HomeSports NewsAt the Letters: How vulnerable are the Yankees now?

At the Letters: How vulnerable are the Yankees now?

NEW YORK – When the weekend began, the Toronto Blue Jays were 10.0 games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East.

By the time the four-game series ended, Alek Manoah was chirping Gerrit Cole and the Blue Jays had gained two games in the standings.

To call this series in the Bronx eventful would be an understatement and Sportsnet’s At the Letters podcast was there as it all unfolded.

Look for interviews, analysis and conversations wherever you find your podcasts this coming week.

1. Are the Yankees catchable? Regardless, has your opinion of the Yankees changed? 

Ben Nicholson-Smith

Looking at this objectively, the Yankees are clear AL East favourites. They’re a talented team. They have an 8.0 game lead. Only seven weeks remain in the regular season.

But wow, being at Yankee Stadium this weekend shifted my perspective on this team. The Blue Jays are playing well and the Yankees truly aren’t.

All weekend, the frustration was obvious. Yankees fans were booing everyone from Aroldis Chapman and Aaron Hicks to Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner. On Saturday you had Aaron Boone slamming his hand on the table. Ultimately, the home team won just once.

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Bottom line, if there’s a time to gain on the Yankees it’s right now, when they’re struggling and Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom are next on the schedule. Whether the Blue Jays can take advantage is another question, but the opportunity looks as real as it has in months.

Arden Zwelling

It was unreasonable to expect the Yankees to continue winning at the .716 clip they did through the first half of the season. Just as it’s unreasonable to expect them to continue losing at the .610 rate they have since. Teams ebb, teams flow. Some more severely than others. But true talent typically wins out in the end.

And there’s no denying the Yankees talent. That’s why an objective measure like FanGraphs playoff odds still gives them a 91 percent chance of winning the AL East — a projection that likely looks extremely similar to the proprietary models every team utilizes in its decision-making.

It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Yankees rattle off six or seven wins in a row between now and September. They’ve played poorly of late. But they’re still that good.

The one thing you can say is that by winning a four-game series in the Bronx last week, the Blue Jays at least put the divisional race in play. That’s not a circumstance anyone was anticipating a month ago.

A sensible read of the situation still gives Toronto only an extremely outside chance of actually catching New York over the next six weeks. But it’s a more realistic chance now than it was on Thursday. And, boy, imagine what it’d look like if the Blue Jays hadn’t frittered away all those games against the Orioles and Guardians a couple weeks ago?

2. Who’s one player who’s already doing his part as the stretch run approaches? Someone from whom the Jays would happily take more of the same?

Arden Zwelling

You can thank the .243 BABIP Matt Chapman carried through the season’s first two months for the .773 OPS he’s carrying into 2022’s final stretch.

Perhaps no MLB hitter was impacted as severely by April and May’s deadened baseballs as Chapman, whose process indicators — he’s among MLB’s top 15 per cent of hitters in barrel percentage, average exit velocity, expected slugging, and chase rate — belie his results.

But Chapman’s luck turned with the weather, and well-struck balls that were once falling into outfielder’s gloves on warning tracks have begun more frequently landing in outfield seats. Chapman has a .294 BABIP since the beginning of June, a regression to the mean that will be a big boon for the Blue Jays if it continues over the next six weeks.

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Time to play the arbitrary endpoints game. It’s probably a bit much to ask Chapman to sustain the .274/.360/.600 line he’s put up since July 5. But how about the .249/.319/.546 line he has since June 14? Or even the .255/.334/.511 rate he’s produced at since May 16 — essentially the day Chapman began dragging his season out of the rut it began in.

Either of the latter two options seem realistic. In the since-mid-June sample, you have a bit more power, a little less on-base. In the since-mid-May one, less pop but fewer outs.

Either way, Chapman’s providing an OPS around .850 and a steady source of offence in the bottom half of Toronto’s order. Combine that with Chapman’s defence, which doesn’t slump, and you’ve got the kind of foundational piece every contender needs.

Ben Nicholson-Smith

When the season began, Ross Stripling was a swingman. As recently as May 28, he was asked to record a save. But a shift back to the rotation soon followed and since then the right-hander has proven to be an indispensable member of the Blue Jays’ rotation.

Roughly three quarters of the way through the season, Stripling has a 2.93 ERA, 89 innings and 2.2 WAR, as calculated by FanGraphs. At this rate, he’s headed for 120 innings or so with 3.0 WAR and a sub-3.00 ERA.

If the Blue Jays got that production from Stripling, they’d be thrilled (teams around the league would surely take note, too, as pitching is always in demand and the 32-year-old’s on the brink of free agency).

Perhaps most remarkable of all, though, is the consistency Stripling has displayed. He has allowed zero, one or two runs in 21 of his 24 appearances. He has allowed three runs twice and four runs once but never more than that. For a team with enough questions in the starting rotation, that consistency has a ton of value. If Stripling can continue providing it, their chances improve considerably.

3. And who’s one player from whom the Blue Jays need more?

Ben Nicholson-Smith

I’ll keep this one simple. Go to the ERA leaderboard for 2022 and sort from worst to best. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, the name that pops right to the top of the list is José Berríos (5.39).

A Berríos apologist might point out that you have to be doing something right to even qualify for the ERA title, or that he was good against the Yankees on Thursday or that his fastball velo is actually up in 2022.

But it’s equally true that his fastball has been getting crushed (.364 average allowed, .642 slugging percentage allowed). Because of that, he has allowed more home runs than anyone in the American League.

Let’s not complicate this one too much. The Blue Jays are paying Berríos to pitch like a No. 2 or 3 starter. He’s been pitching at replacement level. Moving forward, they need him to close that gap.

Arden Zwelling

In 2021, Bo Bichette was a top-five MLB shortstop offensively, batting .298/.343/.484 — good for a 122 wRC+ and 121 OPS+. A year later, he’s been a more-or-less league-average hitter, carrying a .258/.297/.421 line into late-August, which gives him a 104-wRC+ and 102-OPS+. This year’s on-base percentage is a point lower than last year’s batting average. A lot of 2021’s hits have become 2022’s outs.

In Bichette’s age-24 season, that’s not the direction anyone — the Blue Jays, projection systems, the man himself — believed his numbers would go. It’s perplexing for all involved. And once the year’s through there will be plenty of time to reflect and consider the macro adjustments Bichette needs to make to better replicate his 2021 results in 2023.

But the season’s not over. And if Bichette can make a micro adjustment to the way he’s being pitched, the way he’s swinging the bat, what he’s offering at, whatever, it’s possible he could unlock something and produce the way everyone expected him to over the final six weeks. We know the ability’s in there. Bichette just has to tap into it.

And we’ve already seen it once this season. From May 16 through June 13, a span of 25 games, Bichette hit .318/.371/.589 with seven homers.

Maddeningly, that’s been his lone hot streak this year. But maybe he has another in him. His aggressive, big-hack approach certainly lends itself to those stretches. And while Bichette can only do so much over Toronto’s final 42 games to improve his overall numbers, he does have an opportunity to play closer to the standard he’s set for himself and help improve his team’s. 

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