This weekend’s bad news was pieced out to us bit by bit. First, Giancarlo Stanton was removed from the second game of a doubleheader with the Rays, without explanation. We then heard had suffered a hamstring injury, and yesterday, it became official that Stanton was headed for the IL.
In terms of on-field production, this injury could not have come at a worse time. Stanton was in the midst of his best start to a season as a Yankee, running a .293/.453/.585 slash line with a 190 wRC+. Despite a short slump of a few games, on the whole he looked about as comfortable as he ever has in a Yankees uniform.
Stanton’s injury robs us of a chance to see a tremendous player in tremendous form, and strips Stanton himself of an opportunity to make this stunted regular season his best yet in pinstripes. There’s no getting around that. It’s a shame whenever the sport loses one of its brightest talents.
With that in mind, however, the Yankees’ goal with regard to Stanton from here on out is abundantly clear: get the slugger to October healthy and ready to produce. As much fun as it has been to watch Stanton lace stunning home runs into the stands during the regular season, the top priority has to be keeping him prepared for the games that matter.
As I wrote a couple weeks ago, that’s the awkward dynamic of this shortened season. While the 2020 campaign has been billed as a thrilling sprint to the finish, it’s really mostly a meaningless stroll for the Yankees. The moment the league instituted a 16-team playoff format, juggernauts like New York received an almost guaranteed pass to the playoffs, rendering their regular season contests low-stakes affairs.
FanGraphs already assesses the Yankees’ playoff odds at 98 percent, as they’ve opened up a small lead on the Rays. Baseball Prospecuts hasn’t updated their playoff odds since the season started, but it stands to reason PECOTA likely sees the Yankees as even more certain to qualify for October. PECOTA gave the Yankees 98 percent odds to make the playoffs before the season even began. Those odds have assuredly only gone up as the Yankees have played well to start the season and established a two-game advantage in the AL East.
The season has only just begun, and the Yankees’ playoff chances are already tending towards 100 percent. While they likely won’t clinch anything anytime soon, it would take a downright catastrophe to knock them into ninth place in the American League. Combine that with the fact that higher seeding in the 16-team tournament is all but meaningless without fans in the stands, and each of the Yankees’ individual 44 remaining games is left having minimal effect on the actual championship race.
If the team’s ultimate aim is to win the World Series, then keeping the band together and healthy is about all it can do to maximize their chances. They seem to know it, what with the Yankees’ attempts to do everything they can to keep their plays comfortable on the road and safe from the coronavirus. As twisted as it is, the objective of the 60-game season is to survive.
In that context, the Yankees can’t afford to mess around with Stanton’s hamstring. Such an injury is notoriously fickle, tempting athletes into thinking they’re good to return, only to flare up again. I know from personal experience as a sprinter; you can feel ready to run after weeks of resting, only to explode out of the blocks and put yourself on the bench for another month when the hamstring tells you it wasn’t quite ready yet.
Whatever route gives Stanton the best chance to reach October in one piece is the one the Yankees need to take. Caution has to be the prevailing theme. There’s no sense rushing him back for a regular season that means next to nothing, especially with capable players like Mike Tauchman, Mike Ford, and perhaps Clint Frazier ready to step in and absorb at-bats in the interim.
The Yankees’ training staff surely has more information than we do, and with any luck, they’ll be able to craft a plan that aims to have Stanton back for the games that matter. Maybe the team will proceed with an abundance of caution, only to actually see the star outfielder progress quicker than expected, ready to plug back in at the DH spot within a few weeks.
That’s just the hope, and the expectation has to be that Stanton will miss significant time. But just like the season’s initial delay, the season’s low stakes give Stanton time to heal. If Stanton recovers and strokes a few important dingers when the leaves have changed color, the trials and tribulations that preceded October will surely be forgotten.