As we turn the corner and look past September, we can start to imagine the cool, crisp October air and, of course, New York Yankees postseason baseball. I don't want to jinx anything, but it's safe to say the Bombers are going to comfortably lock up the AL East, something they haven't done since 2012. As great as this may be, we all know it's the smallest hill to climb in their quest to bringing a Championship back to the Bronx. In fact, since 1995 (the first year of playoffs with the current setup of East, Central and West divisions in each league), only 8 of the 24 AL East winners have gone on to win it all.
So what else will it take for the Yankees to be on top of the world when the dust settles in 2019? Here are my 5 key factors for them to finally succeed in catching #28:
1. THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
It goes without saying that the New York Yankees improve their chances of winning the World Series DRASTICALLY if they can finish with the best record in the American League. Outside of the Minnesota Twins, who are notoriously dreadful at Yankee Stadium, every playoff contending team plays significantly better in their home ballparks. Without much debate, the Houston Astros pose the biggest threat to the Yankees come October, so let's take a look at each of their postseason home/road splits since 2015:
New York Yankees; 19 games
Home: 7-3 (.700 W%)
Road: 2-7 (.222 W%)
Houston Astros; 32 games
Home: 11-5 (.688 W%)
Road: 7-9 (.438 W%)
In 2017, the Astros played at Yankee Stadium for 3 postseason games, going 0-3 and eventually winning the pennant heading back to Houston down 2 games to 3. It's safe to say that if the Yankees had home field advantage, that series might have ended with the Yankees taking a trip to the World Series.
The Yankees and Astros are currently tied for best record in the AL, but NY has slightly worse odds to finish on top, according to SBD's oddsmakers. We've reached out and their experts have the Astros at +105 odds to earn home field advantage, with the Yankees just behind at +110. Houston gets the slight edge because of their run differential (+216 vs +153) and an easier slate of games to see out the season.
As important as home field advantage is to the Yankees, health takes top priority. The Bombers would rather be at full strength on the road as opposed to hurt and at home. Here's to hoping they can find a way to successfully capture the best record without sacrificing the health of any key guys needed for a long postseason run.
2. ONLY PINSTRIPES FOR DOMINGO
As of right now the Yankees have gone the entire season without their ace, Luis Severino, throwing a single pitch. Luckily for New York, a different ace emerges come playoff time. That man, as we all know, is Masahiro Tanaka. His postseason numbers are off the charts. In 30 innings pitched, Tanaka has a 1.50 ERA, allowing just 5 earned runs over his 5 playoff appearances. Regardless of Severino's status heading into October, Masahiro Tanaka needs to get the nod for game 1 of the ALDS.
After that, it's all about home/road splits yet again. Realistically, the other 3 guys with the best chances of starting a postseason game are Severino (assuming he's healthy and effective upon his return), Paxton and German. Being that Sevy is yet to make his 2019 debut, let's focus in on the home/road splits of Paxton and German this season per Baseball Reference:
Home (65 IP)
29 ER, 4.02 ERA, .231 BAA, 10 HR
Road (60 IP)
32 ER, 4.80 ERA, .286 BAA, 12 HR
Home (61.1 IP)
16 ER, 2.35 ERA, .197 BAA, 10 HR
Road (71 IP)
43 ER, 5.45 ERA, .260 BAA, 19 HR
Although Paxton's numbers are nothing to write home about, his splits are fairly consistent with less than 1 run separating his home & road ERA. However, as mentioned by Christian during a recent episode of the NYYST Podcast, Domingo German's home/road splits are ALARMING. Even after his solid performance in LA this past month, he is pitching to an ERA more than 3 runs higher on the road than at Yankee Stadium. If he was just an average pitcher on the road in 2019, German would be a realistic contender for AL Cy Young. But with these numbers away from the Bronx, his season goes from "outstanding" to "pretty good" despite his 17-3 record.
