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The Yankees’ greatest enemy is invisible

The Yankees are good, but there’s nothing they can do to change a postseason format that often leaves juggernauts twisting in the wind.

American League Division Series Game 3: New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Another October, another crushing exit from the playoffs for the Yankees. Yes, as routine as jubilant championship celebrations became in the 90s in the Bronx, heart-wrenching postseason losses have become just as common these days. As was pointed out on Twitter after the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the 2019-20 NBA title, the Yankees have been eliminated from the playoffs twice in the time that this most recent NBA season was played.

For Gen Xer’s and Baby Boomers, the story of the Yankees in the playoffs was success. Kids these days now know little more than playoff failure round these parts. Four straight postseasons the Yankees have entered looking dangerous, ready to seize that elusive 28th World Series title, and four straight times they left not just empty-handed, but dismissed in agonizing fashion.

It’s all enough to make fans ask some questions. Does Aaron Boone, who’s seen his team eliminated in the ALDS twice in his three years, need to go? Has Brian Cashman’s time run out, what with another star-studded roster falling short, again in part because of a lack of pitching depth? Does this team just not have what it takes to get the job done when it matters most?

Even if some of these questions are a bit hysterical, they’re understandable in the heat of the moment. There’s little worse in the world of sports than a heartbreaking playoff loss, and it’s easy to get caught in the emotion of the moment and call for the whole thing to come crashing down. Yet while the Bombers do have failures to answer for, some short-comings to address in coming years, all the hand-wringing over the Yankees’ recent run of playoff collapses mistakes the identity of their primary enemy. Indeed, the Yankees’ biggest foe over the last four years, and perhaps their most daunting one in the future, is chance.

No, the Yankees’ biggest adversary during this era hasn’t been the Astros, or the Rays, or the Red Sox. It hasn’t been a lack of pitching, or a lack of wherewithal, an inability to produce when the chips are down. The Yankees haven’t lost the last four years because they lack some tangible or intangible essence they need to get over the top. They’ve lost because the MLB playoffs are highly variable and brutally difficult to navigate to the finish.

Those who wish to draw grand conclusions about the Yankees’ plan, their clutch bonafides, often forget the fundamentally random nature of the game we know and love. A single baseball game, and by extension a short best-of-five series, tells us next to nothing. During the regular season, juggernauts drop games to also-rans with regularity. No one blinks an eye, because in baseball, the top teams can only exert so much influence over the outcome of a lone matchup. To some extent, baseball decision-makers have long known this. The season has always lasted 154 or 162 games, because that’s how long it takes to actually figure out who’s good and who’s not.

To illustrate the zaniness of a short series, Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs, keeper of some of the best public projections around, ZiPS, took a look at what could’ve happened had the Yankees managed acquire Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, Trevor Bauer, and Yu Darvish for nothing. Syzmborski re-ran the projections on the Yankees-Rays ALDS, with New York sporting that super rotation. ZiPS yielded a forecast of about 60/40, in favor of the Yankees.

Projections aren’t perfect, and even I’m skeptical the Yankees wouldn’t at least be 2-to-1 favorites with that kind of uber staff. Yet ZiPS illustrates a crucial point: in a five-game set, there is literally only so much you can do. The difference between good players, like Charlie Morton or Ryan Yarbrough, and great players, like Bieber and deGrom, isn’t borne out over a single game, it’s borne out over dozens. In just one contest, Tyler Glasnow vs. deGrom is virtually a wash, as is Blake Snell vs. Bieber, or Gerrit Cole vs. a bullpen game.

This is the main reason the Yankees haven’t gotten over the hump in recent years. They’ve been felled in October because even elite teams, such as the Yankees, are at best something like 60-percent likely to advance from a particular round. Match the Yankees up with other elite teams, like the Astros of recent vintage, and suddenly these series become coin flips. When you have to win two or three coin flips just to get to the World Series itself, well, you don’t need a degree in mathematics to know your odds aren’t great.

Moreover, critics of the team’s supposed inability to come through when it matters ignore just how much the Yankees have come through when it matters. During these very playoffs, the Yankees played seven games, won the majority of them, and outscored elite opposition by 14 runs. Last year, the Yankees played nine playoff games, won the majority of them, and outscored elite opposition by, again, 14 runs. If the Yankees’ stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs, why do they keep outplaying playoff opponents on the whole?

The Yankees don’t collapse in the playoffs. They run into the random championship generator that is the MLB postseason. For the most part over the past four seasons, the Yankees have entered the playoffs with the look of a juggernaut and have continued to play well, ultimately falling short because only one team out of 30 gets to win the title.

This isn’t to excuse the team’s mistakes, or the areas in which they can be better. The Yankees absolutely should be on constant lookout for impact upgrades. They should’ve been in the mix for the likes of Lance Lynn and Mike Clevinger over the summer, and they must do everything they can to ensure good players like DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka don’t walk for nothing this winter.

Yet the Yankees could play their cards right, continue to roll out 100-win dynamos in future years, and still be felled by the sword of randomness. That’s the twisted nature of a marathon regular season followed by a playoff sprint. The Yankees, for as long as MLB utilizes a simple, short-series bracket structure, will always be at the mercy of chance. And all of us watching will have to accept that the thrilling highs of October drama will always come with the possibility, nay the likelihood, that the Yankees will run out of luck short of the grand prize.