There’s an argument to made that playoff odds, or win probability, or any measurement of tracking the chances of something happening in something as random as baseball, hurts the experience of watching a game or a season. It probably hurts to know that win probability in a 2-0 game in the ninth is something like 90%, but people feel it’s in reach.
The same can be said of the Yankees’ odds of winning the division. As of yesterday, the Yankees sit four and a half games back of the Boston Red Sox in the division. Thinking in that naive and whimsical mindset, that doesn’t sound like an impossible barrier. They do have seven more games against each other, after all, so this in theory is in their control. We know, though, that it looks as simple as overcoming that 2-0 deficit but is actually just as difficult.
The Yankees may only be a few games back, but their odds of winning the division are 10.1%. Like that 2-0 deficit, again, this is a surmountable but very difficult task. Not only do the Yankees have to play five games better over the next month and a half, but the Red Sox are, by all metrics, a better true talent team. They’re swimming upstream against a better team, so pretty much everything has to click right for that to work. I still think there’s a good chance they grab a wild card spot, but that’s obviously not ideal; the end of 2015 wasn’t very fun.
When I talk about everything clicking, what I mean is really Aaron Judge hitting. That’s cutting to the heart of it, but it’s true. In the first half, Judge was worth 5.8 fWAR. That’s insane! That’s about ~0.7 WAR every ten games; or, more simply, about .7 runs per game. In the second half, he’s at just 0.3 WAR in 30 games. That’s... very bad!
If we’re talking about what that difference looks like over the course of the next 48 games, his first half performance versus his second half performance is the difference of 29 runs, or about three wins. No one is saying he’s going to replicate his first half performance, because I don’t think that’s going to happen. But even if you split the difference again, that’s an extra game and a half in the standings (roughly), which is still a really big deal.
I’m not saying Judge is the only thing that matters. Of course not. Baseball is a team sport, after all, and a Judge resurgence is as valuable as Greg Bird, or Starlin Castro, or Gary Sanchez tearing it up down the stretch. The difference is that Judge is healthy and we know what he’s capable of, and we know what this team looks like when he’s a feared bat in the lineup. That extra ~.7 runs per game doesn’t make up that full 2-0 deficit in the ninth, but it gets you much closer. There are a lot of things that need to happen for the Yankees to win the division, but it’s safe to say that a Judge hot streak is at the top of the list.