Buying or Selling the Yankees as World Series Contenders After Red Sox Sweep

Zachary D. RymerAugust 19, 2021

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 17: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates with teammates after scoring a run against the Boston Red Sox in the fifth inning during game one of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on August 17, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
Adam Hunger/Getty Images

It's amazing what a monthlong hot streak and a sweep of an intra-division rival will do for a team's season, much less its reputation as a contender for Major League Baseball's grand prize.

It was around this time last month that the New York Yankees were barely a contender of any kind. Following a loss to the Boston Red Sox to open the second half of the season on July 16, they were just two games over .500 at 46-44.

The Yankees' deficit in the American League East? A whopping nine games.

Their chances of making the playoffs in any capacity? Just 24.3 percent, according to FanGraphs.

Well, now the Yankees are 22-9 in their past 31 games following a three-game sweep of (who else?) the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Capped by newcomer Andrew Heaney's seven excellent innings in Tuesday's 5-2 win, New York's pitchers led the way by permitting Boston just five runs on 17 hits in the three games.

New York Yankees @Yankees

Hean, mean, pitching machine. <a href="https://t.co/BWFG4wnvCR">pic.twitter.com/BWFG4wnvCR</a>

What was a nine-game disadvantage to the Red Sox is now a mere five-game deficit to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees have also boosted their playoff chances to 78.9 percent, though there's a strong argument this figure underestimates said chances.

The Yankees are, after all, currently in possession of one of the AL's two wild-card spots.

Since they clearly are, the big question now isn't so much whether the Yankees are a contender again. Rather, it's whether they've played their way back into a distinction that they had at the start of the season before they gradually played their way out of it.

Are they World Series contenders again?

The Case for Selling the Yankees as a World Series Threat

Simply from looking at how they've dominated in the win column, it feels like the Yankees' hot stretch should be a story of them finally becoming the team they were supposed to be.

As in, one that thrives on the strength of an overpowering offense and bullpen, as well as on a just-good-enough starting rotation captained by the ever-unhittable Gerrit Cole.

Weirdly, this isn't actually the case.

Whereas the Yankees had one of baseball's mightiest offenses—e.g., they tied for second with a 116 wRC+ while also blasting 306 home runs—as recently as 2019, this season is still on track to be a second successive disappointing offensive performance by the Bronx Bombers.

They're only 11th with a 101 wRC+ and are likewise outside the top 10 with their 149 home runs. And while they've been better of late, they've still fallen short of greatness in posting a 109 wRC+ with a modest 35 home runs since July 17.

There's no one reason the Yankees aren't an offensive juggernaut. It's a mix of things, ranging from Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and especially Gleyber Torres (who is currently on the injured list with a thumb sprain) not being as powerful as the Yankees expected, and newcomer Joey Gallo not being the spark he was meant to be.

Sure, Gallo has hit four home runs since coming over from the Texas Rangers on July 29. Yet he has just 11 hits in 71 at-bats, with about half of those (35) ending by way of the K.

New York Yankees Joey Gallo reacts after striking out during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
AP Photo/Adam Hunger

Though generally solid for its part, the Yankees bullpen notably does not feature vintage versions of fireballer Aroldis Chapman and sinkerballer Zack Britton. The two of them have nine All-Star nods between them, but this year their combined performance is marked by a 4.34 ERA over 56 innings.

Cole, meanwhile, has not-so-coincidentally been a different pitcher since MLB got serious about policing sticky stuff in June:

  • First 11 GS: 70.2 IP, 50 H, 9 BB, 97 K, 1.78 ERA
  • Next 11 GS: 65.1 IP, 53 H, 20 BB, 88 K, 4.41 ERA

How, then, to explain the Yankees' apparent inability to lose games over the past month? 

To give credit where it's due, a veritable village of pitchers has contributed to a collective 3.18 ERA. The offensive handiwork, though, has largely consisted of the Yankees hitting in the clutch in a way that they simply weren't before. For instance, they've gone from a .228 average after the seventh inning to a .252 average in those situations.

