- The Red Sox look primed to win the AL East after a four-game sweep of the Yankees, but history tells us to wait the season out.
Over the course of a miserable weekend in Boston, the Yankees may have seen their division title chances virtually disappear. Thanks to a four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox, New York now trails its rival by a whopping 9 ½ games in the AL East, perhaps putting an end to the chase for first place weeks before Labor Day. The Yankees were beat every which way by the Sox; the coup de grâce came on Sunday night after the Sox rallied for three runs off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth inning before Boston walked it off on an Andrew Benintendi single one inning later. But given how good both teams are, is the race truly over?
In the cold light of the morning (or early afternoon), things look dismal for the Yankees. Sunday’s loss—their fifth in a row, their longest losing streak all season—has left them with the biggest deficit of any second-place team in the league. It’s also their largest AL East lag since the end of the 2016 season, when they were deadline sellers and finished fourth as Boston won its first division crown since ’13.
Understandably, given the circumstances and the opponent, projection systems are less than sanguine about the Yankees’ chances at overcoming that gap. Fangraphs’ playoff odds gives them just a 7.4% chance at winning the East—third lowest among the league’s second-place teams, ahead of only the below-.500 Twins in the Central and the Athletics in the West. Baseball Prospectus is even grimmer, pegging the Bronx Bombers with a mere 6.5% chance of finishing first.
It’s wild to think that a team on pace to win 100 games could find itself in such dire straits in its division. But that’s a testament to just how good the Red Sox have been. At 79–34, Boston holds the best record in baseball by a wide margin over Houston and is on pace to win 113 games. The Sox are 23–5 since July 1, which is the last day they didn’t hold an outright lead in the division, and their lowest winning percentage in a month was May’s .621, which would be a 101-win pace over a full season. They are, in short, the cream of this year’s crop.
Despite that, the Yankees kept up throughout the season’s first three months. But things have gone sour since the last time these two teams met at the end of June, when New York won two of three and grabbed a share of first place. From July 1 onward, the Yankees have been stuck in neutral, going 14–14. They’ve taken only two series in their last month of play, from the Jays and Royals, and dropped or split matchups against the Mets and Orioles, among others. Baltimore in particular has been an inexplicable obstacle for New York: The otherwise awful O’s are 6–6 against the Yanks; against Boston, they’re a more representative 2–10.
Everything’s gone wrong for the Yankees in that span. The team lost MVP contender Aaron Judge to a broken bone in his wrist late in July; he’s out through August. Gary Sanchez came off the disabled list in late July after a month-long stint, played all of three games and went right back on it with a groin strain that will keep him sidelined until September. Luis Severino, a front-runner for AL Cy Young honors, has wilted in the summer heat, with an 8.28 ERA in his last five starts, including a struggle against the Red Sox on Friday. Gleyber Torres went from Rookie of the Year favorite to the DL with a hip strain. After missing three weeks, he’s hit .171/.302/.371 since his return and went hitless in 16 trips to the plate with six strikeouts.
Having all those stars struggle at once is a recipe for disaster—one compounded by struggles from the supporting cast as well. Greg Bird is hitting a meager .223/.313/.425 after missing the first month of the season with injury. Brett Gardner has been ice cold since the beginning of July, hitting .237/.323/.404. Didi Gregorius’ monster April has given way to a massive slump in which he’s hit .246/.291/.398 since. CC Sabathia has a 5.55 ERA in his last five outings. And Sonny Gray has been so bad that the Yankees pulled him from the rotation after his last disaster of a start—seven runs in 2 2/3 innings against Baltimore—left him with an unsightly 5.56 ERA on the year. Aside from Giancarlo Stanton (.313/.363/.554 since June 1) and Aaron Hicks (.262/.380/.541 in that same span) and the mostly superlative bullpen, the Yankees aren’t getting any help.
But even leaving aside the stats, New York simply looks unfocused in the field. Mental and physical errors were a common sight this weekend, with Yankees infielders and pitchers booting the ball across the diamond. Manager Aaron Boone seemed slow, too, especially with his bullpen, allowing relievers too long leashes as they wandered into trouble. He hasn’t been helped by a deadline that gave him an extra reliever in Zach Britton and a new starter in J.A. Happ, but didn’t provide any depth on offense; the only hitter brought in was Cardinals minor leaguer Luke Voit. He somehow found himself hitting sixth in last night’s lineup—a reflection of just how thin the Yankees are stretched at the moment.
Still, even with everything that’s gone wrong, the division can’t be truly counted out. For the stomping the Red Sox just gave the Yankees, it’s still only mid-August. Both teams still have 49 and 52 games, respectively, to go on the season, including six more head-to-head matchups split between Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park over the season’s last two weeks.
Plus, while Boston’s lead is big, it isn’t insurmountable. Other teams have blown similar advantages this late in the season. The 1951 Dodgers had a 13-game lead over the Giants on Aug. 11, only to throw it and the pennant away down the stretch. The 1995 Angels were up 10 ½ games on the second-place Rangers on Aug. 16, then went 14–28 the rest of the way and finished a game back of Seattle in the AL West. More recently, the 2007 Mets and ’09 Tigers both biffed sizable leads, albeit far closer to season’s end. Detroit had a seven-game lead in the AL Central with 26 games to go, but blew that lead and then lost the Game 163 play-in to the Twins. The Mets, meanwhile, infamously coughed up a seven-game advantage with just 17 games left.
Boston is no stranger to the late collapse either. In mid-July of 1978, the Red Sox were up nine games in the AL on the next-closest team, Milwaukee, with the Yankees languishing 14 games back. But New York closed that gap with a ridiculous 52–21 run from July 19 onward, including a Boston Massacre of their own—a four-game sweep at Fenway in early September that fully erased the Red Sox’ lead. Then there are the 2011 Sox, who entered September with a 1 ½-game lead in the East and finished it seven games back after a 7–20 month.
So there is precedent. Then again, those examples are just about all there is; most of the time, when a team has a lead this big, it doesn’t give it up. None of those teams that fell apart, meanwhile, were anywhere near as good as this Red Sox squad is. And even if things go pear-shaped for Boston—which has also been hit hard by injuries, with Chris Sale, Dustin Pedroia, Rafael Devers, Ian Kinsler, Eduardo Rodriguez, Carson Smith, Blake Swihart, and Christian Vazquez all on the DL—it would take a historic collapse for the division to be lost. Even a .500 record from here on out gives the Sox 104 wins. The Yankees would have to go 36–16 to match that, or a .692 winning percentage that would be a 112-win pace over a full season.
They’re plenty capable of doing that. The Yankees ripped off a 19–3 run from late April through early May, and the remaining schedule for August is in their favor, too, as they’ll see only one .500-or-better team—the Rays—from here until the first week of September, plus 14 games against the White Sox, Rangers, Orioles and Tigers. As Yogi Berra said in 1973, with his Mets facing an eerily similar predicament at 10 ½ games out of first in the NL East on Aug. 6: It ain’t over until it’s over. He proved that right, as New York rallied to win the division. But, as he also noted, it gets late early out there. And while the Yankees try to catch the Red Sox, they have their own lead to worry about: The red-hot A’s are right on their tail in the wild-card chase, where New York’s lead for the first spot is just 2 ½ games.