As of this morning, the Yankees have a 5.4% chance of making the postseason according to Baseball Prospectus. Cool Standings is slightly more optimistic at 8.3%. Both systems give the team a less than 1.5% chance of winning the AL East even though the Bombers come into today six back of the both the division lead and second wildcard spot in the loss column. Is it possible New York’s odds of winning the division are better than they are for winning a wildcard spot?
Yesterday I quickly broke down the schedule of the seven teams currently in the mix for the second wildcard spot. The Yankees are at a disadvantage not only because they’re the furthest back, but also because they only have seven games left against their six wildcard competitors. This late in the year, those head-to-head meetings are crucial. It’s the only chance you get to control what you and your opponent do.
Because four of the six teams the Yankees are competing with for that second wildcard spot come from the AL Central or AL West, they’re going to need a lot of outside help to get into the postseason. They’ll need the Mariners and Angels to beat the Rangers and Athletics, the White Sox and Twins to beat the Indians and Royals, stuff like that. That’s not good; counting on other teams to do your dirty work is not where you want to be heading into September.
The AL East race is much different, however. As usual, the last few weeks of the season are heavy on intra-division games, and the Yankees will play 21 of their final 39 games against the three teams ahead of them in the AL East. That’s seven games against the Red Sox, seven against the Orioles, and seven against the Rays. Furthermore, those three clubs play a bunch of games against each other down the stretch, guaranteeing one will lose (loose?) on a given night.
The Yankees have much more control over what happens down the stretch in the division than they do the wildcard race thanks to those 21 games against Boston, Tampa, and Baltimore. They still need help, don’t get me wrong, but at least now less lies in the hands of other teams. The downside is that the three AL East teams are probably better and tougher matchups than the other wildcard contenders, but that’s life. No one ever said digging out of this hole would be easy.
Because of how the system works, the Yankees would almost certainly climb into a wildcard spot before taking the lead in the AL East. That’s just the way it’s set up. The only way that doesn’t happen is if the various AL East teams simultaneously hit slumps while other clubs, say the Athletics and Indians, get hot and finish with better records. Possible but unlikely. The Yankees will be happy to get into the postseason either way at this point, but all those head-to-head meetings say that, no matter how unlikely, we shouldn’t rule out a division title just yet.