Thanks to a 4–1 win over the Red Sox on Thursday night, the Yankees have clinched their first playoff berth since 2012. Even if it's only as a wild card, they have turned the page from the "Core Four" era that brought them so much success until its tail end, when a delicate dance of deference to Derek Jeter took its toll. While New York's status guarantees the team nothing but one postseason game, last year's World Series matchup served to remind that the right wild-card teams can make significant postseason impacts—or even win it all.
Thursday night’s win at Yankee Stadium snapped a three-game losing streak, all against the much-improved Red Sox, and helped avoid a disaster scenario that could have left the Yankees on the outside looking in amid a chaotic wild card scrum. While their 14–14 record this month is nothing to write home about, studies (including my own) show that for playoff teams, there’s virtually no correlation between September record and October success. The larger point is that the team’s 87–72 record and +79 run differential both rank third in the league (the former is tied with the Rangers), and they’ve gotten far more out of their $217.8 million Opening Day payroll than the 78-win Red Sox ($184.3 million), 83-win Giants ($173.2) 73-win Tigers ($172.8), 80-win Nationals ($162.0) or 61-win Phillies ($146.9) did out of theirs. This is a playoff-caliber team, one that will be the envy of 20 by-standing clubs come Tuesday’s Wild-Card Game.
Once upon a time, the Yankees clinching a playoff spot hardly rated as news, particularly given the expanded postseason format. From 1995 to 2012, they made 17 postseason appearances via 13 AL East titles and four wild-card berths, won six pennants and four World Series, and missed the playoffs just once, in '08. The run was anchored by a nucleus of homegrown players—Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and (through 2006) Bernie Williams—augmented by some smart trades and key free-agent additions, and maintained thanks to the team's ability to outspend everyone else.
Those days are over, and particularly with regards to Jeter, whose cascade of late-career foot injuries and corresponding decline hamstrung the team, the change has been a key one. While 25-year-old Didi Gregorius, acquired last winter to fill the shortstop spot, struggled mightily on both sides of the ball early in the season, he improved considerably as it progressed and has delivered more value to the team than Jeter did in any season since 2009, when the Yankees last won a World Series. Gregorius has hit .263/.317/.364 for an 88 OPS+, which won't mark him as a future member of the 3,000 hit club but isn't a huge step down from Jeter's combined post-2009 performance (.283/.340/.374 for a 94 OPS+), particularly when one considers the additional contributions from lesser hitters such as Eduardo Nunez and Brendan Ryan when he wasn't available during that span. The bigger deal has been Gregorius' glove work. Both Defensive Runs Saved (+5 runs ) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+8) mark him as significantly above average, compared to the latter day Jeter's -59 DRS (-13 runs per 650 plate appearance season). Via Baseball-Reference's DRS-based WAR, Gregorius has been worth 3.1 WAR; only in 2012 did Jeter exceed 2.0, and he was worth -0.5 in his final two seasons.
Sticking to the offensive side, this Yankees team has been far better than the previous two, ranking second in the league in scoring (4.75 runs per game) and third in OPS+ (105). By comparison, they were 10th and 13th, respectively, in those two categories in 2013, and 12th in both last year, eking out a paltry 3.91 runs per game with a 94 OPS+. Even with the departure of Jeter, the upswing hasn’t exactly been caused by a youth movement. This year's offense, with an AL-high average age (weighted by plate appearances) of 31.2 years, has benefited greatly from the strong rebounds of its three oldest regulars: Alex Rodriguez (who turned 40 on July 27), Carlos Beltran (38) and Mark Teixeira (35).
A-Rod returned from his 2014 PED suspension to hit .252/357/.491 with 33 homers and a 132 OPS+ while serving as the primary DH, passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run list and notching his 3,000th hit along the way, as well as eschewing his capability to create a media circus. Beltran bounced back from an injury-plagued 2014 full of career worsts and a dreadful first month, hitting .292/.352/.505 with 19 homers since May 1. Teixeira shook out of a three-year rough patch marked by injuries to hit .255/.357/.548 with 31 homers and a team-high 146 OPS+ before sustaining a fracture on his right leg on Aug. 17 via a foul ball, a break that took weeks to diagnose. Since his loss, 22-year-old rookie Greg Bird has done an impressive job of approximating his production, hitting .255/.337/.530 with 11 homers in just 169 PA.
The rest of the lineup has been uneven, with Brian McCann also bouncing back, but Chase Headley is struggling on both sides of the ball, and Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are particularly scuffling since the start of August via .600ish OPSes. Then there's second base, which remains a black hole in the wake of Robinson Cano's post-2013 departure via free agency. Stephen Drew maintained the second base job for most of the year despite hitting .201/.271/.381 with slightly subpar defense because the in-house alternatives weren't much better, and it was the one area that general manger Brian Cashman tried to improve at the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline, via the acquisition of Dustin Ackley. Alas, Ackley played in just two games before missing five weeks due to a herniated disc, but since returning, he's hit .310/.348/.714 with four homers in 43 PA, supplanting Drew, who's been felled by a concussion.
