The Yankees Post Mortem
Entering this past weekend’s four game set at Fenway Park, both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees had to avoid two things.
Don’t lose three of four and definitely do not get swept.
A 2-2 split would maintain the status quo, an acceptable outcome for both. It’s early August. There’s still a lot of season left to make a move if you’re the Yankees. For the Red Sox, a 5.5 game lead with only six head-to-head matchups remaining, three of them at Fenway Park, and the way they have been playing this season, was a good place to be. Anything else would shake things up, for the better for one and for the worse for the other.
One team was unable to avoid what had to be avoided. We have a good idea who is going to win the American League East. Now the question is, what did we learn from an impactful four game sweep in early August?
The Red Sox entered the series with a 5.5 game lead in the standings while the Yankees had three games in hand. There were whispers that the Yankees couldn’t catch the Red Sox even before the series started, but if the Yankees could pick up two games in the standings by winning three of four with three in hand and six head-to-head games remaining, their window to win the AL East division was still very much open.
Instead, the Red Sox not only extended their lead from 5.5 to 9.5 games and made the American League East division essentially unattainable for the Bronx Bombers, they did it convincingly. My initial question was, how convincing was it? How insightful was it?
Luis Severino continued his struggles, their shut down closer blew up in a prime time spot and the Yankee lineup was dominated by two right handed pitchers (Rick Porcello and Nate Eovaldi) that aren’t going to be confused with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Carrasco or Corey Kluber.
It isn’t all the Yankees fault. They blew an early three run lead in Thursday’s game as well as a late three run lead on Sunday night, both lost opportunities, but the Red Sox deserve credit too.
They have been the best team in baseball for a reason. Even a down year from the American League doesn’t completely delegitimize a team that could finish the year with the best record in baseball history. This four game rivalry series brought elements into focus that could foreshadow things to come in October.
What Did We Learn: New York Yankees
The bullpen is vulnerable
Yes, Aroldis Chapman struggled in a big spot in the highest profile game of the weekend, if not the season. No, the Yankees bullpen is not vulnerable or over praised in some way. They are tied for the third least earned runs allowed - tied with the Boston Red Sox. They rank third in bullpen ERA and Zach Britton has only pitched 3.2 innings after being acquired at the trade deadline.
The Yankees have four potential closers and with the addition of Britton, can play the left/right late-inning chess game against any playoff contending lineup in the American League. The bullpen and the home run is how the Yankees reach the World Series. It is not a vulnerability, regardless of what we saw in this series.
Are the Yankees vulnerable against right handed pitching?
The Yankees rank first against left handed pitching in OPS, while ranking sixth against right handed ones. Giancarlo Stanton has an OPS of 1.132 against left handed pitchers compared to .761 against right handers. This kind of left/right split is pervasive up and down the Yankee lineup. As a team, they have an OPS of .833 against lefties versus .768 against righties.
It’s one thing to be better against one type of pitcher than another. It’s another to characterize them as “vulnerable.” Regardless of how well they hit Brian Johnson and how much they struggled versus Nate Eovaldi and Rick Porcello, the Yankees are still a top ten offense against right handed pitching. It’s a reach to say they are “vulnerable.”
What it does mean is that they match up better in a playoff series against a predominantly left handed rotation like the Boston Red Sox than they do a rotation filled with dominant right handers like the Cleveland Indians or Houston Astros have. It also means that if they have to face Oakland A’s left hander Sean Manaea or Seattle Mariners James Paxton in a Wild Card play-in game the Yankees are better suited to win in those matchups.
The Yankees match up poorly with the Boston Red Sox?
The Red Sox swept the Yankees and if not for a bad night from Craig Kimbrel on Saturday it wouldn’t have been close in three of the four games. That’s how a short regular season series can mislead fans and media into thinking one thing when the opposite is closer to being true.
The Yankees offense is significantly better against left handed pitching while the Red Sox rotation is predominantly left handed. Rick Porcello and Nate Eovaldi are number three or number four starters that pitched like aces in this series while the bullpen is something of a weak spot for this Red Sox team.
The Red Sox and their $240.4 Million payroll have a slight advantage in the starting rotation that makes them a better team over the 162-game marathon of a regular season while the Yankees are configured to be the more dangerous postseason team because of their dominant bullpen. We saw that in 2017 and we are seeing it repeat itself in 2018. That being said, the Yankees were 5-4 in the season series before this weekends sweep.
