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Contextualizing the Yankees’ 2021 season

The Yankees had one outlook before the season, but have a slightly different one post-trade deadline.

MLB: Game One-Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As the playoff situation currently stands, the New York Yankees have a 71-52 record, which puts them four games back of the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays and with a 1.5-game lead over the first team out of the Wild Card spot, the Boston Red Sox.

Go back in time to the beginning of the season with that statement and the response from Yankees fans and the organization wouldn’t be the same as the current one. There’s one simple factor that changes things.

Perception. The American League Wild Card race couldn’t be more crowded and the Yankees’ recently-obtained lead doesn’t provide any sort of comfort, especially in a vacuum, but that’s not how baseball works. There are circumstances to be evaluated and even with a significant part of the season already finished, a larger view going beyond the bottom line that comes with a team’s record is required.

Coming into the season, New York was viewed as one of the favorites for the American League pennant and even with the high level of competition from the defending AL champs, Tampa Bay Rays and the potent offenses of the Red Sox and Blue Jays, most people expected to see the Yankees taking home the AL East division title. Fast-forward to the trade deadline and the more radical fans were arguing for possibly selling off some pieces and just retooling for the 2022 season. Between the unexpected Red Sox resurgence, the Rays keeping up their yearly tradition of outplaying their projections, and the likes of Oakland, Toronto, and even Seattle all performing quite well within their parameters, things were looking bleak in the Bronx.

Brian Cashman, with the support of ownership, decided to go in the opposite direction and made aggressive moves beyond the expectation of most. The ball club added Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo to fortify the lineup and also brought in Andrew Heaney as a rental to eat up some innings. The former Angels southpaw is a particular case that deserves his own article, but the team as a whole has significantly improved over the past couple of weeks and the outlook has shifted almost instantly.

Things in the long run may change and with a Wild Card exit, this 2021 campaign might be looked at differently, but at least for the time being the Yankees have turned the corner on a season that seemed lost at one point. The important thing to realize is that it didn’t take long for this team to bounce back from a tough place and at the end of the day you have to play for a postseason spot, you can’t let the fact that a division title seems unlikely prevent you from going for it.

The Yankees were not the Mariners, a team that’s building to win in the future and happened to be in the fringe of playoff contention. The Yankees were one of the postseason favorites that through multiple setbacks found themselves in that very same spot. Ultimately I believe both teams made the right decision, and if you’re looking for some confirmation, take a look at the FanGraphs playoff odds entering play on Friday:

8/20/21 playoff odds

Team Make playoffs Win division Win World Series
Team Make playoffs Win division Win World Series
Rays 94.2% 58.9% 6.2%
Yankees 81.6% 24.2% 9.1%
RedSox 72.2% 15.6% 6.8%
BlueJays 16.0% 1.3% 1.2%
Athletics 37.5% 11.4% 2.0%
Mariners 4.0% 0.9% 0.1%

Even if you have some reservations about a team getting a significantly higher chance of winning the World Series in spite of more likely than not needing to win an extra playoff round, the system is ultimately looking at who's the best team, and who remains the biggest threat to win it all.

Only someone with a short-sighted view would blindly argue that the final regular season record serves as an irrefutable ranking for postseason odds. That might sound strange, but there are enough variables from setbacks to mid-season roster moves that play a role and in this case could favor a team with a slightly worse record. The Yankees have put themselves in position to disrupt the postseason landscape rather than headline it as they were expected to, but they may just prove to be more dangerous in this role.