Another Red Sox/Yankees series is upon us and with each passing series the wins and losses are becoming more and more meaningful.
The Boston Red Sox have a five and a half game lead with 53 games to play, ten head to head with these second place Yankees. Seven of those ten will be at Fenway park with a three game, mid-week set in the Bronx in mid-September. The Red Sox currently own a league-best 75-34 record and .688 winning percentage.
The Yankees have hardly had what could be considered a disappointing season. Their 68-38 record ranks third in wins behind only the Red Sox and Houston Astros, while their .642 winning percentage ranks second with 56 games remaining.
The Red Sox lead all of baseball in runs scored (572) and are second in run differential (+176) while the Yankees lead in OPS, slugging percentage, home runs and they are third in run differential (+137). The Red Sox rank third in team ERA (3.47) and WHIP (1.21) while the Yankees are fourth in team ERA (3.59), second in WHIP (1.18) and first in bullpen ERA (2.86). Regardless of the metric, both teams rank at or near the top of them all and are side-by-side with the other.
A five and a half game lead, four in the loss column, is far from insurmountable. But, with 53 games for the Red Sox and 56 games remaining for the Yankees and only 10 of those head-to-head, every series that passes and each game completed makes that lead more and more steep to overcome.
That makes this four game series, even in early August ,that much more important for both teams. If you were to ask what would be a good outcome to this series I suspect both clubs would say a split. Not because either team thinks they are the underdog, the Yankees lead the season series 5-4, but because of how harmful losing three of four will be to both teams.
Potential Post Series Narratives or Nightmares
If the Yankees wake up Monday morning 7.5 games behind a Red Sox team that just took three of four from you without facing Chris Sale and possibly Xander Bogaerts, who is on pace for one over 105 wins and within reach of one of the best seasons in baseball history, they have to feel like they are destined for the Wild Card game. They will have lost three of four to their rival for the division title with only six head-to-head opportunities and 52 total game remaining, three of those six back at Fenway park.
If you are a Red Sox team waking up on Monday morning with a 3.5 game lead in the standings and two in the loss column, with three fewer games remaining, after losing three of four at home to a Yankees team with a struggling ace, Luis Severino, that didn’t have Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez or J.A. Happ, then you have to be concerned about how you are going to fend off a team with three games in hand.
You are a Red Sox team that was out-maneuvered at a trade deadline in which the Yankees added a better starter, J.A. Happ, than you did (Nathan Eovaldi) and one of the best relievers, Zach Britton, to a bullpen that is already much stronger than your own.
Both scenarios are possible and both are ominous depending on which perspective you are coming from. Think about what a sweep for either team would mean or feel like to their fans and the media. Either a more insurmountable lead if you’re the Yankees or an even slimmer one if you’re the Red Sox, along with the emotional impact of being swept in a crucial four-game set. Imagine other possible narratives that could play out.
Chris Sale is expected to return from the disabled list, but what if it turns out his shoulder issue doesn’t seem as minor next week as it appears to be right now? What if the Red Sox bullpen blows a game or two or the Yankees pen shuts down the Red Sox bats and wins one or two?
What if David Price gets rocked for eight earned in 3.1 innings pitched like he was last time he faced the Yankees in a prime time Sunday Night game on ESPN? The Yankees potential nightmare scenario? What if Luis Severino continues to struggle, the Yankees bullpen gets smacked around by the Red Sox bats or Brian Johnson and Nate Eovaldi shut down those vaunted Yankee bats, injuries or not?
Redefining the AL East Story
When healthy, I think most baseball fans and the media believe that the Yankees have the better offense, even though the Red Sox have scored more runs.
I also believe that the perception is that they have comparable starting rotations, with the Red Sox having a slight edge because Sale is the better ace and Sonny Gray has been so bad. Masahiro Tanaka is probably the best of the number two’s because of David Price’s inconsistency and struggles against the Yankees, but there isn’t a glaring difference between the two.
The rest of the starters don’t instill much confidence in either fan base and while the Yankees pitchers have better ERA’s, the eye test isn’t convincing one way or the other for or against either team.
Then there is the glaring difference - the bullpens.
The Yankees have the best bullpen in baseball if not baseball history and it got better when they added Zach Britton at the deadline, while the Red Sox have a great closer and a group leading up to him that most Sox fans would tell you they have zero confidence in even though they have been better than those same fans give them credit for.
The Red Sox bullpen has the fifth best ERA in baseball (3.34). Bullpen ERA can be fungible because of small sample sizes and when inherited runs allowed are tacked on to starters and not the reliever that actually allowed them. Another potentially significant difference that receives a lot of statistical credit in WAR calculations and very little in actual discussions surrounding these two teams, defense.
