As is often the case, Yankee fans are in a tizzy for no good reason at all. Today’s panic-inducing moment came when Alex Rodriguez grounded out to end the game last night, and the Yankees slipped into a first-place tie with the surging Tampa Bay Rays. Over the last four games, the Yanks had lost three of them, and their once-lofty three-game lead was all but gone. Never mind the 88 percent playoff odds, second only to the AL West-leading Rangers; it was time to panic.
Of course, this panic is a distinctly New York-centric panic. The Yankees must be the best at everything. The must win the AL East decisively. They must steamroll their way through the playoffs. They must win the World Series. It comes with the territory, and it creates some awfully depressed fans when the Yanks lose — something they’ll do around 60-66 times this year.
The truth is that getting there is the main goal. If the Yankees win the Wild Card, it will be a disappointing outcome, but if they’re the first to 11 wins in October, it doesn’t matter how they got there. No one in Boston thinks less of the Red Sox for winning the Wild Card in 2004, and no one in New York discounts the Marlins’ 2003 victory since they were “only” the Wild Card team. Since 1995, the Wild Card teams have been making waves, and quite frequently, the fourth seeded playoff team is better than the two other division winners.
That said, I want the Yankees to win the East for a pair of reasons. First, I want the bragging rights. The Yankees are the Yankees, and the East should be theirs. It’s a part of the arrogance of being a Yankee fan that I readily embrace. Second, with the way things are shaping up, the second best division winners will probably be the Texas Rangers, and I’d rather not see the Yanks face Cliff Lee twice in a five-game series. That, it appears, is the fate that awaits the Wild Card winners.
So how will the Yankees get there? The path is not an easy one. I’ve compiled the remaining schedules for the Yankees and Rays (and, for good measure, the Red Sox). Using a weighted winning percentage — a rather simple formulation — as well as the three teams’ season results against their opponents, I’ve found that the Ray have the easiest schedule to fill out the season and have performed best against their opponents. To win the division, the Yanks will have to get hot and stay that way against good teams.
We’ll start with the Yankees. In the following table, the two columns on the left show how many games the Yanks have remaining against their opponents and the winning percentage of those opponents. The right-most columns show how many games the Yanks have played against those opponents and the winning percentage in those games. The two totals on the bottom are the weighted averages of each.
So the Yankees have 57 games left, and their opponents have a winning percentage of .509. So far this year, the Yankees are beating the teams handily with a combined winning percentage of .631. The Orioles, in particular, have played dead for the Yankees this year.
Next up, we have the Rays:
As I mentioned before, Tampa Bay has a very easy go of it. Their opponents combine for a .491 winning percentage, and the Rays have played .676 baseball against these teams this year. Their final 57 games could be a cakewalk.
Finally, let’s take a peak at the Red Sox. More so than the Yankees and Rays, Boston controls its own destiny. The Red Sox are 6.5 games back, not really in it but not really out of it, and they still have 16 games left against the Yankees and the Rays. They haven’t played well against these two teams yet this year, but a few key wins could see them enter the AL East mix.
The Sox face some tough opponents and haven’t played particularly well against these teams so far. Of course, past performance isn’t indicative of future success, but the Red Sox will have to show improvement to overcome a large gap. The playoff odds report has them in the playoffs just 22 percent of the time.
So to just get there, the Yankees have to do what they’ve been doing all season. To get there on top, they’ll have to do even better. It won’t be an easy fight, but what would August and September be without a thrilling pennant race between two good teams and a third that just won’t go away?