Look, it’s easy for lots and lots of baseball fans outside of the East Coast to be cynical about this matchup. There’s an element of “here we go again” whenever these two titans clash, and you can almost hear fans of smaller-market teams rolling their collective eyes as ESPN shouts loudly at you that This Is The Best Rivalry In Sports. THE BEST ONE IN SPORTS, DAMNIT.
It’s understandable if you count yourself among the many who would’ve rather watched almost any other matchup, but if you tune this series out, you’re doing yourself a disservice, because both of these teams are really. frickin’. good. The Yankees won 100 games during the regular season. They are the underdog here. There’s enough star power between these two teams to make an Oceans movie, and much of it is homegrown, despite the reputation they have for simply outspending the competition.
Basically, if you can look past the laundry and at the players, you’ll see that this series should be a ton of fun. And if their regular season matchups were any indication (the Red Sox won the season series 10-9), this ALDS matchup is gonna go down to the wire.
LF-R: Andrew McCutchen (.253/.421/.471/.316)
RF-R: Aaron Judge (.278/.392/.528/.307)
CF-S: Aaron Hicks (.248/.366/.467/.287)
DH-R: Giancarlo Stanton (.266/.343/.509/.287)
1B-R: Luke Voit (.333/.405/.689/.364)
SS-L: Didi Gregorius (.268/.335/.494/.286)
3B-R: Miguel Andujar (.297/.328/.527/.292)
C-R: Gary Sanchez (.186/.291/.406/.238)
2B-R: Gleyber Torres (.271/.340/.480/.279)
Well then. That’s a lineup with a lot of very good right-handed hitters, which should give Yankees fans a sense of optimism as their team faces Chris Sale and David Price. Want some impressive stats? The Yankees are the first team in history to have at least 12 players hit 10 homers and to get at least 20 homers from each spot in the lineup. They finished first in the majors in homers, second in slugging percentage, eighth in on-base percentage, and 10th in batting average. They’re good, is what we’re saying, and while they may generate the most headline for their star power, their best attribute is perhaps their depth. That and their ability to go bridge at any time, of course.
Expect Neil Walker and maybe Brett Gardner to get some playing time in favor of Voit and McCutchen versus righties like Rick Porcello, but for the most part, WYSIWYG with this squad. Voit is currently destroying the ball with frightening determination, so [GREG BIRD DON’T READ THIS] he may not sit no matter who’s on the mound opposite him. This squad is gonna mash some taters, they’re gonna work their fair share of walks, and they’re never gonna give Boston an easy out. In most matchups, you’d be able to easily give the Yankees the nod in terms of offense, but …
RF-R: Mookie Betts (.346/.438/.640/.359)
LF-L: Andrew Benintendi (.290/.366/.465/.289)
DH-R: J.D. Martinez (.333/.402/.629/.340)
SS-R: Xander Bogaerts (.289/.360/.522/.305)
1B-R: Steve Pearce (.279/.394/.507/.321)
2B-R: Ian Kinsler (.242/.294/.311/.208)
3B-R: Eduardo Nunez (.265/.289/.388/.236)
C-S: Sandy Leon (.177/.232/.279/.182)
CF-L: Jackie Bradley (.234/.314/.403/.254)
… this is not most matchups, friends, and while the Red Sox may not have as deep a lineup as the Bronx Bombers, they are devastatingly stacked at the top. Betts’ MVP-caliber season needs no qualifiers, nor does Martinez’s incredible first year with the Sox. Together, those two and a resurgent Bogaerts helped Boston finish first in runs scored, doubles, OBP, and SLG, as well as third in stolen bases and fourth in TAv. They may not be able to go toe-to-toe with the Yankees in terms of the long ball, but they can in every other category.
