Cole has been ordinary: 4-3 with a 3.63 earned run average and a major league-high 13 homers allowed. After losing in the opener of a doubleheader in Oakland on Tuesday, the Astros had the same record as the Yankees, the worst record among teams holding A.L. playoff spots. In the expanded postseason, all first- and second-place teams in each division will qualify for a best-of-three first-round series, along with the two teams in each league with the next-best records.
Through Monday, every major league team with a .500 record or better would get in. Playoff spots have suddenly become as cheap as an invitation to a college bowl game: Win half your games, and congratulations! The difference, of course, is that a Quick Lane Bowl triumph cannot lead you to a championship, but an M.L.B. team with a No. 8 seed has the same title shot as the regular season’s best team.
Those odds should have worked against the Yankees, who seemed poised to dominate most opponents when this truncated season started. But while their offense overcame last year’s injury barrage, it has sputtered to do the same this season. Besides Clint Frazier, who has thrived with regular playing time, the Yankees’ injury replacements have flopped, accentuating the persistent absences of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
Everyday players like Gary Sanchez, Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks have regressed, and while the Yankees still draw plenty of walks, their .756 on-base plus slugging percentage entering Tuesday was the worst in the A.L. East. Their team batting average, .237, would be their worst in a season in 51 years.
The pitching has been a mess, too, with a middling 4.56 E.R.A.; even the rebuilding Orioles have been better. Through 41 games — about a quarter of a typical 162-game season — the Yankees had used 23 pitchers, more than they used all season a decade ago. Much has changed in M.L.B. since then, especially in starters’ workloads, but the Yankees have taken the trend to the extreme.
No Yankees starter has worked 200 innings since C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda in 2013. Since then, every other A.L. team has pushed at least one pitcher to that milestone, but through Monday, Yankees starters were averaging less than four and two-thirds innings per start, ranking 21st among M.L.B.’s 30 clubs.
In 33 games not started by Cole, the Yankees’ starter has worked more than five innings only nine times. While no individual reliever seems overworked, the sheer volume of innings to cover increases the odds that one or two relievers will have a bad game. When they do, it blows up whatever scripted matchups the Yankees had planned.