A few weeks back – April 19th to be exact – I wrote how the Yankees were entering a crucial stretch of the schedule in which they would need to make a move in the AL East if they had serious intentions of winning the division in 2022. For the Yankees, the two-and-a-half-week stretch was littered with AL also-rans (or worse) while the Rays, Blue Jays, and Red Sox would be beating up on each other and other good teams. I said at the time (and I still stand by this), that when there are several teams bunched together in the AL East standings this September, we’ll look back on this stretch as Yankee fans and be mad the team didn’t get out in front when they could have, or be grateful there’s a little margin for error heading down the stretch.
So how did the Yankees do?
They did great. Heading into action on April 19th, these were the AL East standings:
Heading into today’s action, this is the AL East:
TBR 18-12 (3 GB)
TOR 17-13 (4 GB)
BAL 12-17 (8.5 GB)
BOS 10-19 (10.5 GB)
The Yankees did exactly what they needed to do: Beat up on the bad teams to the tune of a 15-3 record and jump in front of their rivals facing tougher stretches. The fact that Tampa Bay played very well and the Jays played over .500 is irrelevant – the Yankees can take solace in that they got the necessary results, as nobody expects those teams to go away. (And as much as I’d like to drag the Red Sox, let’s remember that last July 5th the Rays were 4.5 games out of first and won the division by eight, while the Yanks were 10.5 out and still reached the postseason – there’s a LONG way to go.)
Although luck and randomness are always a part of baseball, the Yanks haven’t been using smoke and mirrors. The batters posted an MLB best 124 wRC+ over that stretch and scored the fifth most runs while the run prevention side was doing their thing as well. The pitchers and defenders have allowed the second-fewest runs in MLB since April 19th with the pitchers posting the fourth-best xFIP (3.29) while the fielders had the fifth-best team UZR.
Of course, we have to acknowledge the rather large elephant in the room: It’s a heck of a lot easier to hit off of bad pitchers and it’s easier to pitch to poor hitters – and the Yankees have faced a lot of both since April 19th. Furthermore – and somewhat remarkably – not only have the Yankees faced predominantly bad teams, but they’ve somehow managed to avoid those teams’ aces as well. Of the nine series the Yankees have played they’ve only faced the other team’s best pitcher in three of them – and two of those were Bruce Zimmermann. Six times they dodged a bullet in the rotation – heck, against Kansas City and Cleveland they missed those team’s two best pitchers.
Before you get your pinstriped panties in a bunch, that is not a criticism of the Yankees – but it is a reality that you’d be making a mistake to ignore. Expect some of the impressive statistics to regress over the next month or two.
As the schedule gets tougher, this is what the Yankees (and Yankee fans) need to focus on: The Yankees are 6-4 against Toronto and Boston this season. That may appear to be “OK” at a quick glance but trust me, if the Yankees win six out of every 10 against their division rivals and other good teams, they are going to win the AL East. The schedule is going to be a long way from easy from now through June – they’re going to face the White Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, and Astros for 16 straight games at one point – but even if they don’t play in an impressively dominating fashion, all will be good. When I look at the schedule, if they go 24-20 over their next 44 games, I’d expect them to be 2022 division champs. (I.e., there won’t be any need for you to scream “What’s wrong with them?!? They’re only playing a little over .500 for six weeks now!!!” when they do come down to earth.)
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