It will be fascinating to watch how manager Alex Cora sets his lineup versus lefties and righties in this series. When Masahiro Tanaka or Luis Severino take the mound, don’t be surprised to see Rafael Devers get the start at third base. Mitch Moreland could threaten Pearce at first base against righties as well, and as silly as it sounds, Cora may want to find a way to get Brock Holt’s bat in the lineup too—he hit .284/.371/.483 in the season’s last two months. Either way, Cora will want to be aggressive with his pinch-hitting tactics, as none of the Red Sox’s catchers can hit even a little bit and Bradley is basically helpless against southpaws.
One area where the Sox could look to gain an edge over the Yankees? On the bases; they stole 93 bags on the year to the Yankees’ 53. Betts is one of the game’s best basestealers, and Bradley and Benintendi are threats to run as well. Factor in moderately speedy guys like Bogaerts, Nunez, Holt, and Kinsler, and the Sox should be aggressive in trying to take advantage of Sanchez’s catching difficulties, albeit while remaining mildly wary of his cannon of an arm.
C-R: Austin Romine (.244/.295/.417/.243)
1B/2B-L: Neil Walker (.219/.309/.354/.241)
INF-R: Adeiny Hechavarria (.194/.216/.361/.167)
INF-L: Tyler Wade (.167/.214/.273/.168)
OF-L: Brett Gardner (.236/.322/.368/.249)
With the exception of Walker, this bench is mostly about speed and defense. Hechavarria made a phenomenal catch late in the AL Wild Card game after subbing in for Andujar at third base; expect to see manager Aaron Boone make that move again. Gardner and Wade are threats to run and capable defenders, while Walker brings some pop off the bench and could start versus righties. It’s not a crazy talented group of backups, but it does enough to give Boone options late in the game and ways to prevent utter disaster should a starter go down with injury.
C/1B/OF-S: Blake Swihart (.229/.285/.328/.217)
C-R: Christian Vazquez (.207/.257/.283/.197)
1B-L: Mitch Moreland (.245/.325/.433/.262)
3B-L: Rafael Devers (.240/.298/.433/.252)
UT-L: Brock Holt (.277/.362/.411/.273)
With the exception of Vazquez (who may not even make the roster over, say, Tzu-Wei Lin), this bench is mostly about offense. Moreland can mash righties off the bench, while Devers may be the go-to bat against dudes with premium velocity, aka New York’s entire bullpen. Holt’s wonderful second half may have him in line for a start or two; expect Cora to go with the hot hand between he, Devers, and Nunez at third base. Swihart is a wild card. He’s more of a threat with the bat than his stat line would indicate, but he’s certainly not good enough to force his way into any of these games. All told, this is a very versatile if not awe-inspiring group, and it helps to offset the advantage the Yankees have in the back half of their lineup
Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
The Red Sox were the best-hitting team in the majors against right-handed pitching this season, and Severino aside, this isn’t he most imposing group. That being said, they may be well positioned to give the Red Sox fits. It starts at the top with a lefty, Happ, who has carved the Sox up something fierce over the past several seasons:
Career against Happ…
Betts (36 PA): .206, 2 HR
Benintendi (20 PA): .111, 0 HR
Pearce (40 PA): .344, 6 HR
Martinez (23 PA): .200, 0 HR
Bogaerts (35 PA): .161, 0 HR
Kinsler (28 PA): .259, 2 HR
Nunez (32 PA): .258, 0 HR
JBJ (22 PA): .150, 0 HR
Leon (10 PA): .100, 0 HR https://t.co/lha6drIme5
— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) October 4, 2018
Small sample size, of course, but that’s an ominous sign for a team that needs to do all the damage it can to the Yankees early in the game. Plus, it’s not just the Sox that Happ has crushed of late—he’s got a very nice 2.69 ERA in his 11 starts since the All-Star break. He may not have star-level name recognition, but he’s been playing like a star for a while now.
