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  • Chris O'Connor

Should the Yankees Prefer the #2 Seed in the American League Playoffs?

By Chris O’Connor

September 7, 2022


For as poor as the Yankees have played over the past two months, it is important to keep an eye on the big picture. At 80-54, the Yankees are on pace to win 97 games and currently hold a 5-game lead in the most competitive division in baseball. The prolonged struggles, however, has led the Astros to overtake the Yankees for the best record in the American League. Under MLB’s new playoff format, the top two seeds in each league get a bye to the Divisional Round and with the AL Central Division struggling on the whole, the Yankees and Astros look like pretty safe bets to lock down the two byes. What seed should the Yankees want? Let’s go through the case for each.

The Case for #1

On the surface, this hardly looks worthy of a discussion. The Yankees play much better at home: they are 45-20 at home and just 35-34 on the road. These splits are particularly notable against the Astros. In New York, the two teams split a four-game series; in Houston, the Yankees are 0-3. Every Yankees fan remembers the 2017 ALCS, when the Yankees won all three games in the Bronx and dropped all four in Houston. Home-field advantage (and a certain sign-stealing scandal) cost the Yankees a World Series berth in 2017. Would Gerrit Cole have melted down if the 2021 Wild Card game was in Yankees Stadium? Hard to say, although it is difficult to believe that that outing could have gone much worse. The simplest argument for wanting the #1 seed: do not get cute with it. If the road to the pennant goes through New York, let all of the other cards fall how they will. It should not matter who they play in any round if the Yankees are a World Series-caliber team.

The Case for #2

The case for the second seed starts with the fact that, in the Divisional Round, they get to play the winner of the 3-6 matchup as opposed to the 4-5 matchup that the one seed has to go through. The third seed will be the AL Central winner, while the 4-5-6 will be the three Wild Cards (likely to be some combination of the Rays, Blue Jays, and Mariners). The Guardians and Twins are tied atop the AL Central and, at 68-64, both actually have a worse record than the six-seeded Blue Jays (73-59). Regardless of who advances in the matchup, the winner of the 3-6 series will likely be a worse team than the 4-5 winner. Locking up the second seed is likely to give the Yankees an easier path to the ALCS.

Secondly, it is no guarantee that the Astros even get to the ALCS. What happens if, in an effort to chase down the one seed, the Yankees overuse Frankie Montas and he aggravates his shoulder injury? Or if any of Matt Carpenter/Harrison Bader/Zack Britton/Luis Severino rush back from injury in the chase, only for the Astros to lose in the ALDS and give the Yankees home-field advantage in the ALCS anyway? It might make sense to be cautious with their injured players. Pushing their players through the end of the season in order to secure the one seed makes sense if home-field advantage is that important. Is it? In 2017 it clearly was. But in the 2018 ALDS, the Yankees split two in Boston before getting manhandled for two games in the Bronx. In the 2019 ALCS, the Yankees split two in Houston before dropping the first two in New York, creating an insurmountable 3-1 lead. Any team would obviously prefer home-field to not having it, but in turning the first argument back on itself: if the Yankees are truly a World-Series caliber team, they should be able to beat any team at any location. When it comes to resting players down the stretch versus going all out for the one seed, they just need to do everything they can to ensure that as many players as possible are healthy and available for the playoffs.

My Take

Where do I stand on this? I think that I have been able to maintain an optimistic perspective on the Yankees prolonged struggles throughout the summer. Their division lead never dropped below four and the team was playing without many of their starters throughout July and August. I truly believe that the nature of the baseball playoffs means that, if a team can qualify, they always have a chance. Many scoffed when I claimed that, throughout the 2021 season, the Yankees had as much of a chance as anyone to win the World Series if they could sneak into the playoffs. They did not win it all, of course, but I felt validated when I saw who did win.

The 2021 Yankees went 92-70 in the best top-to-bottom division in baseball; the Braves went 88-73 in what might have been the worst division, and won the World Series only after losing possibly the best player in baseball to a torn ACL in early July. The baseball playoffs are very random.

All things considered, if I had to choose between a healthy Yankees team and the one seed, I would choose a healthy team. I lean toward resting guys, being cautious with injured players, and doing everything that they can to ensure that the Yankees are as healthy as possible heading into the playoffs. If that means giving up the one seed, so be it.

Still, the division lead has dropped to a not-insurmountable five games, and winning the division becomes all the more important given the bye that comes with it for the Yankees. It becomes a difficult balancing act. The Yankees have to win the division. If they don’t, even I am not sure if the vibes can recover for the playoffs. Now, if full-health is guaranteed and I am deciding between the first or second seed? I would want the one seed, and it is not close. Lucking into an easier division series is not worth giving up the right to guarantee that the road to the World Series goes through the Bronx.

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