The Red Sox infield was bolstered by the addition of Ian Kinsler at the trade deadline, but with Xander Bogaerts out with an injured wrist for Thursday Nights opening game, the Red Sox will have Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez and Blake Swihart starting in their infield.
The Yankees infield defense is neither extremely strong or prohibitively weak, but it is better than what the Red Sox are putting out there on Thursday night.
Where the Red Sox make up for that difference is in the outfield. They have three center fielders in their outfield and two, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, who might be the best defensive players in all of baseball at their respective positions.
Brett Gardner doesn’t embarrass himself out there and Aaron Hicks is an above average defensive center fielder in his own right, but the Red Sox lap the field in outfield defense in comparison to most teams and this weekend is no different. The benefits are diminished by the Green Monster at home in Fenway Park and on the road in the Bronx and that short right field porch, but overall it is one place where the Red Sox hold a significant advantage that impacts wins and losses as this close season winds down.
All of these preconceived perceptions could be cemented or changed if the Red Sox or Yankees dominate or get dominated this weekend. Its only one series and it is only early August, but the potential is there for a lot to be told and it could be done in a very, very bold way.
Regardless of what happens in this series, the Red Sox bullpen won’t be perceived to be better than the Yankees. But, their bullpen could be viewed as less of a weakness while the Yankees bullpen could be perceived as being less dominant than it has been.
The Red Sox offense, according to the statistical metrics, is comparable to the Yankees, even if it isn’t perceived to have the firepower that the modern-day Murderers Row has. J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi could show with their play in this series that while they aren’t the hulking sluggers that Aaron Judge and Stanton are (though I suspect J.D. Martinez might take issue with that), they are plenty powerful enough to confirm that their league leading record is not a mirage. The stories can be retold and the narratives could be re-outlined going forward all by this four game series at Fenway.
Thursday Nights Matchup
CC Sabathia (6-4, 3.53 ERA) vs. Brian Johnson (1-3, 3.45 ERA)
Fenway Park has never been a place that welcomed left handed pitchers with smiles and love and neither of these lefties are the type of starter at this stage in their careers to slay the monster. The Red Sox benefit more tonight than the Yankees in their opening game of the series.
Game 1 - What to Watch
The largest benefit for Red Sox starter Brian Johnson will be the absence of Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, but the drastic splits of Didi Gregorius, who is a significantly lesser player on the road and against left handed pitching, will be in his favor on the field as well. Didi Gregorius is batting .259 with a .683 OPS against left handed pitching while batting .240 with a .676 OPS on the road.
The opposite is true for Johnson and what is likely to be his toughest matchup of the night, Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton has a .330 batting average, .972 OPS and he has hit 12 home runs away from the Bronx this season, while he has batted .357 with a 1.154 OPS and 10 home runs against left handed pitchers. Gleyber Torres (.333 batting average) and to a lesser degree Aaron Hicks and Miguel Andujar hit lefties well, but Stanton is the guy that the Red Sox can’t allow to beat them tonight.
Offensively, Andrew Benintendi is batting .318 with seven home runs at Fenway park, but it’s Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez that kill visiting pitchers. Martinez has batted .349 with 20 home runs while Betts has batted .370 with 10 home runs at Fenway park and both have an OPS over 1.160.
That is ridiculous. The Red Sox haven’t been dreadful against left handed pitching, but they do rank fifteenth in OPS and ninth in runs scored, both significantly worse than how they rank overall in both categories. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez both bat over .300 against left handers, but Martinez has only four home runs while Betts has eight. Sabathia might not be the best Yankees starter this weekend, but he has a chance to play the matchups in a way that the Red Sox weaker splits could help him turn in the best outing.
For the Yankees, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton are all swinging hot bats heading into this big series while Mookie Betts has batted .167 over the last week and Andrew Benintendi struggles against left handed pitching and has batted .200 in his last six games.
A few players to watch Thursday night are Steven Pearce, who was acquired for his aptitude against left handed pitching, Blake Swihart and Ian Kinsler for the Red Sox, Aaron Hicks and Miguel Andujar for the Yankees. Neither of the Red Sox have hit lefties well this season, but both have small sample sizes to draw in 2018.
Hicks has hit lefties well and tonight could be his night, while Miguel Andujar is getting comfortable as a potential impact bat in an offense that it’s easy to overlook his presence in . Swihart has been catching more consistently and receiving more at-bats since the DFA of Hanley Ramirez and this could be a weekend that he has an impact.
Overall, for the Yankees, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres are the bats to hide from while Didi Gregorius and Brett Gardner are the batters to exploit. For the Red Sox, the Yankees need to stay as far away from J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts as they can while they should attack the weak underbelly of this Red Sox offense and that starts with Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez and Jackie Bradley Jr. Steven Pearce and Aaron Hicks are the Wild Cards.