Assuming Severino can’t go until Game 3, Tanaka should get the nod in Game 2. He’s both shut the Sox down and been molecularly deconstructed by the Sox in the past, so that’s a coin toss. We all know what Severino can do, and if he takes the mound against Porcello in Game 3, the Yankees should be heavily favored. Even with shaky command, Severino was unhittable facing the A’s on Wednesday night; he can shut down any lineup at any time when he’s on. Sabathia is what he is at this point, and while he’s a Big Game Pitcher™ fully capable of keeping New York in the game for a few innings, he’s not someone the Yanks are going to want to lean on too heavily.
All in all, the goal for each Yankees starter in this series should be to make it through the lineup twice. The more New York can lean on its biggest advantage in this series—its incredible bullpen—the better. That being said, Severino, Happ and to a lesser extent Tanaka are all capable of shutting the Sox down in their own right if they’re having good nights.
On paper, this should be an advantage for the Red Sox. Two obvious factors prevent that from necessarily being true; we’re not sure if Chris Sale can be Chris Sale right now, and the Yankees absolutely own Price. Let’s start with Sale: the first-half Cy Young front-runner has thrown just 17 innings since July, and they haven’t been terribly impressive. Cora and company swear that Sale is 100 percent healthy and that a mechanical issue is to blame for his decreased velocity. We’ll see, but given that it’s a short series, it’s perhaps not hyperbole to say that which version of Sale shows up will determine who moves on to the ALCS.
Price’s issues against the Yankees have been well chronicled at this point. The southpaw gave up 18 earned runs across four starts and 16 innings vs. New York this season. Maybe, as a righty-heavy group of mashers, the Yankees are uniquely constructed to give him fits—as a team, they sported an .800 OPS vs. lefties this year. Maybe they really are in his head. Maybe both. No matter the why behind it, it’s hard to feel good about Price—who’s largely been excellent this season otherwise—taking the mound vs. New York.
Porcello and Eovaldi seem pretty comparable to the Yankees’ back-half duo of Tanaka and Sabathia, but might actually have a slight edge. Porcello had three real starts against New York this year, and was dominant once, pretty good once, and terrible once. With Porcello, that’s a feature, not a bug. Eovaldi has been up and down since the Sox acquired him from the Rays, but he ended the season on a hot streak that included a six-inning, no-earned-runs start in New York on September 18. That’s not to say you should bet the under when these guys take the mound against the Yankees, but they are more capable of success against New York’s daunting lineup than you might think at first glance.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
LHP Aroldis Chapman (51, 2.45, 2.13)
RHP Dellin Betances (67, 2.70, 2.15)
RHP David Robertson (70, 3.23, 3.03)
LHP Zach Britton (41, 3.10, 6.99)
RHP Jonathan Holder (65, 3.14, 4.33)
LHP Chad Green (76, 2.69, 4.00)
RHP Lance Lynn (157, 4.77, 3.87)
These two AL East juggernauts seemed pretty evenly matched until we got here, didn’t they? Well folks, here’s your differentiator. The Yankees’ bullpen is absolutely stacked, and it’s going to make life very difficult for the Red Sox any time they fail to jump out to an early lead. It starts at the top with Chapman, who is healthy once more and coming off yet another dominating season. The Sox have been able to barrel some balls off him in the past and his command has come and gone this season, but Chapman remains one of the 10-15 best relievers in baseball.
But an elite (if declining) closer isn’t what sets these teams apart; it’s the bridge to said closer that does the job. The Yankees have the perfect counter-weapons to Boston’s righty-heavy offensive core in Betances and Robertson, as well as a lefty-killer in Britton who can neutralize Benintendi or pinch-hitters like Moreland and Holt in big spots. Lynn is largely here for mop-up duty and/or if a game goes into extras, which means if the Sox want to strike against this group, they’d better do so against Green and Holder. Look for Boone to be aggressive in his deployment of this group, using leverage rather than inning as an indicator for who should be pitching when.