All of this paints a general picture of a team that isn't actually clicking on all cylinders. The Yankees are more like a team that's clicking on unexpected cylinders at an unexpected time.

The bottom line? Even though their chances of making it to their first World Series since 2009 have improved from 3.9 to 16.0 percent since July 17, the Yankees are still nowhere close to the 31.7 percent chance they had way back on Opening Day.

The Case for Buying the Yankees as a World Series Threat

Then again, just because the Yankees aren't winning games in ways they were expected to doesn't mean they're not good. Or without the potential to get even better, for that matter.

Even if they aren't the dynamic slugging tandem the Yankees hoped when they first put them together back in 2017, Judge and Stanton have actually been feeling it with wRC+s of 120 and 142, respectively, since July 17. The Yankees are also finally seeing signs of life from DJ LeMahieu, who has hit .344 over his past 15 games.

That trio alone makes for a solid offensive backbone. Anthony Rizzo, another trade-deadline newcomer, has already shown he can be yet another solid presence by going 10-for-33 with eight runs batted in on either side of a stint on the COVID-19 injured list.

If Gallo starts living up to the 140 wRC+ and 25 homers he had in Texas, that would make it a fearsome fivesome. If Torres can return and recapture the form that had him hitting .293 between July 7 and August 8, make it a...scintillating sixsome? Something like that.

Pitching-wise, there's obviously no way to frame what's going on with Cole, Chapman and Britton as a good thing for the Yankees. But as the season has gone along, the extent to which the Bombers figured to rely on those three has definitely diminished.

Jameson Taillon, for example, has quietly been tallying ace-like results with a 1.68 ERA over his past eight starts. So has Jordan Montgomery, who's allowed more than three earned runs exactly once over his last 14 outings.

Then there's 23-year-old sensation Luis Gil. All he's done in his first three major league starts is not allow any runs, which is a first in major league history. He's done it with gas, and not a small amount of style:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Luis Gil, Elevated 98mph ⛽️ <a href="https://t.co/9jiTMhECbw">pic.twitter.com/9jiTMhECbw</a>

Speaking of gas, one bit of bad news on the injury front is that Luis Severino has run into yet another complication on his long road back from Tommy John surgery.

Fellow right-hander Corey Kluber, though, is on track to return from a shoulder strain sometime in September. He had put up a 3.04 ERA in his first 10 starts in pinstripes, including a no-hitter on May 19.

Between Cole, Taillon, Heaney, Montgomery and Kluber, the Yankees soon won't even have room in their rotation for Gil. But it's not hard to see him fitting in with the club's bullpen, which has already circled back to being one of baseball's best since July 17. That's largely owed to Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green, who rank first and sixth among American League relievers in wins above replacement.

The bottom line is that the Yankees are genuinely good right now, yet perhaps still short of reaching their peak. They'll have the goods to overwhelm the opposition with both bats and arms if they can get there, which means they'd pretty well match the description of a team that could do damage in October.

The Verdict

Per FanGraphs' odds, the pecking order of favorites for the American League pennant starts with the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox. Then there's a fair deal of space, and then everyone else.

That's fair.

The Astros are the best offensive team in baseball, and they also have one of the league's best rotations. For their part, the White Sox are frankly silly with pitching, and they suddenly look that much more dangerous offensively now that Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert are back from long stints on the injured list.

But now for a fun fact: the Yankees have played 12 games against these two teams and won nine of them.

Factoring in that they're also 2-1 against the Oakland Athletics and a respectable 7-9 against the Rays, the Red Sox are the only leading AL contender that's truly gotten the better of the Yankees by winning 10 out of 16 games against them. But that balance has certainly shifted recently, as the Yankees have won two of their past three series against Boston.

In so many words, not one of the teams that the Yankees could come up against in October is obviously superior to them. That seems unbelievable considering it took the Yankees more than half the season to get right, but...well, there it is.

There's still a lot of season left, and the catch with October baseball is that it's about as easy to predict as some kind of celestial knuckleball. But even if their transformation is both late and unexpected, you'd better believe the Yankees are back in the World Series hunt.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.