Why the Yankees -- not the Red Sox -- will win the AL East

ByColey Harvey ESPN logo
Friday, June 29, 2018
ESPN

You may as well go on and buckle up now. The upcoming push for the American League East pennant is already shaping up to be one for the ages.

Separated often this season by mere percentage points atop the division, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have been playing the kind of nip and tuck baseball that could force the AL East race into being decided during the final weekend of the year when they meet at Fenway Park.

Sounds familiar. Bucky "Bleepin'" Dent, anyone?

It has been 40 years since Dent's Yankees outlasted the Red Sox in a one-game playoff for the division title, and there are five good reasons this year's Yankees will take the AL East crown from their rivals once again:

1. As Luis Severino goes, so go the Yankees.

OK, so one man can't win a pennant chase on his own. Fact. Still, this year's Yankees have regularly taken a winning cue from their pitching ace.

In the 17 games Severino has started ahead of Sunday night's outing against the Red Sox in the Bronx, the Yankees have gone 15-2, splitting two of those games with Boston. Severino has a 12-2 overall record.

Part of the success Severino and the Yankees have shared stems from how well New York's offense has played when he pitches. He has drawn 5.21 runs per game of support, while the Yankees' other starters have an average 4.68 runs of support.

Numbers aside, the very sight of Severino's largely dominant performances has helped galvanize the rest of the pitching staff, occasionally sparking similar appearances from others.

As veteran CC Sabathia said recently, "You don't want to be the guy that goes out [and pitches poorly] if we have a good streak and we're winning games. You want to go out and keep that going."

RookieDomingo German's sharp no-hit effort across six innings in his first major league start back in May comes to mind as one of those staff-inspiring outings. So do two of fellow rookieJonathan Loaisiga's three starts, outings in which he pitched five innings or more of scoreless baseball and allowed just four combined hits.

There's alsoSonny Gray's eight-inning four-hitter against Kansas City in May, and his eight-inning two-hitter in Toronto early in June. Not to mention Sabathia, who struck out a season-high 10 in one of his more recent outings, despite the strikeout pitch no longer being a true weapon in his arsenal.

This staff may not have the name recognition of Sale-Porcello-Price, but it's still worth paying attention to as the season continues.

Manager Aaron Boone put it best: "Our starting rotation, I don't think, gets really the credit it deserves. You don't rack up a lot of wins without having some form of consistency with our starting rotation."

2. Giancarlo Stanton is heating up.

After struggling to consistently reach base for much of the first two months of the season, Stanton is finally beginning to show signs of the hitting life the Yankees anticipated when they traded for him in December.

At one point in late April, Stanton's batting average was as low as .198. In early May, he spent a day at .220. Coming into the final two days of June, he has raised his average to .265. Similarly, his OPS has risen this month, climbing from .772 on June 1 to .847 by the start of the series with Boston.

Much of Stanton's steady forward march has come from his recent stretch of multihit games. He entered this weekend with two or more hits in three of his past four games, and half of his past 10.

The long ball has accompanied some of that corner-turning offense. Eight of Stanton's 19 home runs have come this month, including one laser to left-center that walked off a Yankees win over the Nationals last week. That particular homer was heralded as his long-awaited "Yankee Moment."

"[I'm] having better at-bats, making better contact more often," Stanton said following one multihit game in Philadelphia this week. "Been calmer, trusting my approach more, having a better approach ... [and] altering how I'm studying pitchers and what I think they're going to do to me."

Boone has been long predicting a big breakout for Stanton. Lately, he has credited the slugger's improvements to an enhanced timing mechanism. Stanton has been starting his timing toe tap a little quicker, allowing him to get his swing to the ball a little faster, Boone has said.

When he has been healthy, Stanton's second halves have been better than his pre-All-Star Game production. In his career, he's hitting .272 in the second half, as opposed to .266 in the first half. His homer percentage also is higher in the second half throughout his career. He has hit home runs on 7.1 percent of his post-All-Star break plate appearances, compared with 6.0 percent on those that have come before the break.

Once Stanton gets going, he's usually hard to slow down. Coupled with a loaded Yankees lineup that has included an All-Star-caliber year from Aaron Judge, the timing of Stanton's potential breakout will make New York even more dangerous.

