It’s a baseball truism that you can’t win a division in April, but you can lose one. Well, the fact that April’s in the rearview mirror notwithstanding, the dynamics of MLB’s pandemic-shortened 60-game season will test baseball’s conventional wisdom to the extreme.
Looking at the quality of the Yankees’ competition based on FanGraphs’ updated projected standings, the first half of the season stacks up to be a relative crucible. Over the first 30 games, the collective projected winning percentage of the Yankees’ opponents is .514. In the final 30 games, that drops precipitously to .456.
The first half includes the more challenging interleague opponents in the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves. And crucially, it features seven of the season’s 10 matchups against the Tampa Bay Rays, who are poised to be the Bronx Bombers’ chief rivals this year.
Tampa Bay’s projected record, per FanGraphs, is 33-27; the Yankees’ is just a game better, at 34-26. Considering the volume of early season contests between the two sides (in fact, the Yankees and Rays will have completed all 10 of their matchups by Sept. 2), it’s not a stretch to say that the division could be decided before players and fans have fully adjusted to games played before empty stadiums.
The Rays’ strength lies in their starting pitching. Anchored by veteran Charlie Morton, 27-year-old southpaw Blake Snell, and righty Tyler Glasnow (who joined the team’s summer camp after testing positive for COVID-19), Tampa Bay’s starting corps is considered one of the game’s elite. In a recent ranking, MLB.com rated the Rays’ rotation as the second best in the game behind the Washington Nationals (the Yankees featured sixth? Eyebrow raised). According to FanGraphs, Tampa Bay projects to have the third most valuable rotation (the Yankees actually topped this ranking, thanks to Gerrit Cole’s projected 2.4 fWAR, which leads all starters by a fair margin).
Add in Tampa Bay’ proven tactical flexibility – and with expanded rosters, expect to see them bullpenning games and platooning bats with abandon this year – and it’s clear they’ll present a formidable opponent for the Bombers.
They’ll even have a more balanced schedule. Whereas the Yankees are front-loaded with heavier competition, the Rays will experience a more even journey through the season (first-half opponents have a projected winning percentage of .493 versus .474 in the second half).
So those 10 head-to-head contests will be key. If the Yankees can replicate their 2019 success against the Rays (they were 12-7), they may cruise to a second consecutive division title, especially considering how favorable their second-half schedule is. But if they slip up against Tampa Bay, or simply manage to lose a handful of one-run games, their division ambitions could take a body blow – one that even that soft September slate of games can’t mitigate.
So circle the calendar for those dates with the Rays. It’s been a long and anxious journey to witness the return of baseball and the Yankees. But be careful: it could all be over before you’ve had a chance to settle in.