slowly rounding into form since returning from a long IL stint in late August. While he had one of his best starts of the season on September 17 against Cleveland, going six shutout innings, he took a small step back in his last start against Texas, surrendering three runs in 4.1 innings.
Robbie Ray has established himself as the Cy Young favorite, and has pitched particularly well down the stretch, with a 2.07 ERA in 11 starts since August 1. He got the win in his last start against Minnesota, going six innings and allowing one run on three hits.
Both teams had an off-day on Monday.