The 2021 Yankees have been very streaky. This is not news to anyone who’s followed the team this season. Of course, all reasonable baseball fans know there are going to be ups and downs over the course of six months, but this team has been on a Grade-A, stomach-churning, jaw-clenching rollercoaster ride all season and has taken us along with them.
Consider that on May 25th, the Yankees were 28-20 and one game out of first place. They then went 12-18 over their next 30 games, and by June 27th were 6.5 games out of first place (more in a minute on why we chose those numbers). To make matters worse, they lost four of their next five games and were 10 games out of first place on July 4th, looking up at five teams in the Wild Card standings as well.
Flash forward to July 27th, when the Yankees beat the Rays and started a 25-5 stretch that gave the Yankees the American League’s second-best record on August 27th. Since then, they’ve lost six of eight and have all but ensured we’re going to be white-knuckling it the rest of the season.
To me, this begs the question, “Is this level of streakiness unusual, or is it just our collective fandom that’s overreacting to normal highs and lows?” Again, all teams are going to go through ups and downs (even the 1998 Yankees had a stretch in which they went 12-16), but this 2021 group has been really good at times and really bad at others. Is this extent of hot and cold unusual?
As it turns out, it it is — very unusual in fact. When we define a parameter for number of games and the percentage of success and failure within that parameter to set a consistent sample size, what this 2021 team is doing is very rare. It’s rare enough that there have only been five other Yankee teams to run this hot and cold. For the sake of discussion, let’s look at other Yankee teams that have had a 30-game stretch (essentially one month) in which they played at or better than a .800 winning percentage, and a 30-game stretch in the same season in which they played at or worse than .400 ball.
On May 5th, 1955 the Yankees were 1.5 games out of first place. They then went on a 24-6 tear over the next month to give them a four-game lead in the AL (both Cleveland and Chicago played very well over that stretch and stayed relatively close). By July 3rd, the Yankees had a 6.5-game lead in the AL but somehow managed to go 11-19 over their next 30 games, and by August 4th, were actually a game out of first place. Fortunately, they righted the ship and played more consistently down the stretch. As September came to a close, Casey Stengel’s dynasty took the AL pennant by three games.
The 1958 Yankees came out of the gate like a bat out of hell, winning 24 of their first 30 games from April 15th through May 25th, giving them a nine-game lead in the standings before Memorial Day. They played well through the spring and early summer, and were 15.5 games in front in the AL standings by August. Apparently, the situation wasn’t exciting enough, so the team then went 12-18 over its next 30 games, giving at least a vague glimmer of hope to the White Sox and Red Sox. Nonetheless, the Yankees never let the lead fall below nine games and they ultimately won their 18th World Series title.
On July 28th, 1964, the Yankees were 60-37 and held a one-game lead over Baltimore. Over the next month, they went 12-18 and were not only 4.5 games behind Baltimore, but were also a half-game behind Chicago on August 28th. On the very next day, they began a 24-6 tear that helped them capture their fifth AL pennant in a row (by 3.5 games this time). Although it didn’t exactly happen simultaneously, the infamous Phil Linz/Yogi Berra “harmonica incident” was partially credited at the time for the hot streak.
On June 15th, 1978, the Yankees were six games behind Boston in the AL East, then embarked on an ice-cold stretch of 12 wins and 18 losses. By July 17th, they were in fourth place in the division and 14 games behind the first-place Red Sox. (Trade deadline dynamics were much different in 1978 than they are now and it was in June rather than July, but certainly “SELL!” would have been proclaimed rather widely on social media if that were the case in 2021.) They righted the ship somewhat over the next few weeks then went on a 24-6 tear starting on August 14th that gave them a one-game lead in the division on September 15th. As I’m sure you’re aware, they went on to win the division in a somewhat-dramatic fashion.
The 1995 season got off to a late start due to the labor stoppage from late 1994 through early 1995, but the Yankees started off pretty well and stood in first place after 11 games. The bottom fell out on May 6th, they went 8-22 over their next 30 games (the .267 winning percentage is the worst among any of the teams and seasons mentioned above), and on June 10th were in dead last in the AL East, 10.5 games out of first place. By the end of August they were still 15.5 games out of first and 3.5 games out of the Wild Card spot with five teams in front of them. They went on a tear from then on, winning 24 of their next 30 through September, and after winning on October 1st to make it 25 out of 31, finished the season as the AL Wild Card.
There are far too many interesting storylines above to fully explore all of them today, but the 1964 team starting its hottest streak the very next day after its coldest streak ended certainly caught my attention. As did the 1995 team being in last place in June, yet starting a 25-6 run in August (I re-read that one and shook my head several times). That’s baseball, Suzyn …
Additionally, it should be apparent that all of the teams mentioned above were very good ballclubs. All of them played in the postseason and two of them won the World Series. That is to say, it seems odd that very good teams have gone through extended stretches of ineptitude, but no bad teams have had extended stretches of good play.
To be clear, that is simply an interesting point of discussion, not a prophecy about the chances of this 2021 group — 5 teams out of 119 in franchise history isn’t a sample size to be used for prognostication. That said, if you want to take it as a sign to look at the current state of affairs optimistically, I couldn’t blame you. Anything that makes our knuckles less white and our jaws less clenched over the next three-plus weeks certainly can be viewed as a positive.