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October 8, 2003

Playoff Prospectus

Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees

by Gary Huckabay and Nate Silver

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You can't ask for much more in a postseason series than Yankees vs. Red Sox. You have two of the top five offenses in baseball, two of the best starting pitchers in history in Martinez and Clemens, and, of course, the long history between the two clubs. On top of all that, you also have two clubs that are remarkably similar in structure, and either at or near the top of the league in resources and front office talent. Any way you look at it, this is a tremendous matchup. On the field, this is how the clubs match up, starting with the offenses.

Starting Lineups

New York Yankees

POS Player (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA)
2B-R Alfonso Soriano (.291/.338/.522/.296)
1B-L Nick Johnson (.288/.426/.478/.318)
SS-R Derek Jeter (.326/.396/.453/.299)
DH-L Jason Giambi (.250/.412/.527/.325)
C-S Jorge Posada (.281/.405/.518/.318)
CF-S Bernie Williams (.263/.367/.411/.281)
LF-L Hideki Matsui (.286/.352/.434/.278)
3B-R Aaron Boone (.267/.327/.453/.272)
RF-R Juan Rivera (.269/.304/.474/.265)

Boston Red Sox

POS Player (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA)
CF-L Johnny Damon (.274/.346/.406/.270)
2B-L Todd Walker (.284/.333/.430/.265)
SS-R Nomar Garciaparra (.301/.345/.524/.296)
LF-R Manny Ramirez (.325/.427/.587/.341)
DH-L David Ortiz (.288/.370/.593/.316)
1B-R Kevin Millar (.274/.346/.466/.283)
RF-L Trot Nixon (.306/.396/.578/.325)
3B-B Bill Mueller (.327/.398/.541/.317)
C-B Jason Varitek (.275/.353/.516/.293)

Those are two very potent offenses. They do everything at the plate, including hit for average, hit for power, and demonstrate amazing pitch selection. Pitch selection is perhaps the single most essential skill for a hitter. It's a practice that leads, first of all, to walks, themselves an important component of offensive production, and secondly, to the favorable hitters' counts associated with big power numbers.

Following are the eight playoff teams, ranked by pitches per plate appearance during the regular season:


Pitches per PA, Playoff Teams
A's     3.87
Red Sox 3.81
Yankees 3.80
Marlins 3.68
Cubs    3.67
Twins   3.64
Braves  3.62
Giants  3.61

The Yankees rate highly, as do the Red Sox, as did the Sox's first round opponents, the Oakland A's.

Now, taking pitches isn't everything. The Brewers scored well in that department--and it resulted in a ton of strikeouts, but few runs. The A's take a lot of bad pitches--but they also take a lot of good pitches, and hitters like Terrence Long watched meatball after meatball cruise over the center of the plate during the Division Series, putting him down in the count when he could have put his team up on the scoreboard.

The key is taking the right pitches, the ones that you're unlikely to make solid contact with, and that's something that Yankee hitters like Nick Johnson, Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada do better than almost anyone else. Looking at the numbers in a bit more detail:


Balls per PA, Playoff Teams
Yankees 1.51
A's     1.48
Red Sox 1.46
Giants  1.39
Cubs    1.37
Braves  1.37
Twins   1.35
Marlins 1.35

Strikes per PA, Playoff Teams
A's     2.38
Red Sox 2.35
Marlins 2.33
Cubs    2.30
Yankees 2.29
Twins   2.29
Braves  2.25
Giants  2.21

The Yanks took far more balls per plate appearance than any other playoff team, but relatively few strikes. That's a sign of a mature, disciplined team. Taking bad pitches could be especially beneficial against the Red Sox: Boston's two best starters, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, are not known for their stamina, and the bullpen is in tatters between Byung-Hyun Kim's breakdown and their heavy use in the Oakland series. Knocking Pedro out an inning earlier because of higher pitch counts could well be a game-winning strategy.

