If the Yankees and Red Sox met for the first time this season in late April, I might complain that it was too soon to feel meaningful, but Opening Day feels just right . . . or it would if it wasn’t actually Opening Night. [shakes fist at ESPN]
Given that I expect the battle between the Yankees and Red Sox to define this season, ideally climaxing in an American League Championship Series battle that will send the eventual world champion to the World Series, this gives me a great opportunity to whip out that hoary-yet-eternally-enjoyable tale-of-the-tape standby, the position-by-position comparison.
As is my usual style, I handle the everyday players by position in the lineup rather than position in the field, making some small swaps where a better match can be made, and comparing only offense, reserving fielding for a separate team-wide category.
Also, this is bound to be a long post, so I’ve put the two Opening Day Night rosters in the previous post.
And awaaaay we go . . .
2009: .334/.406/.465, .310 EqA; career: .317/.388/.459, .293 EqA
2009: .296/.371/.447, .280; career: .307/.370/.455, .283
Already fudging the lineups, I start my comparison with the Red Sox’s second-place hitter and the Yankee lead-off man who used to hit second because they’re such similar offensive players. Both hit for average, get on base, have modest pop, and will swipe a fair number of bases at a roughly 80 percent success rate (over the last two years, Jeter has stolen 41 of 51, Pedrioa 40 of 49). Both also hit into a fair amount of double plays, though Jeter is far more likely to strike out.
Pedroia has had a significant home/road split in his career, and it was downright severe in 2009 as he hit .318/.388/.514 at Fenway but just .273/.355/.381 on the road, but then Jeter lost nearly 60 points of slugging away from the New Yankee Stadium last year.
The big difference between Pedroia’s 2008 American League Most Valuable Player season and his still-solid 2009 campaign was his performance against left-handed pitching. In 2008, he hit .313/.376/.528 against lefties. In 2009, he hit just .277/.366/.399 against them. Given that he’s a right-handed hitter, I’d expect some rebound from Pedroia there. Combine that with some expected regression from Jeter coming off one of his most productive seasons and factor in the relative age of the two players (Pedroia is 26, Jeter will be 36 in June), and this one is closer than it might appear from the rate stats above, all of which give Jeter the edge.
2009: .291/.426/.405, .293*; career: .273/.402/.447, .299
2009: .301/.355/.415, .276; career: .297/.350/.414, .274
Jeter and Pedroia are so well matched that it’s disappointing to see this mismatch result from putting them together. Johnson and Ellsbury are completely different types of players. Ellsbury is a hitter who lacks secondary skills (power, patience) and gets a lot of his value from his legs (120 steals at 84 percent over the last two years). Johnson is a hitter whose primary value is his patience and ability to get on base. Johnson’s on-base percentage is more valuable than Ellsbury’s speed and makes Johnson a more reliable offensive performer (if Ellsbury’s singles don’t find holes one year, his production will collapse, and he won’t get many chances to steal). The catch is that Johnson is unreliable in his own way due to his inability to stay healthy. When both are in the lineup, the Yankees have the clear advantage, and one that could be even larger if Kevin Long’s work with Johnson does indeed result in increased power production. The big question is whether or not the Yankees can maintain that advantage with Johnson’s replacements when Nick hits the DL. If you add Ellsbury’s net steals to his total bases and subtract his times caught stealing from his hits, he “hit” .282/.334/.508 last year.
2009: .292/.383/.565, .318; career: .290/.378/.545, .304
2009: .305/.413/.548, .317; career: .292/.391/.487, .296
One of the main arguments against Mark Teixeira’s MVP candidacy last year was that his production wasn’t unique for an American League first baseman in 2009. In addition to Youkilis, there was Miguel Cabrera (.311 EqA), and a tick below those top three Kendry Morales and Carlos Peña (both .298). Youkilis was an especially appropriate comparison because both he and Teixeira are superlative defensive first basemen, but Youkilis adds even more value by being able to play third with some regularity and even spot in the outfield.
Limited to their offensive games, Youkilis is an on-base threat who hits for power and Teixeira is a power hitter who gets on base, the differences largely coming out in the wash. Teixeira switch hits, but the righty-swinging Youkilis actually hits his fellow right-handers as well or better than he hits lefties, so that’s largely moot as well. Both got a nice slugging boost from their home parks last year, with Teixeira seeming to have benefited from his home parks more over the course of his career than Youkilis, but as per those park-adjusted career EqAs above, that too comes out in the wash.
