An Optimistic Take on the 2021 Yankees Playoff Hopes
By Chris O’Connor
September 11, 2021
*All stats as of Thursday’s games
The 2021 New York Yankees have been anything but consistent. After starting 5-10, they went on a 23-9 run. On July 4th, a brutal loss to the Mets was the capper on a 13-22 stretch that left the Yankees sitting at 41-41. They then got hot: on August 28, they beat the Athletics for their 13th consecutive win to cap a 35-11 stretch. Of course, fitting in with the roller-coaster season, they have gone 2-10 over their past 12 past games since the end of the streak. The Yankees are currently 78-62, just a half game ahead of the streaking Blue Jays for the second wild card spot.
With the latest downturn, injuries to Gerrit Cole, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Jameson Taillon, and the continued poor play of Joey Gallo and Gleyber Torres, the question has to be asked: do the Yankees have a realistic chance of winning the World Series? If a straw poll on Twitter asked this question to Yankees fans, I am sure that, at this point in the season, most would say no. Even in their worst stretches, I have been optimistic about this team’s chances. My confidence has wavered with this stretch of poor play at such an inopportune time. Still, I do believe that this Yankees team can bring home number 28 because of the stellar pitching that has carried the team, the potential for the bats to go on a tear, and this team’s ability to play up to their competition.
Despite the recent injuries to Gerrit Cole, Loaisiga, and Taillon, the pitching staff has the ability to carry the team to the playoffs. On the whole, Yankees pitchers rank in the top 5 in fWAR, strikeout rate, ERA- (which accounts for park factors and league rate), and SIERRA. This is a staff that has indeed been carried by Cole and Loasiga, but a team can not be this good at pitching with just two reliable guys. Behind Gerrit Cole, the Yankees can run out Jordan Montgomery, Nestor Cortes, and Jameson Taillon as starters in a playoff series while having the trio of Luis Gil/Corey Kluber/Domingo German as possible long relievers. It does not appear that Cole and Taillon’s injuries are serious; the Yankees do not seem too worried about either and I do not anticipate either of them missing more than one start. Loaisiga’s injury is indeed potentially crippling and his production will be incredibly difficult to replace. The Yankees, however, have a number of arms that can step up to collectively fill the void. Aroldis Chapman has been completely unreliable as an undisputed closer, but he can still potentially make an impact in lower-stake situations. Trade acquisitions in Clay Holmes, Joely Rodriguez, and Wandy Peralta have been excellent for the team while arms like Chad Green and Lucas Luetge have been dependable all season. At this point, it is difficult to know if Loaisiga will return again this year. A rotator cuff injury on a throwing shoulder is terrible for pitchers, so my expectations are not high for his potential return. And while this will lessen the margin for error for a bullpen that has been stretched pretty heavily this year, Aaron Boone has a surplus of talented arms that go both righty and lefty deep. With the surplus of reliable starters, getting a good number of innings from the pitching staff could lessen the load on the bullpen moving forward. Aside from maybe Chapman, the Yankees do not have an obvious weak link to throw out on the mound. This bodes well for playoffs, where matchups are even more ruthlessly hunted than in the regular season.
While I do think that it is far past time to hope for a revival of the Yankees bats,. I have argued that this Yankees team does not need a top-5 offense to win a championship; they just need to hit enough where the pitching has enough support to take things home. And there are some signs that the Yankees offense can pick it up at least slightly. The Yankees lead the league in both walk rate and hard-hit rate. They take their free passes more than anyone else and when they hit the ball, they hit it hard more frequently than anybody else. And while their strikeout rate is sixth-highest in the league, the strikeouts are not necessarily a problem. Just ahead of them in fifth place are the Rays, who lead all of baseball in runs. While these metrics are encouraging, the Yankees have struggled to put runs on the board all year. The problem that the Yankees offense has had is not a lack of plate discipline or an inability to hit the ball hard. It is an inability to hit with runners in scoring position. The league-wide batting average is .243, but it rises to .252 with RISP. The Yankees batting average is .236, but it falls to .234 with RISP. It appears that the league shortens up their approach when the situation dictates it, but the Yankees either do not or can not. The Yankees struggles to hit in the clutch have plagued them in the past, but I do think that this Yankees team is more equipped for success here moving forward due to the improved lineup balance. Boone can mix and match lefties and righties to give the team the optimal approach, something that was not possible during the first few months of the season. Clutch hitting is notoriously random, and the addition of Anthony Rizzo in particular gives me hope that a veteran presence who has won before can have a positive impact not only with his performance in the clutch, but how his calmness rubs off on others.
