The Yankees have spent the home stretch of this season shuffling along. They’re 6-6 over the past two weeks, and while they haven’t collapsed, any hopes of a miracle AL East run have been extinguished, with the Red Sox surging ahead. After cutting the division deficit to about six games towards the end of August, the Yankees have played uninspiring, middling baseball.
More concerning than the 10-game AL East deficit is the Yankees’ dwindling lead in the Wild Card chase. The Yankees’ grip on the first Wild Card has been pretty firm for months now, but the Athletics have been on a sensational run in the second half. Check out this graph from FanGraphs, showing New York and Oakland’s respective odds of making the playoffs over time:
The Yankees’ playoff chances made a dash towards 100% early in the season. The A’s, however, were stuck in the mud halfway through the year. Their chances have made a stunning, Everest-like climb, meeting the Yankees at the top with an all-but-assured spot in the Wild Card game (if not the AL West title, but let’s assume the Astros take the division crown for now).
It has long appeared that the Yankees would host an all-or-nothing playoff game, but that’s far from a certainty these days. Oakland has narrowed the Yankees’ lead to one measly game. The A’s were 9.5 games back of the Yankees as late as July 8th, but have gone 39-17 since then, with the best winning percentage and run differential in MLB over that span. At this point, we have to ask: how much danger are the Yankees in of playing the Wild Card Game on the road?
A mere one-game lead does feel precarious, and is surely more than enough to sound alarm bells. Heading into Thursday night, both the Yankees and A’s have played 146 games and have 16 left to play. Playing into Oakland’s favor is the schedule. The Yankees host the Blue Jays this weekend, and the Orioles the next, but those are their only two remaining series against bad opponents. The Yankees have six games left against the Red Sox, along with an unpleasant four-game visit with the red-hot Rays in Tampa.
On the other hand, the only particularly challenging series remaining on the Athletics’ slate is a three-game trip to Tampa Bay. Otherwise, they have six games with the Angels and three with the Twins, both disappointing teams. Their three-game set with Mariners looks potentially challenging, but the Mariners are in free-fall and have a -54 run differential on the year. For all intents and purposes, the Mariners are a bad team that happens to have a good record.
Essentially, the Yankees have a one-game advantage over a team that only has one difficult series left, to go along with four series against mediocre or bad teams. The Yankees have ten games remaining against legitimately good or great teams. Time to smash the panic button, right?
The extent to which you should panic should probably be determined by the extent to which you believe the Yankees are truly stuck in a rut that they cannot dig out of. The fact that Oakland has a softer schedule is troubling, for sure, but on paper, even with all their struggles, the Yankees are the better team and should hold off the A’s down the stretch.
The A’s have played tremendous baseball for months now, but they still have holes. Their rotation is taking on water, with their best pitcher, Sean Manaea, going down with a shoulder injury, leaving Oakland with the likes of Edwin Jackson and Trevor Cahill anchoring their staff. The A’s lineup is strong, but can’t match the balance of the Yankees’ starting nine, with below average hitters at shortstop, left field, and center.
The Yankees have a deeper lineup, a superior rotation, and stronger bullpen. They should be expected to take care of business and hold off Oakland, especially with Aaron Judge and Aroldis Chapman potentially on the mend. The projections back up this intuition. FanGraphs expects the Yankees to win 100 games, and the A’s to finish at 97. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA similarly projects the Yankees to win 99 games and the A’s to win 97.
It’s definitely close, but the expectation should still be for the AL Wild Card Game to be played at Yankee Stadium. The sky may feel like it’s falling at times, when the likes of Jake Odorizzi are taking no-hitters seven innings deep against the Yankees. Perhaps this current malaise will continue, and the A’s will surge past and take the winner-take-all matchup to the Coliseum.
For now, though, the smart money is probably still on the Yankees seeing things through. The situation is tense, and the A’s genuinely could steal home-field advantage away, with the benefit of a soft finishing schedule. That being said, the Yankees are more talented and are getting players back from injury. If they get things together, they should ensure the benefit of a Wild Card Game within friendly confines.