What we have here are two of the top offensive threats in the league. If there is any meaningful difference between the two, it’s in career trajectory. Youkilis was a late bloomer who didn’t earn a starting job until his age-27 season and didn’t slug above .453 until his age-29 season in 2008 but has hit .309/.401/.559 over the last two seasons combined. Teixeira was a first-round draft pick who was in the Rangers’ starting lineup as a 23-year-old rookie and has been remarkably consistent ever since. That means that Teixeira, who turns 30 a week from today, has had six years of production at his current level, while Youkilis, who is almost exactly a year older, has had just two. That is unlikely to mean much this season, but a few years down the road, when Youkilis suffers an Ortiz-like collapse and Teixeira is slugging his way into a Hall of Fame argument, the Yankees’ advantage will become clear.
2009: .286/.402/.532, .320; career: .305/.390/.576, .314
2009: .303/.381/.480, .291; career: .299/.372/.465, .289
A lot of words have been spilled (among them mine) over how much of the gap between Mike Cameron’s bat and Jason Bay’s bat will be made up by the upgrade from Bay’s fielding to Cameron’s, but looking at the Red Sox by batting order rather than defensive position, we see that it’s actually Victor Martinez who is replacing Bay, while Cameron is replacing four months of Jason Varitek and two months of Martinez. Taken that way we get these comparisons:
- Bay 2009: .267/.384/.537; Martinez career: .299/.372/.465
- Varitek+Martinez ’09: .251/.344/.426; Cameron career: .250/.340/.448
Toss out Martinez’s injury-plagued 2008, and in five of the last six years he has hit .302/.377/.483. Add in those extra 20 points of slugging from Cameron, and things get awfully close, close enough that a Fenway boost to Cameron’s power could close the gap before you even factor in what’s likely to be a huge defensive upgrade at two outfield positions with Cameron in center and Ellsbury in Fenway’s tiny left field.
None of that brings Martinez into Alex Rodriguez’s league, however. They’re similar players in that both are past their primes and injury concerns (Martinez as a 31-year-old catcher, Rodriguez as a 34-year-old coming off a major hip injury), but at their best, Rodriguez is far better, and there are more reasons to be concerned about Martinez heading into the 2010 season.
Martinez caught just 140 games over the last two years and, with Adrian Beltre at third keeping Youkilis at first, will be asked to catch a full load this year, which could wear on him. Even catching just 85 games last year, he hit just .281/.363/.420 at the position compared to .329/.405/.537 in 70 games at first base (small sample warnings apply, but given the demands of the positions, this seems like a legitimate split).
Swiping Martinez from the Indians last year was a coup for the Red Sox. It filled a gaping hole in their lineup, mercifully pushing Jason Varitek (who hit a combined .222/.316/.382 in three of the last four years) to the bench and gave them a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter to replace Bay. However,measuring him against Alex Rodriguez, who with a supposedly healthy hip could have another monster season and at the very least should appear in roughly 20 more games than he did last year, is unfair.
2009: .285/.363/.522, .301; career: .277/.379/.480, .291
2009: .238/.332/.462, .266; career: .282/.377/.545, .299
Here are the two big collapse candidates in each lineup. Both hitters were propped up by their home parks last year (Posada hit .245/.327/.432 on the road, Ortiz .213/.315/.388, which looks worse, but is actually less of a drop from his overall production). Posada is a 38-year-old catcher who will turn 39 in August and is hoping to prove that his nearly unprecedented 2009 season wasn’t a last gasp. Ortiz is a big-bodied late bloomer who, entering his age-34 season, has seen his isolated power drop in each of the last three as his slugging percentage has fallen from .636 in 2006 to .462 last year. Ortiz is hoping to prove that his .264/.356/.548 performance over the final four months of the 2009 season was the “real” Big Papi, but even that was a shadow of his 2003-to-2007 peak, and looking at his 2008 line (.264/.369/.507) and his 2010 PECOTA (.259/.368/.479) that .548 slugging percentage seems out of reach.
If the Red Sox are smart and use Mike Lowell to spell Ortiz against lefties (Ortiz hit .212/.298/.418 against southpaws last year and .221/.308/.433 against them in ’08) this spot in the lineup should easily out-produce Posada, who is all but guaranteed to see some regression even if he does avoid a total collapse, but a straight-up battle between Posada and Ortiz could go either way.
