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August 6, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Arms Race

by Jay Jaffe

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Tonight the Yankees and Red Sox-once again the AL East's top two teams-kick off a four-game series in the Bronx. Much has been and will continue to be made of the fact that the Yankees are 0-8 against their heated rivals this year, even after a first win. However, beyond that lopsided tally, they've been the better of the two ballclubs to date, particularly since Alex Rodriguez returned from the hip surgery which sidelined him for the first month of the season, a period during which the Red Sox beat the Yankees five times in a two-week span. After all, it's the Yankees who lead the division by 2½ games, the product of their currently having the upper hand in the division's never-ceasing arms race.

Consider the following info on the teams' relative records and Pythagorean-projected performance:


Overall   Yankees  Red Sox
W-L        65-42    62-44
Pct        .607     .585
Pythag.    .567     .586

Since 5/8 Yankees  Red Sox
W-L        52-27    44-33
Pct.       .658     .571
Pythag.    .618     .587

Minus Rodriguez, the Yankees got off to a 13-15 start in which they were outscored by 20 runs. Their woes actually owed little to their slugger's absence; they scored 5.6 runs per game, but their pitching was atrocious at that point, allowing 6.4 per game, a total inflated by 15- and 22-run drubbings that came during Chien-Ming Wang's initial three-start debacle.

Take those away and you're still left with a staff allowing 5.4 runs per game over that span, not the stuff of a contender. Wang, with his 34.50 ERA, was hardly the only Yankee pitcher who struggled during that first month, and free-agent additions A.J. Burnett (5.26 ERA) and CC Sabathia (4.85 ERA) both started slowly in their new careers in pinstripes, while middle relievers Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, and Jose Veras formed an arson squad in a bullpen which put together a 7.06 Fair Run Average with zero WXRL through May 7.

Since then, the Yanks have righted the ship, with a net gain of seven games on the Red Sox. On May 8, Rodriguez clubbed a three-run homer in his first at-bat of the season. Despite his subsequent ups and downs, he's currently hitting .261/.392/.511 after a monster breakout-10 homers in 20 games-to get away from a 4-for-46 slump. His return to the lineup coincided with a turnaround by Mark Teixera, who hit .198/.339/.396 through May 7, but .312/.395/.607 since. As a whole, the offense now ranks second in the league in scoring at 5.5 runs per game, and first in EqA at .277, or business as usual for the Bronx Bombers.

The real turnaround has been in the bullpen, however. Since Rodriguez's return-a point in time that more or less coincides with Alfredo Aceves' recall from Scranton-the relievers have put up a 3.78 Fair Run Average with 8.0 WXRL, the latter mark rating as the second best in the majors. That ugly first month aside, manager Joe Girardi has reasserted his ability to sift through a handful of off-brand relievers to build a bridge to Mariano Rivera, with Phil Hughes (1.8 WXRL) and Aceves (1.3 WXRL) emerging to supplant those aforementioned arsonists as well as injured and ineffective Brian Bruney, joining Phil Coke (1.4 WXRL) among the Yankees' late-game set-up options. After struggling as a starter, Hughes has flat-out dominated in a relief role, with a 1.00 Fair Run Average and a 39/7 K/BB ratio in 30 1/3 innings. General manager Brian Cashman remains adamant that, like Joba Chamberlain, Hughes' future lies in the rotation, but for the moment, he stands as one of the Yankee season's saviors. Thanks in large part to their remade relief corps, the Yanks are now 4.3 wins ahead of their first-order Pythagorean projection, second only to the Mariners among AL teams, a margin that's allowed them to leapfrog their division rivals.

As for the Red Sox, with their own in-season moves to add John Smoltz and Clay Buchholz to the rotation having borne little fruit thus far, they're just starting to feel the effects of a bigger upgrade to their lineup. In the grand scheme of things, it's been business as usual, with the team's offense ranking third at 5.2 runs per game, and fifth with a .266 EqA. They've gotten an outstanding season from Kevin Youkilis (.313/.424/.581), relatively strong campaigns from Jacoby Ellsbury (.303/.352/.413) and Jason Bay (.252/.382/.490), and modest rebounds from disappointing 2008 performances by Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek, but J.D. Drew, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz have all fallen considerably short of last year's work, and they've gotten nothing out of their shortstops (.223/.296/.331 combined). Ortiz, recently shamed by the revelation that he was among the positive players on the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey testing list, continues his freefall. He looked like the Big Papi of old in June (.320/.409/.653), but outside of that, he just looks old (.199/.286/.359).

After enduring a three-week stretch in which the Sox hit just .224/.314/.386 while averaging a meager 4.2 runs per game and going 9-9, general manager Theo Epstein chose to make a deal to augment his lineup rather than his rotation, so instead of gunning for Roy Halladay, he dealt two pitching prospects for the Indians' Victor Martinez, also acquiring Chris Duncan, Adam LaRoche (briefly), and then Casey Kotchman in smaller deals, moves which particularly provide manager Terry Francona with considerable flexibility at catcher and both first and third base. Since Epstein began dealing on July 22, the revamped offense has averaged 6.3 runs per game, highlighted by an 18-run breakout in which Martinez went 5-for-6.

So here we've got the two AL East beasts jockeying for position once again as they come down the stretch, both apparently firing on most of their cylinders thanks to in-season tinkering. The open question is whether either team made the right call in bypassing Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jarrod Washburn, or any of the other available starters. Both rotations still have holes, with Boston currently trying to absorb three fifth-starter types:


Red Sox               ERA   SNWP
Josh Beckett         3.27   .587
Jon Lester           3.79   .549
Brad Penny           5.20   .438
Clay Buchhholz       6.05   .426
John Smoltz          7.12   .353
Tim Wakefield*       4.31   .530
Daisuke Matsuzaka*   8.23   .327

Yankees               ERA   SNWP
CC Sabathia          3.95   .535
A.J. Burnett         3.89   .528
Joba Chamberlain     3.58   .508
Andy Pettitte        4.35   .503
Sergio Mitre         7.50   .332
Phil Hughes          5.45   .478
* Currently on disabled list

Those ERAs are for each guy's work as a starter alone, and SNWP is Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, a stat which tells you how often a pitcher's team would win given his typical performance and average offensive and bullpen support. Though none of their starters has performed quite to the level of Beckett or Lester, the Yankees can offer four above-average starters, which is what they'll need for October. Even then, they've got Chamberlain's innings cap to contend with, though the potential for them to pull the ol' switcheroo, moving Hughes to the rotation and Chamberlain back to the setup role over which so much ink's been spilled. The Sox, even when Wakefield returns, have to hope that somebody in the Penny/Buchholz/Smoltz camp pulls themselves together, though their signing of Paul Byrd to a minor league deal affords them yet another option.

Suffice it to say, both teams should be watching the waiver wire closely this month, potentially using their financial might to take on a salary that might give a more thrifty contender pause-such as the Rays, who remain three games behind the Sox and 5½ behind the Yankees. As good as they are, the Yankees and Red Sox both remain works in progress, and the AL East remains, as ever, an arms race.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Phil Hughes,  First Month

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