One of the great sports fallacies is the old Bill Parcells saw that claims you are what your record says you are. Untrue! Take the American League wild card race. The Yankees and the Seattle Mariners are tied atop the standings with six weeks left in the season. Are the teams equals? No. The Yankees have outscored their opponents by 163 runs, while the Mariners have outscored theirs by 18. Timely hitting, quality relief pitching, shrewd situational managing, and plain luck or the lack of any or all of these can account for much of this. The Yankees, though, have been and are a better team, no matter what Parcells would say about the matter.
The better saw to apply to the wild card race might be the one that points out that a win in April counts as much as a win in September. This one is actually true, and it brings up the problem the Yankees are facing right now: No matter how good they are, their record still doesn't reflect it. After all, no matter how hot they've been since the All-Star break, no matter how badly they humiliate their rivals, and no matter how much the Boston Red Sox stumble, all Joe Torre's men have been able to do has been to dig themselves out of a hole. That puts them in position to make the playoffs, and may even make them the wild card favorites. But there's a lot of baseball left to play.
Of all the Yankees' problems, perhaps the biggest is this: Of the contending teams, they have the toughest schedule over the rest of the season. It isn't just that their already-slim hopes of winning the division fade when one realizes that the Red Sox have 12 games left with the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Every other team shooting for a playoff spot has it easier than the Yankees will.
In determining this, I used Baseball Prospectus's third-order standings, which are based not on actual records but on underlying team performance. These theoretical standings, to give an example, see the Yankees as a 7147 team, and the Cleveland Indians as a 6256 team, which seems fair after this weekend. The Yankees may be only 1.5 games ahead of the Indians in the real world. But after Saturday's 112 shelling and the sight of Jhonny Peralta being picked off first with the bases loaded and none out while down by four yesterday, few would see the teams as equals, or as likely to perform equally well over the rest of the season.
These third-order standings show the Yankees as nearly equal to the Red Sox, and an order of magnitude better than any other team in the league, and thus as likely to stay hot enough to make it to October. The great variable in pennant races, though, especially in the era of the unbalanced schedule, is strength of opposition. If the Yankees and Indians each played nothing but .500 teams the rest of the year, we'd expect that the Yankees would play .598 ball, and the Indians .530 ball, based on how well they've played this year. As is, though, the Yankees will be playing teams with a combined third-order winning percentage of .526, while Indians opponents will be at .481.
This disparity means that, speaking roughly, the Yankees project to play .572 ball over the rest of the season, while the Indians project to play .549 ball. Combine that with their actual records to this point, and the Yankees' projected record comes out at 9171, while the Tribe's is 9072. Those April losses counted.
Unhappily for Yankees partisans, the same exercise shows the Red Sox finishing with a 10062 record. More happily, it shows the Detroit Tigers ending the year at 8874, with the California Angels grabbing the West title with a 9270 record, and the Mariners ending up at 8775. That would put the Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, and Angels in the playoffs, which certainly sounds reasonable enough. These aren't, though, large margins, and a bad week could well knock the Yankees out of the hunt.
The difficulty is really that the Yankees' schedule is a lot tougher than it seems. For instance, they have nine games left with the Baltimore Orioles, who are eight games under .500 but have, according to those third-order standings, played about as well as the Tigers have. Much the same is true of the Toronto Blue Jays, whom the Yankees will face seven more times this year. No one looks at the schedule and trembles at the thought of Baltimore and Toronto, but these teams are quite capable of playing spoiler roles. The Yanks get the Devil Rays for six games, and the Kansas City Royals for three. But every other team they play is, at least theoretically, tough. The Yankees are much, much better than their record says they are, but the same is true of some other teams, as well. This race will be a nail-biter.