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How We Win: What the Yankees can do to make a playoff push

If the Yankees remain hopeful contenders, they need to pick it up, or pack it in.

New York Yankees v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Yankees have disappointed to a degree that almost no one could have predicted, given their star-studded roster and splashy off-season additions. Prior to Tuesday night, the Yankees had lost 13 of their last 18 games and sat in fourth place in the AL East. Already eight games back of the division-leading Rays, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is almost entirely out of the question for the preseason favorite to capture the AL pennant.

Now, the Yankees’ best bet at earning the opportunity to compete for World Series title No. 28 is sneaking into the Wild Card Game, but even that’s a hope and a prayer away from reality. Per FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the club has just a seven percent chance of winning the division, and a 37-percent chance of making the playoffs at all. FanGraphs is slightly more bullish, giving the Yankees a 13.2-percent chance to win the division, and a 43.5 percent chance to make the postseason.

Just to achieve that latter goal, the Yankees would have pass Cleveland and Houston, who the Yankees trail by four games. In order to host that game, instead of having to travel to Fenway, they’d need to make up another two games on the Red Sox, who lead the Yankees by six.

It’s not like the Yankees have been unlucky, given the fact that their negative seven overall run differential is suggestive of an even worse than .500 team. Conversely, the Blue Jays (+49) have a run differential even better than the Red Sox (+30), who both trail the red-hot Astros (+86). All three of those teams should have better records than they do given the margin they’ve outscored their opponents by, so the Yankees should consider themselves lucky to be as close behind as they still are. To catch and pass two of them, which they’d have to do to make the playoffs, the Yankees will need to drastically improve upon their play through 65 games in their next 97.

Bizarrely, the Yankees’ biggest question mark entering the season — starting pitching — has been their most reliable source of production. To date, the Yankees have the third-best pitching WAR total in the majors, trailing only the White Sox and Mets. Jordan Montgomery has continued to get better and better ever since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2019, Domingo Germán has mostly been a steadying presence in the rotation following his return from Triple-A, and Gerrit Cole has been, well, Gerrit Cole. Luis Severino’s eventual, albeit delayed, return should give the Yankees a quartet of viable starting pitchers for the stretch run and, hopefully, into the playoffs.

Although the Yankees’ two big offseason acquisitions have underwhelmed — who knows what Corey Kluber will look like if and when he can throw again, and Jameson Taillon’s left much to be desired despite nearly a two-run differential between his ERA and xERA — their pitching has been plenty good enough to provide the team with a chance to win almost every contest.

Conversely, the team that led the majors in runs from 2017 through 2020 is fourth-to-last in that category this year. If they want to win enough games over the rest of the season to make the Wild Card or even test the Rays for the AL East crown, they simply have to revert to being one of the game’s best offenses instead of one of the worst.

Beyond Aaron Judge, who has the second-best xwOBA in the majors, and Giancarlo Stanton, whose continually balky health has too often kept him out of the lineup and entirely off the field, the Yankees don’t have any other hitters with statistics well above league average. By wRC+, only Gary Sánchez, Gio Urshela, and Gleyber Torres can claim to join Judge and Stanton as the only Yankees to clear the major league average — even then, just barely. All three of them have an OPS worse than their own career averages.

Further, Aaron Hicks’ subpar start followed by a season-ending injury has left a hole in the outfield that both Brett Gardner and Clint Frazier have failed to suitably fill. Miguel Andújar has demonstrated signs of improvement since starting to receive regular at bats, with eight hits across his last six games, but he still has just a 91 OPS+ and a -0.1 WAR across his 29 games played this season.

Additionally, none of the perennial Quad-A’ers, a group including Rougned Odor, Tyler Wade, Chris Gittens, the recently-DFA’ed Mike Ford, and the long-gone Jay Bruce have played well enough to merit consistent starts. Though Luke Voit may end up successfully plugging this gap in the lineup once he’s healthy, the Yankees won’t be able to replicate the great offense they’ve had in past seasons until then (if at all), so long as the Yankees are handcuffed to at least one of these meager bats.

Even moreso than the aforementioned cast of characters, the Yankees could use a boost from DJ LeMahieu, who is having the worst season of his career following back-to-back out-of-nowhere top-four AL MVP finishes. In 10 more games, LeMahieu has half as many homers, is slugging 247 points worse, and batting 103 points below the marks of he previous campaign. While he is unlikely to ever return to the astronomical heights of his shortened 2020 campaign, the Yankees are banking on LeMahieu to play at least as well as he did in 2019, given the fact that they just promised to give him $90 million over the next six seasons. His underperformance at the top of the order is crippling the Yankees’ offense more than anyone else’s struggles relative to expectations.

Even if the floundering Yanks discussed above begin to play up to par, the combined regression of the corner outfield (other than Judge) and middle infield feels too significant to bear the burden of the massive run it’ll take for the Yankees to play meaningful baseball into the fall. They would have quite a lot of work to do on their own.

As Jake discussed in his piece, the only way for the Yankees to improve within the organization beyond praying for it is to go out and trade for a proven stud. Although Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman have proven unwilling to take on money that puts the Yankees over the luxury tax threshold, he’d likely have to do so if the Yankees were to enter the deadline market as legitimate buyers. Even if they do, only a veritable star like Max Scherzer, Kris Bryant, or Trevor Story could possibly swing the Yankees’ chances at making the postseason on their own, capable of singlehandedly producing three or four more wins than the club’s current alternatives over the course of the rest of the season.

An addition of a starting quality player might give the Yankees a marginally better shot at the playoffs with a boost of a win, maybe two. However, the opportunity cost of expended assets and playing time might not be worth it, given the fact that the team would still need significant positive regression from their other starters to merely squeak into the playoffs even after making a move for one of them. The same goes for other sub-superstar arms like Luis Castillo, Germán Márquez, Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney, or a malleable position player like Adam Frazier or an unrelated Marte (Starling or Ketel).

The Yankees are far from out of the race, but they’re at least as far from in it. If they want to have a chance at sniffing October baseball, they need to figure it out as a group, and quickly. In all likelihood, a trade will only make sense if the offense can show signs of life over the next month, otherwise they might as well pack it in, avoid the luxury tax, hope for the best, and prepare to try it all over again next year.

Note: Statistics are accurate as of the end of play on Monday unless otherwise noted.