We talked earlier this season about vibes. The thing about them is that when you’re in a funk, or even a good vibe, it feels totally all-encompassing and impossible to escape. When the Yankees felt like they had slain that dragon, namely until around July 1st, it felt like winning was truly contagious and almost inevitable. Their fortune started to turn on June 25th, though, when their dreaded rival Astros tossed a combined no-hitter. That was really the first time the team and the fans (other than their boring start leading into Easter Sunday) felt that there were other teams that could outmatch them despite their pace in May and June.
July was more-or-less running in place at exactly .500, but the injuries and the question marks abounded as the summer dragged on. A now-infamous 10-18 August record, combined with: an Achilles injury to Giancarlo Stanton that hobbled his entire second half; a Matt Carpenter broken left foot on August 8th; a Clay Holmes back injury that totally messed up his command (followed by a recent shoulder sprain); a DJ LeMahieu toe injury that also hobbled his second half and knocked him off the ALDS roster entirely; a nagging Anthony Rizzo back issue that put him on and off the IL; and, a right wrist injury to recent-acquisition Andrew Benintendi that ended his season, only added fuel to the fire.
The perfect tornado of bad vibes almost jeopardized the 15.5-game division lead, as the Rays came as close as two games back in the loss column on September 9th. Just in case anyone forgets, here’s how bad the lineup was that day:
Yet just one month later, a good chunk of those players won’t even be on the postseason roster. The Yankees really, really righted the ship that month and into October, going 20-11 over those combined months as focus shifted from the team’s woes to Aaron Judge’s chase of 62, which he thankfully completed on Game 161.
This brings us to the current moment. I always like to think that the postseason is a somewhat accurate reflection of the team you were during the regular season, but that is an incredibly comfortable tale to tell. Yes, teams’ weaknesses often get exposed even in short series, but we can’t forget how truly random these series are. Even a 111-win team like the Dodgers could find themselves packing in just three games... you just really don’t know. The Yankees have also been up-and-down so much that it’s impossible to read the tea leaves as to which team will show up, and a team that had Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks starting regularly instead of Harrison Bader and Oswaldo Cabrera isn’t the same as it is today.
If you were going to draw it up on paper, though, you couldn’t pick a better matchup for a Division Series. There are teams that probably could have caused them issues; the Rays as we saw were a thorn in their side all year, and teams like the Mariners and Blue Jays are pesky enough that they could have knocked them off their pedestal. The Guardians, though, are a curious case. After facing them way back in the season and having won five of six between April and July, this team had its own vibe shift.
They themselves went 24-10 across September and October, and they finished the year with a .622 winning percentage in one-run games due to their elite bullpen and starting pitching. Despite the Yankees embarrassing Emmanuel Clase on April 23rd, you can’t say that’ll necessarily be the case on October 11th.
The one thing that I will say really matches up well on paper is the Guardians’ tendency for contact and not power. Remember, Gerrit Cole was only-somewhat expectedly given the Game 1 start after some consternation that it would be Nestor Cortes, but despite Cole’s struggles and only an OK season, this probably works as a matchup. The Guardians have just a 98 SLG%+ and an 86 ISO+, meaning their hitters collectively are 2% below league-average on slugging percentage and a whopping 14 points below average on isolated power, which measures extra-base hits per at-bat. Even during their torrid September/October, those respective numbers were still only 98 and 79. It took the Guardians 15 innings to crack a home run to win their second wild card game against the Rays, and they scored just three runs across 24 innings. The red carpet has been laid out for Cole and he just needs to walk across it.
As I also mentioned, this isn’t really the same team that had its fair share of rollercoaster rides. Luis Severino is finally healthy, while featuring more life on his fastball than we have probably ever seen. It’s not an exaggeration that this is the best he’s looked since his top-three Cy Young finish in 2017, or at least 2019. The outfield, as I said, is a new look entirely. Judge can comfortably settle into right field, while both Bader and Cabrera can roam the wider parts of the outfield. It can’t be overstated just how good Cabrera has been, as he’s put up nine (!!) Defensive Runs Saved in just a quarter-season, while passing the eye test on both sides of the ball. We don’t even need to say anything about Judge’s skillset.
I think a lot of fans would have preferred Oswald Peraza over Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop, but I think it’s time for that drumbeat to end considering the team’s stubbornness. There’s also a good argument to be made that IKF yields some value in playoff games with a high-contact approach, and he has a career 108 wRC+ in high leverage situations. The rest of the infield puts me at relative ease. Anthony Rizzo is finally healthy; Josh Donaldson’s glove will suffice despite what has become just a league-average bat, and Gleyber Torres had a 115 wRC+ in September/October that featured a ton of opposite-field gap power.
If there’s really any question mark, it’s the bullpen. Holmes, as discussed, had a back issue and then a shoulder sprain that kept him out of play at the end of the year, so while he’ll be activated for the ALDS, I don’t feel optimistic that we know what we’re getting. Wandy Peralta is also seemingly healthy, but you could also think the same regarding rust. That pretty much leaves Lou Trivino, Jonathan Loáisiga, Miguel Castro, Clarke Schmidt, and Lucas Luetge, which is the quicksand of bullpen depth. Aaron Boone was also forced to convert Jameson Taillon to relief, as there’s a good shot he will need to give them multiple innings in this series.
As if the depth couldn’t get any worse, there was a notable absence in that roll call of relievers. Just as the ALDS rosters were announced this morning, Jack Curry reported that Scott Effross will be unexpectedly undergoing Tommy John surgery. This only makes the recent episode with Aroldis Chapman being told to stay home even more frustrating, as now the team will be forced to roll with Castro as their final arm. Let’s just say that considering everything we’ve said about the character of Cleveland’s lineup and bullpen, they should not be putting one-run games in the Guardians’ hands.
This is still just trying to rationalize the unrationalizable, though. We don’t know if Cole will implode or not, despite the contact-oriented foe. We don’t know if Stanton’s last few home runs carry over to the postseason. We don’t know if the bullpen can be relied upon, or what we can even expect to see. We don’t really know if Carpenter will be at full capacity. We don’t know how the surrounding offense will fare if the Guardians inevitably pitch around Judge. All we can say is that this isn’t the team we saw in May or June but this also isn’t the same team we saw in August, either. As baseball fans we just have to leave it to the universe that the synthesis of those two teams in space-time are enough to get an LDS victory, and maybe one step closer to a pennant.