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How the Yankees’ playoff competition found themselves in the hunt, Part 2

The American League East is a four-way slugfest for the division and at least one Wild Card berth.

MLB: Game One-Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

The home stretch is upon us! With just over 50 games remaining in the regular season (wow, that really puts into perspective just how short the 2020 one was), the playoff hunt has begun to take shape, and the contenders and the pretenders have begun to split off from the rest of the pack. As we begin to fervently scoreboard watch, it’s time that we take a step back, and see how the Yankees’ competition for the Wild Card or, fingers crossed, the American League East division found their way into the playoff hunt.

For the purposes of this exercise, we have narrowed down the list of teams relevant to the Yankees to the Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays; due to the wide disparity between the Chicago White Sox and literally every other team in their division — they lead the Cleveland Guardians-To-Be by more than nine games — they have very little effect on the Wild Card hunt beyond, “Please lose to us and beat our opponents,” and so can be safely left out of this discussion, at least for the time being.

This is the second part of a two-part article (Part 1 was posted earlier today). Here, we will profile the three teams within the division that the Yankees will compete against for one of the two Wild Card spots and, if everything falls right, the AL East crown: the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays.

Toronto Blue Jays

If you were to ask me which team in the American League East had the most talent, I would not answer the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays, the second-place Boston Red Sox, or even our very own New York Yankees. No, that honor goes to the team in fourth place, the Toronto Blue Jays, whose run differential of +123 is second in the American League to only the Houston Astros. And honestly, I’d argue it’s not even all that close.

They easily have the best offense in the AL East. In any other year, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is arguably putting together a season better than any his father did in his 16-year career — and need I remind you that his father won an MVP, was a nine-time All-Star, and is in the Hall of Fame? — would be the unanimous American League MVP. Only the fact that a literal pitcher leads the league in home runs will likely keep the award from him.

Marcus Semien was the steal of the offseason, hitting like he did when he came in third in the AL MVP vote in 2019 and proving that his rough 2020 season was a fluke. Teoscar Hernández showed that his 2020 breakout was no fluke. Overshadowed by Guerrero and Semien, Bo Bichette has quietly put up 3.2 fWAR, 29th most among hitters. Even with a step back from Cavan Biggio, the offense scored runs in bunches. And I haven’t even mentioned George Springer, who played only four games through the first three months of the season, but has since blasted 13 home runs in 40 games as the team’s leadoff hitter, good for a 170 OPS+.

Holding them back has been their pitching, although you might not think that looking at the performances of Robbie Ray (3.04 ERA, 3.94 FIP), Hyun Jin Ryu (3.22 ERA, 3.62 FIP), and Alek Manoah (2.58 ERA, 3.93 FIP), a trio who have combined for 52 starts. The Blue Jays have played 107 games, however, and it is those other 55 starts that have really sunk the team’s rotation, which has a combined 3.74 ERA and 4.20 FIP even when you include these three. For this reason, it’s no surprise that the Blue Jays went all-in on José Berríos after missing out on Max Scherzer, prying him from the Minnesota Twins with a pair of top prospects, Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson.

Boston Red Sox

Who are the Boston Red Sox? The darling of the ESPN and FOX broadcasts thanks to their Cinderella story — they were expected to be bad this season, and I myself wondered if they might bottom out after flipping Andrew Benintendi to the Kansas City Royals and building a pitching rotation out of little more than grit, spit, and a whole lot of duct tape. And for the first three days of the season, that prediction looked accurate, as they were swept by the lowly Baltimore Orioles. They then proceeded to win nine in a row and took an early lead in the East, and to many, shades of 2013 seemed to appear. Others, however, pointed to the team’s 12-12 record in September 2020, powered in part by a stretch in which they won five of their last seven games to close the season, as evidence that the 2020 Red Sox weren’t quite as bad as they seemed, and that their strong 2021 was simply a normal regression to the mean, and not an extreme outlier.

With all that in mind, when looking at the data, I find the 2021 Red Sox have been an immensely streaky team. Below is their performance, broken down by various stretches throughout the season:

  • April 2nd through April 4th: 0-3, 5.33 ERA, 1.94 FIP, 23 wRC+, 1.67 runs/game
  • April 5th through April 14th: 9-0, 3.11 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 148 wRC+, 7.44 runs/game
  • April 15th through May 2nd: 8-9, 3.87 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 93 wRC+, 3.88 runs/game
  • May 3rd through May 31st: 15-9, 4.29 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 106 wRC+, 5.45 runs/game
  • June 1st through June 24th: 12-10, 4.69 ERA, 4.91 FIP, 94 wRC+, 8.67 runs/game
  • June 25th through July 12th: 11-5, 3.59 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 117 wRC+, 5.69 runs/game
  • July 13th through today: 9-11, 5.17 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 97 wRC+, 3.85 runs/game

Undoubtedly, the Red Sox have a lot of talent on their squad, particularly on offense — no team goes through the immense hot streaks that Boston has gone through with a squad of league-average players. But they’re also a team with flaws: the pitching staff has been immensely inconsistent, and although the bullpen is deep, led by Matt Barnes, Adam Ottavino, and Garrett Whitlock, it has also been heavily taxed. Hypothetically, Chris Sale’s return from Tommy John surgery should help, but as we all know, it typically takes pitchers until their second season following the surgery to return to their previous level of performance. In the meantime, however, Boston continues to slip in the standings.

Where will Boston wind up when the season ends? Truthfully, I could see them finish anywhere from first to fourth, and while you could hypothetically say that about any team in this stacked division besides the Orioles, it probably rings most true for Boston.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Yankees’ bane over the last few seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit atop the American League East with a record of 67-44. Once again, they have done so on the back of their pitching staff, which, despite losing Cy Young candidate Tyler Glasnow for the season back in June, leads the American League in ERA (3.58) and FIP (3.70) and is third in fWAR (13.7, behind Chicago and the Yankees). Although they lack a closer — they traded Diego Castillo to the Mariners — and I’m not totally sure who would start a hypothetical Wild Card Game or Game 1 of the ALDS, their sheer depth on the mound continues to be their singular best asset.

What has made them so threatening this season, however, is the fact that they have finally been able to put together a top-flight offense to support that pitching staff. In many ways, in fact, they have done exactly what the Yankees offense was expected to do: they are fifth in the AL in home runs with 140, third in walks with 407, and third with 4.99 runs/game. They also pace the AL with 1099 strikeouts; while not quite a “three true outcomes” offense — they hit a lot of doubles and triples — they do reflect a lot of what the Yankees try to do, just with more speed.

True to form as the biggest thorn in the Yankees’ side since 2019, the Rays have pretty much matched the Yankees win-for-win since the Bombers began to turn around their season on July 4th. Since that date, the Yankees have gone 19-8, while the Rays have posted an 18-8 record. At the deadline, the Yankees added Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo to bolster their lineup while the Rays got designated hitter Nelson Cruz. Although it was already difficult for the Yankees to climb out of the hole they dug for themselves in the East, the Rays are certainly not doing them any favors.