With a month to go in the regular season, the New York Yankees are trying to avoid making history while Aaron Judge looks to make history. Judge has 53 home runs on the season, 17 more than any other player, and he is only eight home runs away from Roger Maris’ American League single-season record of 61 homers set in 1961. Judge has a real shot to break the record.
The Yankees, meanwhile, are trying to avoid blowing the largest division lead in baseball history. The “record” is a 13-game blown lead by the 1951 Los Angeles Dodgers. The Yankees led the AL East by 15 1/2 games on July 8. After dropping two of three to the Tampa Bay Rays this past weekend, New York’s division lead has been whittled down to only five games.
“If we don’t dig ourselves out, you’ll have a great story to write,” manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including MLB.com, over the weekend. Boone is certainly right about that. Here are the AL East standings since New York’s division lead peaked on July 8:
1. Yankees: 61-23
1. Orioles: 30-18
2. Rays: 45-38 (15 1/2 GB)
2. Rays: 29-20 (1 1/2 GB)
3. Red Sox: 45-39 (16 GB)
3. Blue Jays: 28-19 (1 1/2 GB)
4. Blue Jays: 45-40 (16 1/2 GB)
4. Red Sox: 22-29 (9 1/2 GB)
5. Orioles: 41-44 (20 1/2 GB)
5. Yankees: 19-31 (12 GB)
Incredibly, the Yankees are crashing while Judge is in the middle of what is at worst an MVP-caliber season, and at best a historic season that could see him rewrite the league’s home run record book. If the Yankees are collectively playing this poorly while Judge plays this well, can you imagine where they’d be without him? Oy vey.
Here are four things that must happen for the Yankees to snap out of their prolonged slump, win the AL East, and possibly even go on a deep postseason run.
1. Get healthy
The Yankees are not special. Every contender has injuries and, frankly, with their resources, the Yankees should be better able to overcome injuries than just about any other team. And they have overcome their injuries. Despite their recent efforts, they remain in first place in the AL East and have postseason odds at or near 100 percent per FanGraphs and SportsLine.
That all said, every team is at its best when their players are healthy, and getting healthy would go a long way toward helping the Yankees right the ship. They traded Jordan Montgomery and three Triple-A pitching prospects (JP Sears, Ken Waldichuk, Hayden Wesneski) at the deadline and that apparently angered the baseball gods. Feel good about your pitching depth do you? Well, the Yankees have placed five pitchers on the injured list since the trade deadline:
- RHP Albert Abreu: Elbow inflammation
- LHP Aroldis Chapman: Leg infection from a tattoo
- LHP Nestor Cortes: Groin strain
- RHP Clay Holmes: Back spasms (has since returned)
- RHP Scott Effross: Shoulder strain
Cortes and Chapman could return as soon as later this week. Abreu and Effross are a little further behind. Others, namely setup men Michael King and Chad Green, are done for the season. The Yankees will get Luis Severino back later this month. He’s been out with a lat strain since July and is currently on a minor-league rehab assignment. Pitching reinforcements are coming.
Offensive reinforcements? No. Harrison Bader, never an offensive force, is expected to return from his foot injury later this month. Matt Carpenter (broken foot) and Andrew Benintendi (broken bone in wrist) are longer shots to return before the postseason. Then there are the nagging day-to-day injuries. Anthony Rizzo recently received an epidural to aid his achy back, and DJ LeMahieu is playing through a toe injury that has really sapped his power. He won’t return to 100 percent until the offseason.
“I don’t think so,” Boone recently told reporters, including NJ.com, when asked whether rest would help LeMahieu. “This is something that’s probably going to be like an offseason kind of thing that kind of benefits him. But we’ll keep monitoring it with him as far as just how he’s doing. Try to continue to get him through this.”
To have their best chance at winning the division and eventually the World Series, the Yankees have to be at full health, or close to it. That applies to every team in the sport, so they’re not unique, but getting healthy qualifies as something that must happen for the Yankees to right the ship. Bader, Chapman, Cortes, and Severino are due back soon. Getting LeMahieu and Rizzo right is a bigger question and arguably a greater need.