The Red Sox did outpitch the Yankees this weekend, but when Porcello, Eovaldi and David Price face this lineup in October with a healthy Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, the games are likely to be decided by the bullpens and that is a positive mismatch rather than a negative one for the Yankees. That advantage didn’t have an opportunity to show itself in this series, but it makes the Red Sox a better matchup for the Bronx Bombers than the Cleveland Indians or Houston Astros are on paper.
The Yankee rotation isn’t filled with dominant starters and the one they do have is in the midst of a slump. He allowed four earned runs, walked three and struck out two batters in his start this weekend and hasn’t pitched six innings in any of his last five starts. He has allowed 23 earned runs in his last 25 innings pitched and three of those five starts were versus the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals.
Aces are judged by how they perform against the best teams and in the biggest spots, while teams win or lose based on how far their aces carry them. For the Yankees to advance deep into October they need Severino to pitch like the top-of-the-rotation starter that he was in 2017 and has been for the majority of 2018. He hasn’t been that guy recently and we saw reason to have doubts in this series.
In The Weeds
The Red Sox successfully stole four bases on four attempts against C.C. Sabathia while they only attempted two steals in the other three games and they were caught once. Even J.D. Martinez stole a base against Sabathia while Xander Bogaerts was caught stealing in Sunday nights game. It would appear that the Red Sox have a read on Sabathia.
The Red Sox are tied for the major league lead in stolen bases (88) with one of the highest success rates (88 steals in 106 attempts). Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine have combined to allow almost 75% of baserunners successfully steal on them. With Severino, Tanaka and the addition of J.A. Happ it would appear that Sabathia won’t be a part of their playoff rotation, but the Red Sox aggression on the bases and Sabathia’s issue specifically is an element of the head-to-head matchup to watch.
What Did We Learn: Boston Red Sox
There isn’t much not to be happy about after sweeping the long-time rival Yankees and for all intent and purposes clinching the American League East title if you’re a Red Sox fan, but the insights that can be gleaned from this series are more suggestive than indicative.
Anomaly or Reality?
Red Sox fans witnessed Rick Porcello pitch one of the best games of his major league career and David Price wasn’t terrible on Sunday night, which wasn’t the case the last time he faced the Yankees in prime time. We also saw the gritty Red Sox overcome a rough start right out of the gate on Thursday evening as well as a late inning deficit before winning in extra innings on Sunday night.
The Red Sox trade deadline acquisitions not only illustrated how they can make a difference, if we take their performance this weekend on its face they look like potential difference makers. They had a dominant eight inning shutout performance from Nate Eovaldi, three hits and two RBIs in six at-bats from Ian Kinsler and a three homer game and four homer series from Steve Pearce.
And, maybe most importantly, their bullpen, which General Manager Dave Dombrowski decided not to upgrade at the deadline, didn’t implode. Almost everything the Red Sox did this weekend was positive, but was it more indicative of what to expect in the playoffs or a noteworthy spike in performance?
Is This A World Series Rotation?
They pitched like they can be in this series. Rick Porcello pitched a one-hit masterpiece, Nate Eovaldi went eight innings, allowed three hits and zero runs, while David Price pitched six shutout innings before stumbling into two earned in the seventh, handing it over to the bullpen. Is this what Red Sox fans can or should expect in October?
At his best, David Price was the type of top-of-the-rotation starter that can dominate a playoff series and front a World Series winning starting staff, but he hasn’t been that guy since arriving in Boston. Rick Porcello won a Cy Young, but even that season he wasn’t what most would consider a dominant, front-of-the-rotation ace and Nate Eovaldi has a career ERA of 4.23 and WHIP of 1.39. Chris Sale has an ERA of 8.38 and 1.448 WHIP in 9.2 playoff innings, so to pick apart how he did in a pressure packed series against a potential playoff opponent with the kind of power that this Yankees lineup has at its healthiest would have made for interesting speculation and we didn’t get that here.
The answer to this question is No, or the very least, fans should not look at the sweep of the Yankees and conclude that it is. Chris Sale can front a World Series winning rotation in spite of his small sample size playoff struggles, but David Price, Rick Porcello, Nate Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz won’t make the Red Sox World Series favorites on any paper in comparison to the rest of the best in baseball. If the Red Sox are going to win a World Series they are going to have to overcome being outmatched in both their rotation and bullpen.
