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How the Yankees can beat the odds and win the division

New York may be the underdogs in the AL East, but they have the ability to defy those odds with their play down the stretch.

MLB: New York Yankees at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In this new Wild Card era, division titles and their guarantee of a full playoff series have become exponentially more important than they were in the past. The Yankees currently sit one game behind Boston for that treasured first place position.

The Bombers’ second-half surge has helped close the gap between them and the Red Sox. However, Fangraphs gives New York just a 29.4% chance of winning the division. Fivethirtyeight is only slightly more bullish at 43%.

That makes the Yankees underdogs as we approach the stretch portion of 2017. With that in mind, let us examine three ways the Yanks can improve their odds, and bring the AL East crown back home for the first time since 2012.

Hit in the clutch

It is no secret that the Yankees have saved their worst offensive performance this year for high-leverage at-bats. “Late and close” situations are defined as those from the seventh inning on in which the batting team is in a tie game, leading by one, or has the potential tying run on deck.

In these critical moments, Yankee hitters slash just .236/.334/.389, good for 14% worse (86 tOPS+) than their expected output based on the team’s overall offensive production. Conversely, when games are out of hand with a margin of greater than four runs, the Yankee offense is at its best, hitting 10% better than one would expect based on the club’s total output. That means New York runs up the score in blowouts, but cannot push that elusive tying or winning run across when it really counts. This has led the ball club to a pythagorean win-loss record, calculated based on runs scored versus runs allowed, that is seven games better than their actual mark.

Whether a team flops or flourishes in particular situations is at least partially random: you cannot choose when you get your hits. Still, if the Yankees want to push for first place, they will need more timely hitting, regardless of whether it is driven by luck or skill.

Better bottom of the order production

The recent addition of Todd Frazier was designed to lengthen the Yankees’ starting lineup. Instead, the new third baseman has actually posted a worse OPS+ than Chris Carter did in his short stint in the Bronx. Meanwhile, Matt Holliday’s numbers have fallen off a cliff and Tyler Wade’s batting average does not even approach the Mendoza line. Ronald Torreyes is a nice piece, but he best serves the team as a utility man, not a regular.

When Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro, and (potentially) Greg Bird return, the Yankees should consider the possibility that Holliday and Frazier will not rebound. The former is a 37-year-old who looks lost at the plate, while the latter was hitting .207 before the Yankees acquired him, and his average has been trending down twenty points a year since 2014.

A strong six through nine in the batting order enables New York to knock in Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius, all of whom are frequently on base. That makes the offensive output in these lineup spots essential to the Yankees’ division chances.

Less hierarchical bullpen use

Aroldis Chapman. Dellin Betances. David Robertson. Undoubtedly, the Yankees have some of the biggest relief names in baseball. They also possess flamethrowers Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green, as well as the reliable Adam Warren.

However, despite this and the fact that New York has the fourth-lowest bullpen ERA in the majors, the Yankees lead the league with nineteen blown saves. I believe that manager Joe Girardi could maximize his bullpen’s effectiveness with a more flexible approach, putting his best relievers in the highest leverage situations, rather than saving them for the last two innings.

By scratching his standard Robertson/Betances/Chapman format, Girardi could use Chapman when more lefties come to bat and deploy Betances (not just Green and Kahnle) as the fireman, where he thrived in 2015. We saw how well this strategy worked for the Cubs in last year’s World Series. Treating their ‘pen like the five-headed-monster that it is, rather than segmenting it, would serve the Yankees well.

Division titles are important to all teams, but especially to those like the Yankees. In a sudden death Wild Card game, the quality of a team’s ace largely determines the outcome. We saw this manifest in the 2015 playoffs, when a lockdown Dallas Keuchel assured the Yankees would not advance to the ALDS.

New York’s well-balanced, deep rotation is better suited to a long series than a single game. That reason, among others, should give the Yankees extra motivation to chase the AL East title and not settle for a Wild Card berth.