The Yankees have done a remarkable job somehow staying alive in the American League playoff picture long after people (including many of us) wrote them off. Their competitiveness in 2016 was dismissed as a mirage long before the sweep in Tampa Bay that led to the majority of the deadline firesale. Nonetheless, they are a season-high seven games over .500 and now sit just 3.5 games behind the Orioles for the second Wild Card spot, though Baseball Prospectus estimates their playoff odds are a distant 4.8%.
However, the last couple wins against the Blue Jays have led to another tantalizing thought. What if the Yankees could still win the AL East? It's a laughable proposition, and yet a scenario so fascinating that it's worth exploring. BP has the Yankees at just a 1.1% chance to win the division, so essentially one out of every 100 times would play out in a simulation, the Yankees somehow end up with the AL East crown.
To get to that point though, a fairly specific series of events need to transpire for all four teams competing for the prize. (Apologies to the Rays that their potential 25-game winning streak combined with the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles losing their powers, Space Jam-style is being ignored.) Here's how the teams stand as of right now:
|BP div. odds
As previously mentioned, an AL East crown is a ridiculous longshot, as the Yankees not only have to make up 4.5 games in a little under a month but also have to leapfrog three good teams. Dreaming never hurts though, so here's just one of those beautiful silver bullet scenarios where the Yankees win the East, going team-by-team. Since this whole event is unlikely anyway, this exercise will strive for the most likely scenarios of each series. It is outlined in pure spreadsheet schedule format here.
September/October record: 20-10
It starts from today in an ignominious fashion, as the team drops the last game of this three-game set against the Blue Jays. It was going to be incredibly difficult to sweep them anyway, and the Bryan Mitchell/bullpen game combo is not promising against the menacing Jays' lineup.
Next up is a four-game set against the downtrodden Rays though, and the Yankees cannot afford to stumble, particularly at home. They take three out of four. The NL West-leading Dodgers come to town to wrap up the homestand, and since that Dodgers club is quite good, especially if they have Clayton Kershaw back, the Yankees drop two out of three.
The last road trip of the season takes the Yankees through AL East territory, where they steal a four-game road series win in Boston, sweep Tampa Bay after an off-day, and end their road schedule by winning three of four games in Toronto. Yes, this requires a team that is currently four games under .500 on the road to go 9-2, but nobody said this was easy. They need to play at a 107-win pace in September anyway, but hey, that's not quite as tough a task as the team faced in 1995 to reach the playoffs.
It figures that the team would need to face two more rivals to wrap up the regular season. The Yankees win both three-game sets against the Red Sox and Orioles (without needing sweeps) to finish 2016 with an 89-73 record.
September/October record: 13-16
Toronto has the luxury of being on top of the AL East right now, so they are the easy favorites. Unfortunately for Canadians, that means that they must stumble badly in this exercise, just as they did in April with an 11-14 record.
The Blue Jays stave off the sweep today in New York but drop two out of three at home against the Red Sox. They regroup to defeat the Rays in a three-game set, though Tampa Bay does steal one victory. Similarly, when they go on a West Coast swing, the Angels are able to pull out one victory in their four-game showdown. Maybe that one win was the Mike Trout Show; he does have the ability to take over a game, after all, even on a bad team. The Mariners are just barely over .500, but the Blue Jays are better, so they take two out of three in Seattle.
Then comes the complete tailspin. Toronto wraps up the season by going a combined 3-7 against the Yankees, Orioles, and Red Sox, dropping the final series at Fenway Park. It will be a stretch for the Yankees and Orioles to win road series in the Rogers Centre, but this would all put Toronto at 89-73.
September/October record: 15-14
Boston is currently in San Diego, where they will finish their road series victory over the Padres tonight (thankfully, the Padres took the opener on Monday). They then take two out of three from the Blue Jays and Orioles, each, before losing a four-game set at home to the Yankees.
Next up is a 10-game road trip, where the Orioles avenge their prior loss by taking three out of four at Camden Yards. The Red Sox move on to win their next series in Tampa Bay (two out of three) before dropping a three-game set at Yankee Stadium. In their most import series of the season, Boston then has to fight for their playoff lives against the frontrunners themselves, the Blue Jays.
A sweep would give Boston 90 wins and the outright AL East crown, but they are only able to win two games, finishing with a barely-.500 month. They end 2016 with 89 wins, an 11-game improvement from their last-place finish in 2015.
September/October record: 17-12
The Orioles also face plenty of AL East opponents throughout September, so most of what has to happen has already been outlined. They have a chance to sweep the Rays this afternoon, but for this, we'll hope that the plucky Tampa Bay bunch can take one at the Trop. That kicks off a minor rough patch where they drop four of six to their Wild Card opponents, the Tigers and Red Sox.
Baltimore rebounds back at home by taking three out of four from the Rays (note: if Tampa loses this afternoon, then this will have to be a split). They also win a four-game set over Boston and take two of three from the visiting Diamondbacks. It will be tough for that disappointing Arizona club to avoid a sweep, but they must.
At last, the Orioles finish the campaign by taking two of three from Toronto at the Rogers Centre before dropping their final series of the year to the Yankees. That puts them at... yes, 89-73.
It's a four-team tie atop the division, #TeamEntropy at its finest. Per MLB's official rules, the result would be a tiebreaker where each of the four teams is assigned a seed based on their intradivision performance. The top seed would host one game, and the next seed would host the other. Then, the winner of each game would face each other to determine the AL East crown.
If the Yankees can just manage to get to 89 wins here and force this absurd tiebreaker, they could do it. Imagine the craziness! Even if they lost one of those playoff games, there is a decent chance that there would be another Wild Card playoff between these clubs (see the rules for the details), depending on how the other Wild Card contenders (the Tigers and Astros) fare the rest of the season.
Or the Yankees could simply win that series against the Dodgers, end up with 90 wins, and win it outright! Or they could finish the sweep tonight and do all that! It's an exciting, weird world out there. It could happen.
One in a hundred chance?