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5 reasons Yanks are again AL favorites

@castrovince
October 1, 2020

The postseason bracket and the head-to-head results from the regular season tell us that the No. 5 seed Yankees enter their American League Division Series showdown with the No. 1 seed Rays as underdogs. Nah, sorry, not buying it.

The postseason bracket and the head-to-head results from the regular season tell us that the No. 5 seed Yankees enter their American League Division Series showdown with the No. 1 seed Rays as underdogs.

Nah, sorry, not buying it.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 5 NYY 9, TB 3 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 6 TB 7, NYY 5 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 7 TB 8, NYY 4 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 8 NYY 5, TB 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 9 TB 2, NYY 1 Watch

The Yankees didn’t fool me when they went in a 5-15 rut and people were joking that the Blue Jays are the best team in New York. They didn’t fool me when they went 2-8 against the first-place Rays or when they barely clung to second place in the division in the season’s final days.

So no, they’re not fooling me now. The Yankees are the favorites in this ALDS that begins Monday … and in the American League, in general.

Heated past sets ALDS stage for Rays, Yanks

Don’t take this as criticism of the Rays. Far from it. They play with an edge, they play as a team and they have -- in the immortal words of Kevin Cash -- “a whole damn stable of guys who throw 98 mph.” They have what it takes to go the distance (and I hope they do).

But I’ll be darned if I’m going to sit here and let anybody label the New York Yankees an “underdog” against the Tampa Bay Rays. Nope. Not happening. The results of a season that was 37 percent as long as the norm aren’t enough to make me forget what the projections said about the Yankees going into the year or how we should view them moving forward.

The Yankees are still the favorites in the AL. Here are five reasons why:

1) Because Gerrit Cole, duh

In eight postseason starts since Gerrit Cole officially became GERRIT COLE with the Astros in 2018, he has a 2.22 ERA and .177/.227/.305 opponents’ slash in 56 2/3 innings.

While Cole’s first season in pinstripes was far from Cy Young worthy, he finished strong, with a 1.00 ERA in his final four regular-season starts. He benefited from locking in with a personal catcher in Kyle Higashioka, whose framing skills helped him get more called strikes on his bread and butter -- fastballs on the upper edge of the strike zone (40 percent with Higashioka vs. 8.3 percent with Gary Sánchez, per Statcast). He’s also in better command of his curve than he was early in the season. And in Game 1 of the Yankees’ Wild Card Series, Cole joined Tom Seaver as the only postseason pitchers to have an outing with 13 strikeouts and zero walks.

Cole’s impact in this format is potentially limited by the lack of off-days. He can only start twice in the Division Series if he takes the ball in Game 5 on short rest. But the Yankees signed him to be their finishing piece, and he’s pitching like one.

2) Because the rest of the pitching staff is good enough

I know, not a ringing endorsement. The Yankees didn’t pull the trigger for a starter or reliever at the Trade Deadline. But they still have enough of an arms assemblage -- from Masahiro Tanaka, who typically elevates his game in October (he gets a mulligan for his outing interrupted by rain in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series), to J.A. Happ, who finished the season strong (2.34 ERA in his last seven starts), to the toolsy Deivi García to the bullpen with question marks but also pedigree (going back to the start of September, Aroldis Chapman has a 0.77 ERA).

Top to bottom, yes, the Rays have the superior pitching staff. No doubt about it. But the Yankees don’t necessarily need the superior pitching staff to advance, simply because of the damage they can do offensively.

3) Because they are “savages in the box”

Aaron Boone famously said it last year, and he meant it. The Yankees have maintained a reputation for squeezing opposing pitchers to a pulp. In the regular season, they had the Majors’ lowest chase rate (23.2 percent) and second-lowest swing percentage overall (43.3 percent). They also had the Majors’ highest walk rate (11.4 percent).

This skill plays up in the postseason, and it could play up against a Rays team that likes to pound the zone with heat and tries to get hitters to chase breaking and offspeed stuff away. In Game 1 of their Wild Card Series, the Yankees spit at presumptive AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber’s great arsenal of breaking balls, swinging at just 38.1 percent of his sliders and curves (the lowest rate of any Bieber opponent in 2020). The Yankees wait for the fastballs they love to feast on (their .498 SLG on fastballs was the best in the AL). It’s what they do.

4) Because a big regular-season narrative has already been erased

The Yankees’ remarkable home/road slugging split (.538 in the Bronx, .358 elsewhere), which contributed to their remarkable home/road record split (.710 winning percentage at Yankee Stadium, .419 elsewhere) was seen by some as a big concern going into the postseason.

Their obliteration of baseballs in Cleveland silences that storyline. Against the Indians team with the best staff ERA in the AL, the Yankees scored 20-plus runs in their first two postseason games. Per ESPN research, only three other teams have done that. All of them reached the World Series.

The home/road thing was a fluke of a shortened schedule. The bottom line is that, wherever the game is held (and these games will all be held in San Diego), the Yankees’ lineup is relentless. It is the first since the 1959 Braves (of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews) to house both the batting champ in DJ LeMahieu and the home run champ in Luke Voit. The Yanks have six other players -- Aaron Judge, Gio Urshela, Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks and Gleyber Torres -- who finished the year with at least 100 plate appearances and weighted runs created plus marks above the league average.

Good and deep as they are, the Rays don’t have that kind of lineup length. Few do.

5) Because Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are showing signs of life

Remember these guys? Before he went down with a calf strain on Aug. 11, Judge was slugging .758. Before he suffered a hamstring strain on Aug. 9, Stanton had a 1.038 OPS. They finally returned in mid-September, but their action was limited, and they weren’t driving the ball like they had before.

Then came Cleveland. Judge took Bieber deep with a 108 mph blast. Stanton had a 116.1 mph blast one night and a 109.7 mph shot the next. This doesn’t mean either guy is all the way back, but these prodigious pokes were positive signs.

And that’s not all. Sánchez swatted a home run in the Wild Card Series, and Torres, who proved last year to have that ol’ “October heartbeat,” had a 5-for-7 series. Simply put, the guys the Yankees need to come around are coming around.

(Bonus!) 6) Because it’s 2020

This isn’t an analytical point … or maybe it is. Either way, look, it’s no secret that the Yankees are the most hated team in baseball (it’s science). It would be very 2020 if the result that agitates the most people is the end result. And so, for this not-very-analytical (but undeniable) reason, I am reanointing the Yankees as the American League favorites.

And no, I’m not saying that to jinx them. Why would you suggest such a thing?

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.