The Yankees also have some big bats that are capable of carrying an offense if they get hot. In seven playoff games last year, Giancarlo Stanton hit 6 home runs and slugged 1.038. It certainly cannot be expected of him to repeat that, but the Yankees have enough power bats that a similar home run binge is possible. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Joey Gallo, Luke Voit. Those guys, including Stanton, all have their flaws as hitters. None are perfect; Gallo actually leads the group with 31 home runs, a solid number but certainly not earth-shattering. What they all have, however, is rare home run power that can explode at any moment. I am not suggesting that any player having a run like Stanton is particularly likely; I am saying that it is merely possible that one (or some) of these guys may start to have one of their torrid hot streaks. They all have track records of it. Gallo, in particular, seems primed for a run. He has looked pretty atrocious with the Yankees and appears to be at rock bottom. Maybe he can turn on a run that defines the Yankees season: right when people have been ready to throw in the towel, they go on a run to (at least temporarily) silence the doubters.
The Yankees are also a team that, aside from the very rough 15 or so games of the season, has played to the level of their competition all season. This can be incredibly frustrating when the Yankees are 9-7 against the Baltimore Orioles. However, it also means that the Yankees often rise to the occasion when playing the best teams. The Yankees are a combined 9-3 against the division-leading White Sox and Astros. After they started 1-5 against the Rays and 0-7 against the Red Sox, the Yankees have gone 6-4 and 6-3 against the two intra-divisional playoff teams. Cherry-picking statistics like these are not often a good idea, but I think the Yankees are a different team than they were in the first half. It’s hard to quantify, but I think the players were energized by the trade deadline acquisitions and athleticism brought to the lineup by the likes of Andrew Velasquez and co. This downturn is obviously disappointing, but every team goes through downturns. The 2016 Cubs went on a 5-15 stretch at one point, and the 2017 Dodgers started the year 91-36 before losing 16 of their next 17 games. These Yankees are clearly not dominating the league like those teams, but the point is that even great teams will struggle for stretches in a long season. I have found that this Yankees team always seems to bounce back after they seemingly bottom out. When they started 5-10, people counted them out. When they fell to 41-41, there were calls for the team to sell at the trade deadline. Baseball is such a long season. Over the span of 162 games, streaks happen, slumps happen. The true test of a team’s character is an ability to shut out the noise and bounce back after rough stretches. While the Yankees have had more rough stretches than anybody would have liked, I am confident that they will bounce back again.
To be quite honest, the Blue Jays scare me the most. Their starting pitching is coming together and that lineup is dangerous. But aside from them? The Yankees have competed tough with the Rays and Red Sox over the past few months. They have handled other playoff teams in the Astros and White Sox. The Yankees just need to survive and make it into the Wild Card game. This will certainly not be easy, but not unlikely: 538 gives the Yankees a 54% chance at the playoffs, Fanraphs is at 56.6%, and PECOTA is at nearly 75%. The only good news about the division being over is that the Yankees can line up their rotation so that they can ensure that Gerrit Cole will start that game. That is enough reason to be confident, especially if the game is at Yankee Stadium. Win that game, and anything can happen when the Yankees have proven that they can compete with the best. For 5+ months, the 2021 Yankees have been inconsistent, frustrating, and confounding. All that matters, however, are the next two. Despite the recent struggles, I cannot wait to see what comes next.