Since the trade deadline ten days ago, Yankees fans have begun to dream big: reinvigorated by reinforcements in the form of Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo, the Yankees have surged in the standings, winning eight of ten. Suddenly, after the Wild Card seemed to be a long shot for the battered club, an improbable run at the division crown appears to be on the table, and fans are looking for nothing less — as this meme surely attests.
The Yankees have certainly played well of late. Since the deadline, after all, the team put together a 2.28 ERA (3.02 FIP) on the mound that has helped power a +19 run differential. And that has happened despite the Yankees literally having an entire starting lineup, pitching rotation, and half of a bullpen on the injured list. But is such a miracle comeback in the divisional race a realistic expectation? Fortunately, we do have a fairly recent example of a team that rode trade deadline acquisitions past two teams to win the division title: the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.
On July 28, 2015, the Blue Jays stood a full eight games back in the division, in fourth place and looking up at the first-place Yankees, second-place Orioles, and third-place Rays. Only three games out of the Wild Card and with an AL-best +94 run differential, the Blue Jays did not throw in the towel and instead added Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, David Price, Mark Lowe, and Ben Revere. In just three short days, they upgraded at shortstop and left field, deepened the middle of their bullpen, and added the ace that they were missing.
The results were immediate. Starting on August 2nd, the Blue Jays put together an 11-game winning streak. At the start of that streak, they had a 54-52 record and were a full six games out of the division; the next time they lost, they had a 64-53 record and had narrowed the gap to just half a game. By the end of August, they were in first place in the division with a 1.5-game lead over the Yankees; at season’s end, they had 93 wins and won the division by a full six games.
This type of 14-game swing represents the absolute best-case scenario for a team in the Yankees’ position. Can the Yankees repeat the feat? Unfortunately, although the answer everyone wants to hear is “absolutely” — and, I mean, they absolutely could, in the vein of “You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn” — history is not on their side. A perfect storm of prior underperformance, a slump by the Yankees, and 13 matchups between the Yankees and Blue Jays after the All-Star Break combined to make the unlikely happen. The 2021 Yankees, unfortunately, appear to have none of these three.
The Blue Jays made their trades at the deadline not because of their performance on the field, but because the data suggested that they were in truth a much better team than they had appeared: their Pythagorean record was 59-42, a full nine games better than their actual record, and had every team in the AL East performed to their run differential, they would have led the division by four games. The 2021 Yankees, on the other hand, have outperformed their Pythagorean record by four games, and if everyone in the division played to that record, they would have ten more losses than the division leaders, putting them in fourth place.
Back in 2015, it looked to all that the Yankees were going to cruise to the division title, considering their six-game lead; in fact, they seemed so secure that the only acquisition that Brian Cashman made was Dustin Ackley. August and September, however, proved to be absolutely disastrous months for the team, who limped to a 29-31 record. Additionally, the team lost several key pieces down the stretch, including Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, While the 2021 Boston Red Sox look like they could be following in the Yankees’ footsteps — they’ve lost 9 of their last 12 games — the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays have been matching the Yankees win for win. One team might collapse, but all three? That’s unlikely — which means the Yankees will need to win at an even higher clip in order to win the division.
Lastly, and most importantly, the biggest reason, in my opinion, that the Blue Jays were able to make up so much ground so quickly was the fact that they played thirteen games against the Yankees in the final two months of the season, which gave them control over their fate in the division. They went 9-4 in those games, gaining five games on the Yankees and making their comeback path much clearer. This year, the Yankees had very front-heavy schedules against most of their division rivalries, and play the Red Sox just six times, the Blue Jays seven times, and the Rays (i.e., the team that will be most difficult to catch) only three times, as the final series of the year. All of this means that the Yankees need the rest of the division to slump in order to surge to the head of the pack.
Can all of this happen? Can the Yankees do the unthinkable, finish strong, and win the division outright? Absolutely. If it happens, however, it will go down as one of the all-time greatest comebacks, because the odds simply are not stacked in the Yankees’ favor.