Tuesday night, just before the Mariners started playing the Red Sox, ROOT Sports introduced a little graphic showing the Mariners’ record before and after the Ichiro trade, and showing the Yankees’ record before and after the Ichiro trade. If you’ve been paying any attention to baseball, which you probably have, you know that the Yankees haven’t been playing well lately, and you might know that the Mariners have. Why? If you’re a fan of correlation-to-causation alchemy, because of the Ichiro trade. Clearly, Ichiro is toxic. Alternatively, on July 19, the Yankees traded Dan Brewer to the Braves. That could be the problem. There are correlations everywhere. There are correlations everywhere.
Let’s assume, you and I, that it isn’t that simple. There are very complicated reasons behind the relative rise of the Mariners, and there are very complicated reasons behind the relative fall of the Yankees. We’ll stop talking about the Mariners now because they don’t have anything to do with the rest of this article, as we’re going to focus on the AL East. No matter the reasons, there’s no getting around what’s taken place. There’s no changing the standings as they are, and where once the Yankees had a massive lead over everyone else, Tuesday night they dropped into a tie. The Yankees woke up Wednesday without sole possession of first for the first time since June 12. (That was a very long time ago.) (Sort of.)
This is the story. This is what’s being written about all over the place, and it deserves to be written about exhaustively, because teams don’t just fritter away ten-game division leads, especially when the team in question is the Yankees. It was on July 18 that the Yankees reached their peak. With a 6-0 shutout win over the Blue Jays, the Yankees improved to 57-34, ten games better than the Orioles and 10.5 games better than the Rays. And also 10.5 games better than the Red Sox, who, like the Mariners, won’t be mentioned again.
Since then — and it turned around for everyone right around that date — the Yankees have gone 19-25, the Orioles have gone 29-15, and the Rays have gone 28-16. The Yankees and O’s, as you know, are tied. The Rays, as you know, are a game and a half back. There is but a single month remaining in the regular season, and just like how when a score becomes tied announcers say “we’ve got a whole new ballgame,” we’ve now got a whole new division race, only one that’ll last a sixth as long as they usually do.
If it’s precedent you’re interested in, there isn’t much. Since 1994, only two other teams have given up sole possession of first in a division after achieving a double-digit-game lead. Back on July 18, the Yankees’ division lead was nearly twice as large as the next-largest. There wasn’t any reason to believe that things would come apart, short of a wild swing of the probability pendulum. Well, would you look at that!
Even though the records are what’s most important, I think it’s more interesting to look at a different measure of team performance since that night in July. OPS is hardly a perfect measure, but it does tell us a little more than wins and losses, and OPS data was the easiest data to collect. Here’s how the three AL East contenders have done over the past several weeks, beginning on July 19:
It’s not adjusted for park, it’s not adjusted for opponent; it’s not adjusted for anything. It’s just raw OPS, and based on these numbers, you can see that the Yankees might’ve been a little bit unlucky. You can see that the Orioles might’ve over-achieved, although instead of out-winning a poor run differential, now they’ve been out-winning a good one. And then there are the Rays, who just decided to stop allowing hits and runs. Over this window of time, the Rays allowed 104 runs. The next-lowest total in baseball was 149. The highest total in baseball was 264. The Indians are terrible.
The Rays are the team that’s still on the outside looking in, as far as first in the division is concerned, but it’s the Rays who might be the most terrifying given how they’ve been going. A large part of their recent run prevention has been about hit prevention, which is largely about defense, but the Rays play good defense and their pitching staff is practically untouchable. The worst ERA of any Rays pitcher in the second half is 3.65, belonging to Alex Cobb, and his FIP over that span is 3.88. At present, the Rays’ staff doesn’t have a real weakness, and the offense has no more trying to get by without Evan Longoria.
From this point, you can look at playoff-odds estimators, but those are tricky, since they take into account numbers that might no longer apply. It doesn’t matter, for example, that the Orioles beat a poor run differential early on, because the Orioles aren’t the same team anymore. They’re much better, as evidenced by their recent overall performance. Just for funsies, though, CoolStandings says the Yankees’ division odds have dropped from 87 percent to 49 percent. The Orioles are up from one percent to 22 percent, and the Rays are up from two percent to 30 percent. Pay less attention to the specific numbers, and more attention to the numbers in general. A one-team race has become a three-team race in a matter of weeks, and because of the one-game Wild Card playoff, there’s an awful lot here that’s at stake.
What people always want at the end of something like this is a forecast. A projection of how things are going to play out over the remainder. This is FanGraphs, after all, and shouldn’t there be numbers? I could give you a forecast, but there’s a month left, and the error bars would be enormous. So enormous that the forecast wouldn’t really tell you much of anything. The range of potential outcomes for these three teams is very wide, and they could easily end up finishing in any conceivable order. There aren’t many conceivable orders, and they are all very possible.
The Orioles play six more games against the Rays, and four more games against the Yankees. The Rays play four more games against the Yankees. These are going to be the most critical games; these are not going to be the only critical games. The Orioles and the Yankees still have to deal with Oakland. The Rays have to face Texas and Chicago. The schedules are different, but thoroughly analyzing the differences would suggest a greater confidence in our understanding of how things will go than anyone ought to have.
It’s all possible. And not just in a long-shot sort of way; it’s all very mathematically possible. Any of these teams could finish first, second, and third. Six weeks ago it didn’t look like there was any question of who would finish first, and now that lead’s entirely gone. We’ve been left to the virtually unpredictable, and this is where baseball’s the most magic. This is also precisely the sort of situation the Orioles and the Rays would’ve been hoping for at the start of the year. They knew that they were mathematical underdogs. They’ve now shrunk the season from six months to one month, and the less time there is, the better the odds of the underdogs. If they even still count as underdogs anymore.
The Orioles are getting Jason Hammel back. The Yankees have Alex Rodriguez back, and Mark Teixeira coming back, and Ivan Nova and Andy Pettitte possibly coming back. The Rays woke up one morning and decided to stop allowing runs. Every team has a reason to believe that they’re in, and so we might just end up with a final month that compares to last year’s in terms of daily entertainment. Or someone could jump out to a huge lead over just the next week. It’s all possible, and we can’t know until what happens happens. That’s why this is just the best.