With their strong play in the first five months of the season, the Yankees appeared set heading into September. They had won 81 games and sat just 1.5 back of the Red Sox for the AL East lead. More importantly, they led Tampa Bay by 7.5 games for the AL Wild Card, a hefty margin with less than a month of baseball left on the schedule. The comfortable lead gave them a chance to ease off the accelerator and make sure their starters were healthy and rested come September 30th.
In September they’ve actually managed to outplay their pace to date. They’ve won 11 of 18 games, which is a better ratio than they managed from April through August. No team in the AL East has won more games this month. And, thanks to a Boston collapse, the Yankees have taken a commanding lead in the division. With just 10 games to go they’re six up on Boston in the loss column. Any combination of five wins and Boston losses will seal up the division and give the Yankees their 12th AL East crown in the last 16 years.
Even with their strong position, it feels as though the Yankees have a number of issues heading into the postseason. These concerns mainly involve the pitching; people have asked who pitches behind CC ever since Cliff Lee signed with Philadelphia. Even now, just 10 days away from ALDS Game 1, the question doesn’t have a sure answer (other than it not being A.J. Burnett). Yet even that question might be overblown. The Yankees starters this year have a 4.06 ERA, right around the mark of the playoff-bound Tigers, and ahead of the Red Sox. Their 3.92 FIP ranks sixth — and the Rangers are the only playoff-bound team ahead of them. Finally, their 3.79 xFIP ranks first in the league.
(And yes, the situation changes in the playoffs, when there’s a greater emphasis on the top of the rotation and the bottom of the rotation disappears. But the Yanks’ top four starters all have ERAs under 4.00, which makes their league ranking actually look a bit better.)
If the Yankees are looking so good, then why the quibbling over them? Why the needless arguments about minute aspects of what is currently the best team in the AL? I think Will Leitch of New York Magazine hits on the issue perfectly with this paragraph in his latest column:
This year has been monotonous, dull, and seemingly preordained, which is to say it has been the platonic ideal of a Yankees season. The last time the Yankees weren’t in first or second place in the AL East was April 8, when they were a game and a half behind the Blue Jays. The rest of the season, the team has been comfortably ensconced in playoff position, knowing, without much doubt, that they would be playing into October. There were a few bumps along the way, but minor ones, nothing to concern anyone. Some Yankees fans might grouse about the rotation, but all any fan can hope for his team is to secure a spot in the postseason, and the Yankees have had theirs secured for months. Most of the year has felt like one long twiddling of thumbs until the weather started getting cold and the games started mattering again.
In other words, the Yankees’ solid play throughout the season has caused a sort of restlessness among fans. We’ve seen Jeter’s 3,000th and Mariano’s 602nd, both of which make great moments. Really, they’re the definitive moments of the 2011 season. What this season lacks is drama. And when there’s no drama to follow on a day-to-day basis, the drama-seeker will tend to conjure it from nowhere. Hence the concerns about the rotation that fares well when compared to its peers. Hence the concern over the manager who, for the fourth straight year, has managed to keep his bullpen in good shape. Hence the concern — for some reason — for the lineup, which has outscored every team except Boston.
This isn’t to say that none of these areas are of concern to the Yankees in the playoffs. Certainly the rotation can present a concern, at least. But again, this has to be viewed in relation to the rest of the league — the Yankees do have opponents, after all. And yet by these measures the Yankees stack up very well against their playoff-bound brethren. They’re not guaranteed anything. No team is, nor will any team ever have a playoff guarantee. But in terms of the things they can control, the Yankees are in great shape.
Why sweat the small stuff, then? Answer: What else are fans going to do during a “monotonous, dull, and seemingly preordained” season? It can get annoying at times, sure; there’s only so much small stuff to sweat, and sweating it too hard gets obnoxious. But that’s far better than the alternative. Would anyone seriously like to switch places with the Red Sox now, just in the name of drama? No, thank you. October provides enough drama.