Despite their refined approach at the plate, the Yankees don't have a better offense than the Red Sox, who outscored them by nearly 100 runs during the regular season. The Sox remain the best offense in baseball, with a lineup that has absolutely no weaknesses in it. Both of these teams have the capability to knock a starter out early and put up crooked numbers in multiple innings. Even if you don't want to get into the numbers, think only about the two main criticisms of these offenses over the course of the year:

Yankees: "Alfonso Soriano isn't suited to hit leadoff."
Red Sox: "Walker, Ortiz, and Nixon can't hit lefties."

Think about that. The problem for the Yankees is that the leadoff guy has too many extra-base hits, and too few walks. The Red Sox somehow have to work around the issue that their three worst hitters, who average about a .950 OPS against righties, don't hit lefties particularly well. Think the Tiger front office would like those problems?

Moving on to the reserves:

Bench

New York Yankees

POS Player (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA)
C-R John Flaherty (.275/.306/.471/.260)
IF-S Enrique Wilson (.231/.278/.366/.227)
IF-R Erick Almonte (.260/.321/.350/.242)
OF-L Karim Garcia (.256/.293/.417/.249)
OF-S Ruben Sierra (.274/.331/.426/.260)
OF-L David Dellucci (.228/.311/.353/.242)

Boston Red Sox

POS Player (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA)
OF-R Adrian Brown (.200/.250/.200/.188)
OF-R Gabe Kapler (.290/.349/.452/.276)
C-R Doug Mirabelli (.259/.309/.451/.258)
UT-R Damian Jackson (.268/.301/.331/.223)
IF-R Lou Merloni (.269/.367/.308/.215)

The Division Series against the Twins is indicative of just how irrelevant the Yankees bench is likely to be. Torre used a grand total of one pinch-hitter in the series (Ruben Sierra, twice), and one pinch-runner (David Dellucci). Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams could use defensive replacements, but that's an argument for another day. The Sox's shuffling of Kapler, Brown, and Trot Nixon is pretty much by the book. Nixon starts, but will occasionally come out against tough lefties. Damian Jackson comes in to steal a base and prevent Todd Walker's defense from being on the field any longer than absolutely necessary.

You'd be hard pressed to find two teams in baseball less dependent on their benches than these two, and that's a theme that should carry through the ALCS.

Pitching

New York Yankees

POS Player (SNVA, IP, ARA)
RHP Mike Mussina (3.0, 215, 3.40)
LHP Andy Pettitte (0.7, 208, 4.02)
RHP Roger Clemens (2.2, 212, 3.91)
LHP David Wells (1.2, 205, 4.25)

Boston Red Sox

POS Player (SNVA, IP, ARA)
RHP Tim Wakefield (0.2, 199, 4.79)
RHP Derek Lowe (0.2, 203, 5.00)
RHP Pedro Martinez (5.5, 187, 2.51)
RHP John Burkett (-1.1, 173, 5.47)

The Yankees' relatively quick disposal of the Twins, combined with the rest day built into the schedule, provides Joe Torre with the luxury of setting his rotation pretty much how he pleases. Each of the four starters registered a quality start in the Division Series, combining for a 1.88 ERA in 28.2 IP, so there isn't much help there.

Mike Mussina stands out in terms of his stamina and his consistency, and should be the #1. After that, things get dicey. There's some inkling that Torre will move Clemens up to the #2 hole in order to avoid him having to pitch at Fenway, but that would be a mistake. Instead, Torre should try and maximize the number of starts he gets from his southpaws--the Red Sox murdered right handed pitchers to the tune of an .870 OPS, but managed a more pedestrian .803 figure against lefties.

Grady Little doesn't have the luxury of moving his rotation around. Pedro will pitch Games 3 and 7, having started the deciding Game 5 against Oakland. Little has demonstrated a willingness to shift roles around in both the rotation and the bullpen, so don't be surprised to see Derek Lowe in relief if the Sox need him, particularly on his normal throw days between starts. Red Sox Nation will be sweating out the starts of Burkett and Wakefield; a patient team that catches one of those two on a bad day can put up some big walk and power numbers, and the Yankees don't get impatient in the postseason.

