Yankees’ May dominance barely accomplished anything in AL East race vs. Orioles

Tighter defense and a few trade deadline pitching adds could be the difference makers.
New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles / Patrick Smith/GettyImages

The MLB media hype machine in New York City certainly enjoyed Aaron Judge’s monster May, when he blasted 13 of his league-leading 21 home runs so far this season, helping the Yankees to a 20-7 record, which meant they were the only team not to lose a series in the month.

However, being the champion of May isn’t always the best predictor of postseason success.

Over the 30 days in games through Sunday, Judge had 15 home runs, 28 RBI and an otherworldly 1.544 OPS. Combine that with teammate Juan Soto’s nine dingers, 28 RBI and 1.090 OPS over the same stretch, and it seems clear the Yankees should be the class of the division. For good measure, add in the remarkable 4+ innings from Yankee starters in every game they've played this season, with an AL-leading 2.78 ERA for their rotation, and you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking New York must be walking away with the AL East by now?

But the standings don’t lie: the Baltimore Orioles are only 3.0 games back of New York, with only one more loss and four games in hand. They’ve matched the Yankees' 8-2 run in their past ten games, and have scored 287 runs season-to-date, only 12 less than that juggernaut Yankees’ offense. In fact, at 5.04 runs per game, the O’s are actually scoring at a better pace than the Yankees’ 4.90 average.

The run differential numbers explain why New York was the first MLB team (along with the Phillies) to win 40+ games in 2024, with the Yankees at +107 and Philadelphia at +99 versus Baltimore’s +74. But some better fielding should narrow that gap; Baltimore’s pitching staff has a 3.61 fielder independent pitching (FIP) mark, suggesting the defense behind them explains the 0.16 earned runs per nine innings difference from the Yankees pitchers’ FIP of 3.77.

Per FanGraphs, the Yankees have +30 defensive runs saved (DRS) above average, compared to the Orioles at +23. That explains most of the difference above in FIP, with another factor likely being a higher batting average against on balls in play (BABIP) of .269 for Baltimore versus .254 for New York. That figure mostly represents bad luck for the O's pitchers. With all this luck going the Yankees' way, surely they must have expanded their division lead? Oh.

Obviously Gunnar Henderson’s 19 home runs, 42 RBI and .959 OPS in 57 games compare favorably to Judge’s numbers over 61 games. With Jordan Westburg, Ryan Mountcastle and Adley Rutschman also all above .800+ on OPS, Baltimore trails only New York in home runs at 84 in 57 games versus 90 in 61 games.

Orioles have absorbed struggles, still kept pace with media darling Yankees in AL East

But everyday outfielders Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander have both struggled out of the gate for Baltimore, while the emergence of 24-year-old Colton Cowser has pushed Austin Hays into a more of a part-time and late inning defensive replacement role.

The season ending injuries to John Means and Tyler Wells, who will both undergo surgeries to repair the UCLs in their respective throwing arms, comes as a tough blow to the rotation. Dean Kremer is on the injured list as well with a right triceps strain, but general manager Mike Elias hasn’t ruled out a return by the end of June for him yet.

In the meantime, we could see top pitching prospects Chayce McDermott (Orioles’ No. 8 prospect per MLB Pipeline) and lefty Cade Povich (No. 9) both earning big league callups. Assuming Means and Wells are placed on the 60-day IL, both McDermott and Povich could have their contracts selected and be added to the 40-man roster without any other corresponding moves.

Surely this team has earned the right for GM Mike Elias to add players by the July 30 trade deadline as well.

“We’ve got to see how the whole market evolves, and then we’re also monitoring our own developments internally in the Minors and so forth,” Elias said Friday in announcing the Means and Wells injuries. “These injuries are significant developments, obviously, but it’s not something that I think we need to address today, to get another starting pitcher in the organization… But gosh, it would be foolish to expect these to be our last pitching injuries, and there’s a lot of time left. So we’ll just see what happens.”

Potential starting pitcher trade targets from the teams already out of the Wild Card chase include Erick Fedde of the White Sox, lefty Tyler Anderson of the Angels, southpaw Austin Gomber and righty Cal Quantrill of the Rockies, lefty Jesús Luzardo of the Marlins and Paul Blackburn of the Athletics. Depending on how they play through July, the Blue Jays could also trade left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who will be a free agent after the season. They traded J.A. Happ to the Yankees at the 2018 trade deadline, so an intra-division deal for a rental player isn’t out of the question, as long as the Jays feel satisfied with the return.

Another interesting trade idea would be a deal for 6’ 6” southpaw White Sox starter Garrett Crochet, who would cost more, given he’s only 24 years old and is under team control through the 2026 season. Featuring a 97 mph four-seamer, Crochet had a 0.93 ERA across five starts with a 0.724 WHIP in May, winning four games. He only allowed one run in 6.0 innings with 8 strikeouts on Saturday in his latest start. Dylan Sanders of SI.com recently proposed a trade sending Heston Kjerstad and Cade Povich to Chicago in return for 2.5 years of control of Crochet. Given Kjerstad's current blocked status, it could make some sense for Baltimore to explore.

After all, the Yankees are going to flirt with reinforcements to attempt to finally pull away from the Orioles, at long last. Baltimore has to counter. Nothing the Yankees have tried to create distance has worked so far, and that can't change.

Relievers of note include 28-year-old White Sox closer Michael Kopech, who is earning $3 million this season and has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining, as well as a potential reunion with Marlins closer (and pending free agent) Tanner Scott, who has a 1.57 ERA and seven saves for Miami. All those left-handed arms above might help in the late September series against the Yankees’ left-handed hitters like Soto, Alex Verdugo and Anthony Rizzo.

So while the Yankees - and Judge and Soto - are getting all the media adulation, the O’s are tucked in nicely in the standings, only 3.0 games back. They have four games in hand on New York, with nine games head-to-head still to come after they took the first series of the season 3-1 in late April. With some tighter defense and additional pitching help by the trade deadline, there is no reason to believe that they can’t catch and pass New York to repeat as AL East champs.