3. Favorable schedule looming, the Yanks have owned AL's best.

The Yankees' schedule looks at this point as if it will ultimately be more favorable than the Red Sox's schedule will be for them.

Across the first three months, New York went through a gauntlet that included series against the Red Sox and the defending-champion Astros. It also has played teams like the Indians, Angels, Twins, Phillies and Mariners that entered those respective series rolling.

Much of New York's early-season success has hinged on its ability to win those highly competitive series. Before this three-game set against Boston, the Yankees had gone 25-10 (.714) against teams that came into this weekend with a .500 or better record. No other big league team had a winning percentage above .600 in such games -- not even the Red Sox.

Also consider this: Against the four other American League teams that would currently factor in the playoff picture as either division leaders or wild-card possibilities (Boston, Cleveland, Houston and Seattle), the Yankees already have gone 14-5.

Meanwhile, against a similar collection of teams (Cleveland, Houston, Seattle and New York), the Red Sox are just 9-8.

The Yankees have 20 games left against those teams, including this weekend's set with Boston. The Red Sox have 23. Additionally, the Yankees will be playing 55 games the rest of the way against teams that currently have sub-.500 records. The Red Sox have 47 of those games.

With such a favorable schedule, the Yankees could be primed to get a little separation in August and September ahead of the season's final three games at Fenway.

4. New York's inexperience is a non-factor.

Yes, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar are rookies. German and Loaisiga -- young pitchers who still could remain factors in the Yankees' rotation deep into the year (even after a veteran pitcher may get added before the trade deadline and Masahiro Tanaka returns soon from the disabled list) -- are too.

There's no disputing that this will be that quartet's first foray into a pennant chase. But will the players who comprise it wilt under the intense pressure of a playoff push? It seems doubtful, at least for Torres and Andujar.

One of the hallmarks of Torres' and Andujar's time with the big league club has been their ability to come through in the clutch. High-leverage, intense, pressure-packed moments don't seem to faze them. Andujar has one walk-off hit this season, and Torres has three, including a homer in one of those important games against AL Central-leading Cleveland.

"Late and close" plate appearances are those that occur in the seventh inning or later with the hitting team either tied, trailing by a run or with the tying run at least on deck.

In 43 late and close plate appearances this season, Torres has hit .306 with two home runs, seven RBIs, six walks and a .905 OPS. In 23 plate appearances when he has hit with two outs and runners in scoring position, he has batted .375 with a 1.131 OPS.

As for some of the Yankees' other under-30 stars like Judge, Severino, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius, the core of that group contributed to New York's deep postseason run last season. Severino and Judge have been among the more vocal in acknowledging how losing Game 7 of last year's ALCS has motivated them to get over that hump this year.

5. The Yankees remain anchored by a bullish bullpen.

Boone may want more recognition for his starters, but he knows which arms have been among his most consistent.

"We're built in a lot of ways around that great bullpen," he said during New York's last homestand.

After Thursday's games, the Yankees' bullpen ranked third with a 2.68 ERA, and first in strikeouts (363) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.03). Boston's bullpen ranked fifth in ERA (3.10) and strikeouts per nine innings (9.66).

New York's relievers have been so good that they have held opponents scoreless in 17 of 23 games since June 4. In that span of 73 innings, they have combined for a 0.86 ERA and 94 strikeouts; both league highs following Thursday's action.

The Yankees' bullpen also is currently in the middle of an 11-inning scoreless streak. Earlier in June it posted a 23-inning scoreless streak.

Four relievers in particular have been among the most reliable:

  • Dellin Betances has allowed just one hit and no runs while striking out 24 in his past 14 innings.
  • Right-hander Adam Warren has gone eight scoreless since his reinstatement from the DL on June 4.
  • Fellow righty Jonathan Holder hasn't allowed an earned run in 23 relief appearances, the longest such streak in the American League this season.
  • CloserAroldis Chapman's11 June saves are tied for the third most in a calendar month in Yankees history. He and Betances have 60 and 62 strikeouts, respectively, in exactly 35 innings each.

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