Baseball is a long season. That’s a laughably trite point that gets overlooked year after year after year. If you go on a sustained hot streak in the NFL, you’re a playoff team at worst and a Super Bowl winner if you time your run perfectly (see: 2011-12 New York Giants). If you’re well ahead in the NBA or NHL with two months to go in the season, you can go .500 the rest of the way and ease into the playoffs with home-court/ice advantage in the first round or two. But a 10-game lead with two and a half months to go in the baseball season is worth comparatively less because barely half the season has been played.
When the Yanks were up 10 games on the Orioles on July 18, there were 71 games to go in the season. From that point, .500 baseball the rest of the way — let’s say 36-35 — would have given the Yankees a 93-69 record for the year, which is a strong year but by no means a division winner. The Yankees’ hefty mid-July lead in the AL East was primarily because the rest of the division was underperforming — at 47-44, Baltimore had the worst record of any “second place in its division” team in baseball.
Since then, the Yankees have gone 22-28. That’s not playoff-caliber by any means, BUT it’s not a collapse like the ’64 Phillies (lost 10 games in a row in September to blow a 6.5-game division lead with 12 to play), or ’11 Red Sox (finished the season on a 7-20 streak). The Yankees this year have been more like the 1978 Red Sox, who were up 10 games on July 8 with a 57-25 record, went 42-38 the rest of the way and were caught by a red-hot Yankees team that finished the season on a 52-21 tear.
Since July 18, Baltimore is 32-18, the second-best record in the American League in that span behind Oakland. The third-best record belongs to Tampa Bay, which has gone 30-19 and climbed to within two games of the Yanks and Orioles atop the division. Even if they’d played flat .500 ball, the Yanks would be just three games up on Baltimore.
In a recent post, I compared the Yanks’ season to a marathoner who opens up a huge lead on his competitors by Mile 15, hits a wall and slows down around Mile 20 and gets caught by a fast-kicking pursuer at Mile 23. With about 1/8 of their season to go, the Yankees are pretty much at Mile 23 now. And while the Orioles are massively overachieving to this point (by Pyathgorean win percentage, they would be in fourth place in the AL East, 12 games behind the Yanks), they are not going away.
The Yankees have even taken on the role of tired marathon runner within games, blowing leads apace night in and night out. Ace C.C. Sabathia has been staked to early leads in his last three starts and blown them all. On Tuesday, Hiroki Kuroda couldn’t hold a 3-2 advantage in a critical September game, allowing a sixth-inning home run to Dustin Pedroia to knot the score at 3-3. Three innings later, David Robertson was asked to pitch a second inning to keep the game tied in the bottom of the ninth. After two cheap hits, Robertson ran out of gas, allowing a game-winning single to Jacoby Ellsbury. Robertson looked weary out on the mound in the game’s final pitches, just like his team has looked for six weeks.