“Injuries and guys (being) beat up is a real factor, but everyone deals with that,” Boone told MLB.com over the weekend. “We’ve still got to find a way to put points on the board right now. So the best I can tell you is, we’re in control of that. On the whole, we’ve done a good job.”
2. The veterans must perform
Judge is a one-man army right now. The Yankees scored three runs in their three-game weekend series with the Rays and Judge created all three. He hit two solo homers, then doubled and aggressively advanced to third on a ground ball to short to set up a sacrifice fly and create the third run. According to ESPN, Judge became the first Yankee since Babe Ruth in 1929 to score every run in a series of at least three games in which New York scored more than one run.
The culprits are numerous. Giancarlo Stanton is 4 for 35 (.114) without an extra-base hit since returning from the injured last two weeks ago. Gleyber Torres has hit .187/.218/.293 in the second half. LeMahieu is in a 2 for 38 (.053) slump and has gone close to a calendar month without an extra-base hit. Others like Josh Donaldson, Aaron Hicks, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa haven’t hit pretty much all year. Now Benintendi may miss the rest of the season.
At some point the veterans — LeMahieu, Rizzo, and Stanton in particular — have to give Judge help on offense. Teams are increasingly pitching around him (30 walks in his last 32 games) and why wouldn’t they? No one else in the lineup is hitting. Judge is having a truly incredible season. No one player can make a team though. The Yankees need their other veteran hitters to get their act together and give Judge support.
“It’s time to roll,” Stanton told MLB.com over the weekend. “I mean, we know where it’s at. We’ve got to keep pushing and get it tomorrow. It’s still ours. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re still in a fine opportunity. It is definitely ours for the taking.”
3. The kids must contribute
Two weeks ago the Yankees called up super utility man prospect Oswaldo Cabrera. Last week they summoned shortstop prospect Oswald Peraza. The Yankees did not call them up to be saviors. They called them up because they believe they’re better than what they had, specifically Hicks and Kiner-Falefa. The early returns haven’t been great. Cabrera is 12 for 60 (.200) while playing four positions and Peraza is 0 for 7.
Ultimately, the Yankees will only go as far as veterans like Judge, LeMahieu, Rizzo, Stanton, and Torres take them. They do have to get something from the kids though. Cabrera and Peraza can’t just be along for the ride. Cabrera’s at-bats have been solid despite the lack of results, and he had two three-hit games early in the club’s road trip.
The trade deadline has passed. There’s no help coming from outside the organization, so turning to the kids is the only move the Yankees can make. Cabrera and Peraza aren’t going to be saviors, but they have to be more than spare parts too.
4. Take advantage of home field
The Yankees have 28 games remaining this season and 16 of them will be played in Yankee Stadium. Even during this recent skid, the Yankees have been better at home, going 11-11 in the Bronx and 13-21 on the road. For the season, they are 45-20 with a plus-110 run differential at home and 35-34 with a plus-76 run differential on the road.
Here are the Yankees’ remaining home series:
- Sept. 5-8: 4 games vs. Twins
- Sept. 9-11: 3 games vs. Rays
- Sept. 20-21: 2 games vs. Pirates
- Sept. 22-25: 5 games vs. Red Sox
- Sept. 30 to Oct. 2: 3 games vs. Orioles
Those two home series this week are incredibly important. The Yankees have historically dominated the Twins — they are 95-37 (.720) against the Twins since 2002, the best record any team has against any other team during that time — and they need that to continue this week to give themselves breathing room. That Rays series is obviously important given the AL East standings.
The Yankees will play the majority of their remaining games at home in Yankee Stadium and that’s good news, because they have played much better in the Bronx than on the road. That’s true even during their extended slump. Take care of business at home and the AL East race should take care of itself. Don’t take care of business at home and the Yankees will be in real trouble.