RHP Craig Kimbrel (62, 2.74, 2.58)
RHP Matt Barnes (62, 3.65, 2.21)
RHP Ryan Brasier (34, 1.60, 3.57)
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (130, 3.82, 3.77)
RHP Brandon Workman (41, 3.27, 6.21)
RHP Joe Kelly (66, 4.39, 4.56)
RHP Steven Wright (24, 2.68, 2.72)
There’s no way to sugar-coat it; Boston’s second-best reliever, Barnes, might not even make New York’s bullpen. The Red Sox will be counting on Brasier, a 31-year-old journeyman who played in Japan last season, and Rodriguez, who has almost no relieving experience, in many high-leverage situations. Workman and Kelly don’t inspire much confidence, and either could get left off the roster for Heath Hembree, who, uh, also doesn’t inspire much confidence. As with Lynn on the other side, Wright is mostly just here to soak up innings in case a starter gets blasted or a game goes into extras.
That leaves Kimbrel as the lone imposing bullpen arm, and even he’s having a down year by his (incredibly lofty) standards. Tyler Thornburg is hurt. Carson Smith is hurt and also a giant man-baby. Drew Pomeranz was useless this season. It’s sort of incredible the Sox were able to post the AL’s fourth-best reliever ERA (3.72) with this squad. Pulling starters after they go two times through the order is all the rage in the playoffs right now, but it’s a luxury the Red Sox might not have—they’ll need at least a few of their starters to go relatively deep if they want to win.
Hey, at least John Farrell can’t leave Workman in for an at-bat this time!
If you love outfield defense and are indifferent about infield defense, this is the matchup for you. The Red Sox have arguably the best defensive trio of outfielders in baseball. All three of their starters could man center field, Bradley is one of the game’s truly elite glovemen, and Betts plays Fenway Park’s difficult right field to perfection. The Yankees aren’t too far behind in defensive prowess thanks to Hicks and Judge, though McCutchen and Gardner have seen their best defensive days pass them by.
It’s harder to compare and contrast the infield defenses. The Red Sox have a higher defensive ceiling when Devers is on the bench and Moreland is at first base, but also have a lower floor when the former is playing third base or when Nunez mans second base. The Yankees benefit from Gregorius’ strong glove and Torres’ splash plays, even if Andujar and Voit can be suspect at the corners. Catcher defense easily goes to the Red Sox, which evens this out a bit.
TL;DR: The Red Sox are the slightly better defensive club, but the difference shouldn’t be dramatic enough to be a true series-decider. Until one of Devers or Andujar decides to airmail a throw by 30 feet, that is. We need to take defensive stats with the world’s largest grain of salt, but for what it’s worth, BP’s park-adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE) largely agrees with the eye test, marking both the Sox and Yanks as average-ish defensive teams throughout the regular season.
As anyone who has perused my Twitter account knows, I’m a Red Sox enthusiast, so you may not be shocked to learn that my pick is Red Sox in five. But before you get too carried away with the cries of homerism, hear me out for one second.
Were this a seven-game series, my pick would be the Yankees. In a longer contest, I think New York’s superior bullpen and slightly deeper lineup would make more of a difference, allowing the Bronx Bombers to edge out a Red Sox team that thins out at the bottom of its lineup and in its bullpen. But in a five-game matchup, the Yankees may very well need to face a rested and rejuvenated Chris Sale twice. Plus, the shortened format allows Cora to lean on his very best relievers more often, and it’s not hard to envision him getting creative with Price and Eovaldi in the bullpen at points as well.
Another factor: these teams are so evenly matched that it’s only fair to go with the squad that has homefield advantage. Home field largely determined the regular season matchups between these two; the Sox were 7-3 at Fenway while the Yanks were 6-3 in the Bronx.
Honestly though, this entire series seems like it will come down to Sale. If he’s the guy we saw in the first half, he can single-handedly paper over many of Boston’s bullpen issues, neutralizing New York’s lineup long enough to let the Red Sox’s bats and legs do their things. If Sale isn’t right, we’re likely to see yet another Dave Dombrowski-built juggernaut sunk by its suspect bullpen as the Yankees lean on the long ball to carry them deeper into October.
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