Given his insistence on holding onto Bird and starter Luis Severino because of their long-term value—part of a bigger-picture effort to restore the farm system—Cashman couldn't match the Blue Jays' additions of marquee players David Price and Troy Tulowitzki at the deadline. Since July 31, the Jays have gone a major-league best 39–16, the Yankees 29–28, producing an 11-game swing in the standings. That isn't to say that the Yankees couldn't have found some outside help to augment a rotation that has proven to be every bit as shaky as it appeared to be at the outset of the season: The unit ranks seventh in FIP (4.04), 11th in both ERA (4.21) and quality-start rate (45%) and 13th in home runs-per-nine (1.2). Masahiro Tanaka (3.51 ERA, 114 ERA+), Adam Warren (3.66 ERA as a starter) and Severino (2.77 ERA, 145 ERA+) are the only starters preventing runs at a better-than-average clip but have combined for just 51 of the team's starts. Tanaka has pitched through a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament and served a stint on the disabled list with tendinitis in his wrist, accompanied by a forearm strain. Warren moved back to the bullpen to accommodate the return of Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery, though he's since bounced back and forth due to the loss of Nathan Eovaldi. Severino, just 21 years old, began the season with just 25 innings above A ball to his name but has pitched up to his top prospect billing thus far.
Meanwhile, Eovaldi, Nova and Michael Pineda all had successful stretches that helped keep the team in contention, as has CC Sabathia. Rocked for a 5.08 ERA in 60 starts from 2013 through July 30—a span during which he was beset by degenerative changes in his right knee as well as the toll of his decade-plus as a workhorse—the 35-year-old southpaw has pitched to a 2.86 ERA (but a wobbly 4.19 FIP) over his last 10 turns, benefiting from a new knee brace that has stabilized his delivery and restored some of his flagging velocity, not to mention a spot of rest from a brief disabled list stint. On Thursday night, he battled through five cold, soggy innings, allowing just one run despite nine base runners.
The Yankees, whose pitching staff as a whole has been the league’s third-youngest (27.5 years), have overcome that shaky rotation thanks not only to their offense but also to a bullpen with the league's highest strikeout rate (26.5%) and a 28% rate of allowing inherited runners to score (in a virtual tie for second in the league with four other teams). Lefty setup men Chasen Shreve and Justin Wilson, both acquired via minor deals over the winter, have given the unit a dimension it has lacked in recent years. The twin towers of Dellin Betances (1.41 ERA, 13.9 K/9) and free-agent addition Andrew Miller (1.91 ERA, 14.7 K/9) have combined for 45 saves, offsetting the departure of David Robertson (and before him, Rivera) and helping the team go 66–3 when leading after six innings, roughly five wins better than the average AL team from that point.
As they head into the postseason, it's the top shelf of that bullpen that offers hope that the Yankees can replicate the success of last year's wild card-turned-pennant winners, the Giants and Royals. The Giants benefited from an October for the ages from Madison Bumgarner, who pitched to a 1.03 ERA across 52 2/3 innings, including five scoreless in relief in Game 7 of the World Series on two days' rest. But beyond his heroics, San Francisco starters posted a 5.58 ERA and averaged 4 1/3 innings per postseason start, combining for just two more outs than their ace lefty did in his six starts (48 1/3 innings to 47 2/3). With manager Bruce Bochy willing to play matchups regardless of the inning and having the depth to do so, the team's non-Bumgarner bullpen posted a 2.28 ERA. As for the Royals, their starters managed a 4.12 ERA and averaged just 5.2 innings per postseason turn, but manager Ned Yost had the benefit of a record-setting trio at the back that helped the relief corps post a 2.64 mark and accounted for 45% of the team's innings.
The Yankees don't have a Bumgarner, not with Tanaka having made just one start since being scratched due to a minor hamstring injury, though even including that turn, he's been stellar (3.31 ERA, 6.7 IP/GS) over the past three months. Particularly since the team's last stand against the Blue Jays, manager Joe Girardi and Cashman have been focused on lining him up to pitch the Wild-Card Game, giving him the nod over the inexperienced but hot-handed Severino. He would have been positioned on three days’ rest had his Friday night start not been postponed due to rain—not that the team couldn't have juggled its rotation earlier to avoid such a situation. Note that Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, New York's potential wild-card opponent, is also lined up to start Friday and would be on three days’ rest on Tuesday for the first time in his career (if he doesn’t have to pitch a play-in, that is). Should the Yankees win, their rotation will likely set up with Severino, Sabathia and Pineda in some order, with Warren—who has pitched to a 2.29 ERA with 9.4 K/9 in relief—fortifying a bullpen that Girardi could go to as soon as he needs it, just as Bochy and Yost did.
While Girardi has repeatedly stressed a desire to avoid such a one-game do-or-die situation, the Yankees’ lot still rates as an improvement relative to 2013 and '14, not to mention to the teams that will wind up on the outside looking in. They’ll have their work cut out both this month and in the longer term given the big-dollar contracts that weigh them down, but they were worthy of the champagne they uncorked on Thursday night.