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The Yankees will probably still make the playoffs

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It's not a given, but I'll take their chances.

MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers
Now look here ump here are some rest-of-season projections and boy do we look good
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Cleveland series wasn’t the brightest spot of the Yankees’ 2017 season. Having been swept pretty handily, the Yankees’ record now stands at 70 wins and 62 losses, 5.5 games back of the Red Sox in the AL East. They still hold sole possession of the first Wild Card spot, but the competition grows more intense with each passing game. Minnesota is surging on the back of a long-awaited star turn by Byron Buxton, and they’re now within 1.5 games of the Yankees. Right behind them are the Orioles, who have won eight of their last ten on account of Manny Machado getting back to doing Manny Machado things. Running alongside them are the Angels, who are there because a) Mike Trout is God and b) Andrelton Simmons decided to become a good hitter for a change. Depending on how the Yankees fare against the Red Sox, we might be looking at a three-way tie for the second Wild Card spot between the Yankees, the Twins and the Angels, with the Orioles behind by a game and a half. I believe the correct term to describe such a situation would be “bad.”

However, despite their frustrating play as of late, there are many reasons to believe that Yankees still have a pretty good chance of sneaking into the playoffs. FanGraphs’ Playoff Odds gives them a 72.1% chance of making it in, even after suffering the sweep to Cleveland. I'm aware that some of you may think those odds are overly optimistic. That's why I’m here to argue that, no, not really. I’m here to argue that, when you look at how the Yankees stack up against the Orioles, Twins and Angels, these odds seem just about right.

So, how do they stack up? A quick and easy way to do this would be to look at FanGraphs' Depth Charts, which displays rest-of-season WAR projections by position for each team. In other words, the chart provides us with 1) a basic idea of how much production the Yankees can expect to get from each position going forward, and 2) whether that expected production is higher or lower than other teams in the playoff picture. Since I like quick and easy ways to do things, this is what I will do.

First, let's look at the total rest-of-season WAR column on the right end of the chart. The Yankees are 6th in MLB with a mark of 7.8, with only three AL teams ahead of them; namely, Cleveland with 8.7, Houston (my thoughts and prayers for everyone affected) with 8.6, and Boston with 8.5. Looking further down the list, we find the Angels and Orioles at 6th and 7th in the AL, each with 6.3 projected WAR. Still further down are the Twins, whose 5.6 rest-of-season WAR puts them at 10th in the AL. In short, the Yankees are not as good as the three division leaders, but they’re much closer to them than they are to the gaggle of teams fighting over the second Wild Card spot. Should these projections hold true, it seems the Yankees have a pretty secure grip on the first Wild Card spot.

So, the projections tell us that Yankees are better than their Wild Card competition going forward. The next step is to investigate why; in other words, in what ways are the Yankees better? The Depth Charts display team WAR projections for position players and pitchers, enabling us to make more detailed comparisons. Sorted by position player WAR, the Yankees (3.8 WAR) actually fall behind the Angels (4.2) and Orioles (4.0), although they're still above the Twins (3.4). The projections by position give us an even closer look. We can see how the Yankees and the Angels/Orioles are constructed differently; the Yankees are more well-rounded, whereas Anaheim and Baltimore subscribe to a stars-and-scrubs approach. When your stars are really good - like, Trout-Simmons-Machado good - that can make up for a whole lotta holes. From our comparison, we can conclude that, in terms of total production from position players, as long as the Angels' and Orioles' stars keep producing like stars, they're in slightly better shape going forward than the Yankees are.

If that's so, then why does FanGraphs' Playoff Odds like the Yankees so much? The answer lies in their pitching. Sorted by projected rest-of-season pitcher WAR, the Yankees overtake the Astros to rank 3rd in the AL with a 3.9 mark. Meanwhile, we find the Orioles, Angels and Twins all in the bottom half of the AL, with marks of 2.3, 2.2 and 2.1, respectively. Honestly, this isn't all that surprising when you look at the names in each staff. Let's start with the starters; the Yankees' top three starting pitchers are Luis Severino (0.7 rest-of-season WAR), Sonny Gray (0.6), and Masahiro Tanaka (0.5). The Orioles' top three are: Kevin Gausman (0.4), Dylan Bundy (0.4), and Jeremy Hellickson (0.2). The Angels? Tyler Skaggs (0.4), Ricky Nolasco (0.3), and Andrew Heaney (0.3). The Twins? Jose Berrios (0.5), Ervin Santana (0.4), and Bartolo Colon (0.3). This is why the Yankees have gone 25-21 in the second half despite their offense taking a siesta - their strong starting pitching allows them to grind out games. The other three teams don't have that luxury. More often than not, they need to steamroll their opponents before Ricky Nolasco starts pitching like Ricky Nolasco.

In case you're wondering, the projections favor the Yankees' bullpen over Baltimore/Anaheim/Minnesota too. Despite some tough losses recently, there's no doubt about the sheer amount of talent available in the Yankees’ relief corps, who are projected to produce 1.2 WAR (1st in MLB) over the remainder of the season. Maybe Chapman's projection (0.4) seems a little rosy, given his sudden decline in skills and reduced usage, but the trifecta of Betances-Robertson-Kahnle can rival any bullpen in MLB. Of the aforementioned three teams, Baltimore's bullpen comes the closest to New York’s, featuring names like Zach Britton (0.3), Brad Brach (0.2), and Mychal Givens (0.2). Respectable, but I'll still take the Yankees. The Angels' top three of Cam Bedrosian (0.2), Blake Parker (0.2) and Yusmeiro Petit (0.1) have all performed well thus far, but neither of them have the track record of Robertson or Betances. No one in the Twins' bullpen is projected for an ERA of below 3.50.

All of this is to say that it makes sense that FanGraph's Playoff Odds likes the Yankees’ chances of advancing, despite our frustrating play of late. New York’s position players, collectively, can hold their own against Trout's Angels or Machado's Orioles, and are better across the board than the Twins. The Yankees’ pitching staff blows all three teams out of the water. The obvious caveat is that projections are not infallible; we'll have to play the games to find out if the Yankees can fend off the other three. However, we can confidently say that the Yankees are in better shape to make the playoffs than they are. Really, isn't that all anyone can ask for?