Somewhat miraculously, the Yankees are still alive in the playoff race. While they remain pretty unlikely to sniff the postseason, that they still harbor a realistic shot at a Wild Card comes as a surprise after the trade deadline firesale. However, if the Yankees are to make good on their slim chances, they need plenty of things to go their way.
In some sense, things have gone their way already. The trade of Carlos Beltran happened to open up more playing time for unstoppable prospect Gary Sanchez. As Ben noted recently, the deadline deals of the Yankees' super relievers haven't actually had much of a negative impact on the team's results. At 16-11 since the deadline, New York has to be pleased with how the chips have fallen since they essentially gave up on the season.
Yet the Yankees will not see the ball bounce their way entirely. They face a major disadvantage in the final month in the form of their schedule. If the Yankees were just a few games out of the Wild Card and had an enviably weak schedule, a playoff run would be fairly plausible (as it seemed to be a few years ago). Trailing by a few games while having to deal with a brutal slate of strong opponents? That could cripple the Yankees' chances.
So, let's take a close look at the Yankees' remaining schedule and compare it to those of their Wild Card competitors. I'm defining the Yankees' competitors as every team ahead of them in the Wild Card chase, plus the Mariners, who are just a half game back of New York as of Tuesday's games. That gives us seven teams (the Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers, Astros, Royals, Yankees, and Mariners) that profile as actual contenders for a spot in the one game playoff.
Here's how those teams stack up in terms of rest of season schedule, ranked simply by average opponent's winning percentage this season:
|Team||ROS opponent W%|
The Yankees have to face the toughest schedule from here on out based only the winning percentages thus far of their remaining opponents. They narrowly outrank the Astros, but the point is clear; not only do the Yankees trail the Wild Card leading Red Sox and Orioles by a few games, they have to deal with a tougher schedule than them too.
However, there are better stats than pure winning percentage when trying to compare the Yankees' remaining schedule with their rivals. A better measure of how the Yankees' opponents have performed this year is FanGraphs' BaseRuns metric, which controls for sequencing in estimating a team's quality of play. Perhaps, when looked at beyond the prism of mere wins and losses, their remaining schedule won't appear as tough:
|Team||ROS BaseRuns Winning%|
BaseRuns paints an even more unappealing picture. The Yankees' opponents' BaseRuns winning percentage blows the rest of the Wild Card field out of the water at a skyhigh .553. If BaseRuns' estimation of the quality of the Yankees' opponents is correct, then the Yankees, on average, will have to face a 90 win team every night out for the entire final month.
That's a nightmare! With only a few weeks remaining in the season, small sample quirks can cause big discrepancies in strength of schedule, and this particular discrepancy happens to work very much against the Yankees. A good chunk of the Yankees' tough remaining schedule stems from how solid the AL East has been this year; BaseRuns actually has rated every one of the Yankees' division rivals as above average for the 2016 season.
Not only that, but the only non-AL East team the Yankees have to face in September is the Dodgers, one of the National League's best teams. It seems that if the Yankees really wanted to compete for October, they would have had to pile up wins during the earlier, easier parts of their schedule. They didn't, and now they must climb a mountain that is even steeper than it appears.
That the Yankees' schedule is so brutal helps to explain why their playoff odds have remained so low, despite how they've remained within actual striking distance of the leaders. FanGraphs projections actually see the Yankees as a solid team, as they project them for the 11th most WAR in MLB the rest of the way, but those same projections only assess New York a 4.6% chance of making the playoffs, in part because of the Yankees' rough schedule.
That FanGraphs projects the Yankees above average by WAR but only projects them to win 46% of their games the rest of the way speaks to the tough sledding the Yankees have left. Their recent surge has left them with a chance to compete, but they are going to have to do so against one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league. It's possible, as the Yankees have shown thus far in August. Unfortunately, it's only going to get more challenging in September.