Playoff Success Indicators
The Red Sox play great outfield defense, they hit for power and batting average, they don’t strike out at exorbitant rates, a problem we see from the Yankees, and they rank second in On-Base Percentage (.336) behind only the Chicago Cubs (.345). They put pressure on defenses with aggressive baserunning because of a young, athletic lineup that at times has resulted in mistakes, but on the whole, has contributed to their league leading 610 runs scored.
They lead the league in stolen bases and they have been successful on 88 of 106 stolen base attempts, one of the best success rates in baseball. We saw all of these elements on display this weekend and these are things we can reliably expect to see in October.
Reasons for Optimism
The most intriguing performances to examine were David Price and to a lesser degree, Steve Pearce. Chris Sale can be the Ace of a World Series winning Red Sox rotation, but they need a second starter to contribute six or seven quality innings in a playoff-like atmosphere if they are going to out-dual the Indians or Astros rotations and they got that from Price this weekend. If Price can’t provide that in October then the Red Sox are probably better served using him as their high-leverage reliever and starting Porcello or Eovaldi as their number two.
Steve Pearce is interesting because in spite of having the highest payroll in baseball ($240.4 million) they lack offensive depth on the roster. The bottom of their lineup is made up of Brock Holt who has an OPS of .678, Jackie Bradley Jr. and his .663 OPS, Eduardo Nunez .656 OPS, and Sandy Leon .609 OPS. The playoffs often come down to bullpens and the Red Sox need better depth at the bottom of their lineup in the late innings. Steve Pearce showed signs that he could make an impact in that role.
Bigger Picture Perspective
New York Yankees
The Yankees were playing short handed, their ace is in the middle of a bad stretch and as long as both teams advance past the Wild Card round then how they performed over 162, and more specifically four in August, won’t matter compared to how they match up head-to-head in a best-of-seven in October.
Rick Porcello and Nate Eovaldi should have a significantly tougher time when Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are back in the lineup while J.A. Happ should be better than Chance Adams or C.C. Sabathia as well.
The Red Sox look like the far superior team after this weekends sweep based on what appears to be an insurmountable 9.5 game lead in the standings, but if you look closer the reality isn’t so clear.
Entering the weekend the Yankees led the head-to-head series 5-4 and were only 5.5 games behind the Red Sox in spite of a combined record of 13-14 against the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers. The Red Sox are 25-7 against those same three opponents. Thats 12 games in the win column, seven in the loss and a 9.5 game advantage overall. The exact total of the Red Sox lead on the Monday morning after the four game Yankee debacle.
Do fans believe that the Yankees matchup poorly against these three sub-par opponents or is it an anomaly that will correct itself over time? The Yankees have five more games than the Red Sox against these opponents to “correct” this anomaly, or continue their poor record, depending on which of these two possible explanations you believe in.
Boston Red Sox
Xander Bogaerts had only six at-bats in the four games and both Rafael Devers and Chris Sale missed the series due to injury.
Porcello and Eovaldi pitched 17 of 18 possible innings, limiting the exposure of the Red Sox bullpen to a powerful Yankees lineup. And, David Price pitched six shutout frames and in a limited, rested situation, the bullpen was unable to hold a one run lead in that one. The bullpen is a strength of the Yankees and a weakness for the Red Sox, something almost relegated to irrelevance because of three dominant pitching performances by Porcello, Eovaldi and Price.
Steve Pearce should be a solid bat off the bench or against left handed pitching, but a three homer game and four home run series is more than most should expect from a replacement-level player going forward as well.
The four-game set was interesting and we saw a lot to chew on, but with small samples we typically see deceptive indicators rather than reliable prognostications.
The Red Sox are a juggernaut right now and while I projected them to win the AL East in the pre-season, the Yankees are a deserving peer with plenty of reasons to believe that in a short playoff series they will be the favorite to advance.
In this rivalry series we saw a three homer game, a one-hit complete game shutout, an extra-inning thriller and Arod commenting on his history in this series “as if he was a hallowed Yankee,” Hmmmmmm… really Arod? With all that we did see this weekend, we shouldn’t forget what we didn’t see. Chris Sale, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.
We didn’t see a bench clearing brawl or even harsh words exchanged. Don Zimmer and Johnny Pesky weren’t on the field or even mentioned on the broadcasts. There is a lot still to see this season and from these two teams head-to-head. It was an interesting and in many ways informative weekend, but there is plenty to still look forward to in September and hopefully October.