Heading into this season, many people, including this author, felt that the Yankees were in for another mediocre year where they would hover around the .500 mark. Fortunately, the team has far exceeded expectations as they hold a comfortable lead in the AL East heading into the dog days of summer. Despite their current status, a division crown is far from a sure thing. A lot can go wrong between now and October and threats can come in many different shapes and forms.
Based on expectations it would be fair to assume that the Yankees have had Lady Luck on their side and are due for a negative correction in their performance. However, a closer look reveals that such a regression might not necessarily happen. The Yankees team BABIP currently sits at .285 which is the 4th lowest mark in the major leagues. If the team was making weak contact, one would expect that average to stay low, but according to Fangraphs' batted ball rates, that's not the case. As a team they are making hard contact with the ball around 28% of the time, which puts them right in the middle of the pack with other major league teams. If anything, that BABIP should increase.
On the other side of the ball, the Yankees' pitching staff sits in the bottom half of the league with a 3.94 ERA. Once adjusted for park, though, that number looks better as their ERA+ is a perfectly average 100. Furthermore, the team FIP is 3.70, which is 12th best in the majors and indicates that the team ERA should drift downward as the season winds down. More advanced metrics like xFIP and SIERA paint an even rosier picture. Yankee hurlers have combined for a 3.47 xFIP and a 3.38 SIERA, which are both top five in the majors. That further substantiates the idea that Yankee pitching will only get better.
Age and injury would also be understandable concerns for this team as the roster is filled with players that are either old or prone to trips to the disabled list. Although, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez have proven that age is nothing but a number for the Yankees this season. The team has also shown that they're capable of absorbing the absence of star players without a significant drop-off in performance. When Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury missed time due to injury, Brian Cashman's modest investment in Chris Young during the offseason paid off. When the arm issues of Masahiro Tanaka and Andrew Miller landed them on the DL, Adam Warren and Chasen Shreve picked up the slack in the rotation and the bullpen. There's also plenty of minor leaguers willing and able to fill-in when necessary. Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder have gotten a taste of the big leagues and provided glimpses of their potential.
It's clear that the biggest threat to the Yankees will not come in the form of internal failure. Rather, it's lurking in the land of poutine, hockey and polar bears. They have been fighting off the Rays and Orioles for the division lead throughout most of the season, but their stiffest competition down the stretch will be the Toronto Blue Jays. Don't let their underwhelming 49-49 record fool you, according to the Simple Rating System, which takes into account run differential and strength of schedule, the Blue Jays are the best team in Major League Baseball. Their pythagorean record of 58-40 is tops in the American League and only the Cardinals have a better mark in the National League. If it wasn't for their near-impossibly bad luck in one-run games (10-20 record) the Blue Jays would be making much more noise in the standings. That luck is due to change any day now.
So what does this mean for the Yankees? They have played only six games against Toronto this year and have won only two of them. That leaves 13 games on the schedule with the Blue Jays over the next two months as they should be hitting their stride and fighting for their playoff lives. Sluggers Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and our old friend Russell Martin could have a huge influence on the Yankees' season the rest of the way. If it ends prematurely, blame Canada.