Bullpen

New York Yankees

POS Player (ARP, IP, ARA)
RHP Mariano Rivera (18.1, 70, 1.68)
LHP Gabe White (4.0, 47, 4.05)
RHP Jeff Nelson (-8.4, 55, 3.76)
LHP Chris Hammond (9.9, 63, 2.86)
RHP Jose Contreras (0.0, 71, 3.30)
LHP Felix Heredia (12.4, 87, 2.69)

Boston Red Sox

POS Player (ARP, IP, ARA)
RHP Byung-Hyun Kim (0.7, 50, 4.05)/Bronson Arroyo (5.1, 17, 2.45)
RHP Scott Williamson (-2.3, 20, 6.27)
RHP Mike Timlin (11.4, 84, 3.76)
LHP Alan Embree (8.6, 55, 4.02)
RHP Brandon Lyon (-6.7, 59, 4.75)
RHP Ramiro Mendoza (-9.4, 42, 6.42)
LHP Scott Sauerbeck (-6.3, 17, 7.13)

While the Yankee bullpen isn't as deep as in seasons past, this is the one area in which New York has a clear advantage. Though the Yankee pen was only average during the regular season, it will come in fully rested, and is ideally suited for the match-up against the Red Sox. Torre has three decent left-handers to take advantage of platoon matchups. He has Jose Contreras, a perfect long reliever in that he's capable of going for multiple innings at a time and can be dominant when his command is on. And he has Mariano Rivera, who, postseason mojo or not, is among the best in the game.

What does Grady Little have? A notoriously volatile right hander who went Garry Templeton on the home crowd last week and may be left off the LCS roster with what's being diagnosed as a sprained head, a single lefty he trusts in Alan Embree, and the right-handed duo of Timlin and Williamson. If Little brings in a reliever other than Embree, Timlin, or Williamson, he's simply praying for the best and planning for tomorrow. This is the Achilles Heel of the Sox, and it's where the Yankees have a chance to bury the Sox in a game or two.

Defense

The Yankees were third from the bottom of the league in Defensive Efficiency, a metric that tracks the percentage of balls in play that a team converts into outs. Nor are the Yankees particularly adept at turning the double play. Even the most diehard Yankee fans are coming to accept that the up-the-middle team of Jeter, Williams, and Alfonso Soriano are coasting far more on inflated reputations than results.

The Red Sox have had some defensive success employing what is effectively an offense/defense platoon, particularly at second base, where Todd Walker will begin the game and stay in for his bat if required, but if the Sox get the lead, they yank Walker at the first opportunity, and replace him with the more reliable and rangy Damian Jackson. It's unclear at this point whether or not they'll be able to do that for the ALCS, due to the grisly collision between Jackson and Damon in Game 5 of the Sox/A's series. Overall, the Sox defense isn't particularly strong, particularly if Damon's not able to recover from his injury. Replacing Damon with either Adrian Brown or Gabe Kapler is a significant defensive hit.

Fortunately for both teams, it might not matter very much. The Yankee pitchers thrive by keeping the ball out of play entirely--among AL clubs, they trailed only the Red Sox in strikeouts--and by minimizing the impact of potential miscues by avoiding walks. Pitching and defense belong under the broader subheading of run prevention, and the Yanks accomplish that just fine.

The Call

There's not a lot of empirical evidence that suggests that previous postseason experience is all that useful during the LCS and World Series. The Yankees have that experience in spades, but they also have a deep and healthy rotation, time to set it up to maximize their chance of winning the early games, a bullpen that contains Mariano Rivera and some competent role players, and one of the few offenses that's capable of keeping up with the Sox. The Red Sox are too dependent on the pitching talent of just a few guys on their staff, and don't have the time to get everyone healthy and their rotation set up. The Yankees take it in 6.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here
Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

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