Moral of the story, if Domingo German is going to start a postseason game this October it is imperative that he does so at Yankee Stadium. Again, a lot of this depends on the return of Luis Severino and how confident the Yankees are with his progress heading into the playoffs. But, assuming German does get his moment under the bright lights this fall, I structure my rotation to ensure he's only ever pitching in pinstripes, never away grays.
3. GETTING THE GUY WE TRADED FOR
As stated above, Masahiro Tanaka is our proven ace in the postseason. I've challenged people numerous times to find me a SP with better numbers than Tanaka over their last 5 playoff starts and I'm yet to hear an answer. Now, imagine James Paxton is the guy we hoped he was when the Yankees traded for him this offseason?
In my opinion, Paxton could very well be the Yankees' "make or break" to capture 28 in 2019. If he performs in the big game the way Brian Cashman believed he could when acquiring him, Big Maple will be a hero in New York. If he falls short, he might want to consider hibernating for winter.
For me, Paxton's postseason performance alone will determine the Yankees success. If the team can rely on more than one guy to dominate in October, with the bullpen and the offense being as great as they've been all year, they might be unstoppable.
4. STAY CALM, COOL & COLLECTED
The biggest weakness the Yankees take into the postseason in undoubtedly the starting pitching. We just got done discussing James Paxton and how important his role will be in winning another championship. But even in some of his best performances, he's become notorious for allowing 1st inning runs this season. In fact, the Yankees have allowed 94 first inning earned runs across the entire pitching staff, second worst in the AL to the Baltimore Orioles (97).
To dive a little deeper into the early inning numbers, the Yankees have allowed a total of 192 ER within innings 1-3 this season, most among all playoff contending AL teams. Here's how some of the other possible postseason opponents compare:
Twins - 164 ER
Rays - 167 ER
Astros - 169 ER
A's - 169 ER
Indians - 171 ER
Looking at these numbers, it's easy to worry about the Yankees falling behind early in a postseason game. There's no worse feeling than your team giving away an early lead in October and the momentum becoming tangible right in front of your eyes. But the Yankees have something in their favor and they need to remind themselves of it in the event they find themselves in an early deficit.
Currently, the Yankees have 41 comeback wins this season, more than any of the teams mentioned above. If they can find a way to stay calm, cool and collected during any come from behind moment, they can virtually make momentum a non-factor (in New York at least). They need to be reminded that their offense can be deadly and can strike at any given moment. Rely on the offense if the SP falls short, don't let the aura of October baseball relinquish your talent at the plate and your ability to comeback and win a ballgame.
5. WELL OILED "MACHINE"
Whether you were excited about the Yankees acquiring DJ LeMahieu or not this offseason, you were happy they finally found a "bat on ball" hitter to slot into the lineup. Little did we all know that he would make a serious case for himself in the discussion for AL MVP in 2019.
Signing DJ might arguably be Cashman's best move in the last decade given his overproduction this season for the Yankees. However, as great as he's been, his true value is yet to be obtained. The last two years of October baseball for the Yankees has ended in utter disappointment. Yeah, 2017 was great considering this team was "rebuilding" and somehow playing a game 7 in the ALCS. And yeah, there was no stopping the magical run the Red Sox had in 2018. But what hurt the most is that both series ended with a feeling of missed opportunities. It felt like the Yankees were just a couple big hits away from shocking the world and were never able to capitalize. We needed a guy who can compliment the "all or nothing" power bats in the lineup. That guy is DJ LeMahieu.
If LeMahieu can be that well oiled machine he's been all year come October, this offense will thrive in the big moments. As much weight as I feel Paxton holds as a SP, I feel equally strong about DJ producing offensively. He was brought here to gives this offense some versatility and to shine during the most important time of the year.
If DJ shows up and the other key points I made are met, this is my formula for ending the chase. Championship 28 will finally be caught and the Yankees will be celebrating another World Series victory in the Bronx.
Follow me on Twitter: @ChrisJr_NYYST