2009: .320/.352/.520, .293; career: .306/.339/.480, .277
2009: .279/.392/.522, .299; career: .283/.392/.504, .302
If the Red Sox took J.D. Drew seriously and hit him fourth, where he should be as the second-best hitter in their lineup and a slugging lefty who could bat behind right-handed on-base machine Youkilis, the gap between these two lineups would be reduced, but their decision to continue burying Drew behind Ortiz undermines his production and is a large reason why he hasn’t driven in 70 runs in any of his three seasons in Boston. Conversely, the Yankees are moving Cano up in the order, hitting him fifth behind Alex Rodriguez in the hope that the challenge will improve his performance with runners in scoring position (he hit .207/.242/.332 in those situations last year and hitting coach Kevin Long’s personal stat-keeping revealed that Cano had more swings at pitches outside of the strike zone in those situations). Cano hit .376/.407/.609 in 361 plate appearances with the bases empty last year, has the bat to rival Drew on contact, is entering his age-27 season, and will likely play at least 20 more games than the injury-prone right fielder, all of which should help make up the patience gap, but the simple fact is that the contact-hitting Cano makes many more outs on both a cumulative and per-game basis, giving Drew a clear edge here.
2009: .249/.327/.453, .266; career: .272/.344/.484, .281
2009: .265/.304/.379, .246; career: .270/.325/.453, .270
Here we have a pair of compelling new additions who join the rivalry coming off down years. Yes, Curtis Granderson hit 30 home runs for the first time in 2009, but according to VORP, he was less than half as productive as he was in his breakout 2007 season, when he hit seven fewer homers, but 30 more doubles and triples for 52 more total bases on top of another 53 points of batting average. The Yankees are hoping that escaping lefty-killing Comerica Park (Bill James’ 2009 Indexes for left-handed hitters at Comerica: Average-91, Home Runs-85, with 100 being neutral) and arriving in the homer-happy new Yankee Stadium will help him, a belief aided by Granderson’s career .284/.353/.516 line on the road, but the Yankees’ new ballpark is death to doubles and triples (Bill James Indexes of 81 and 50, respectively), so they could just get more of the same.
Beltre is also escaping a ballpark that was built to torture him (Safeco’s James Index for left-handed homers last year was 77) for one built to his favor (Fenway’s ’09 Indexes for right-handed average and homers were both 105). Throw out Beltre’s injury plagued 2009 season, when his power was sapped by shoulder surgery, and look at his road splits as a Mariner over the previous four seasons: .276/.326/.485. Granderson’s career line still beats that due to his willingness to take a walk, but if Granderson isn’t getting his inside-the-park extra-base hits and Beltre is getting a Fenway boost, this could be closer than Yankee fans want to admit.
2009: .249/.371/.498, .300; career: .245/.357/.460, .283
2009: .250/.342/.452, .286; career: .250/.340/.448, .277
Given Swisher’s ability to work deep counts and reputation as a Moneyball draftee known for drawing walks, it’s surprising to be reminded that his career on-base percentage is just .357. That’s due to his low batting averages (his career OBP is still 112 points above his career average, a gap confirming his fine-tuned batting eye), and Swisher and Kevin Long have targeted exactly those low averages in an off-season revamping of his swing. I’ll believe it when I see it, but there’s reason to expect that Swisher’s career-best 2009 season, complete with .249 average, can be repeated. Swisher slugged just .394 with just eight taters in homer-happy Yankee Stadium last year, so one imagines that the likely regression in his 2009 road slugging (.585, 21 homers) can be made up with some correction in his performance at home. Also, Swisher was just 28 last year, which suggests that after a poor 2008 campaign in which he was undermined by his White Sox manager, primarily by being played out of position in center field, he might have established his proper level in a make-up peak season in 2009.
Cameron is a similar three-true-outcome type, though one with a bigger strikeout slice and a smaller walk slice. He’s also something of an older Beltre with walks. Cameron has spent most of his career struggling against pitchers parks (specifically Safeco, Shea, and Petco) and is coming off of two years in Milwaukee where Miller Park had a 97 James Index for right-handed home runs over the past three years. There’s hope for a surge there, but it’s undermined by the fact that Cameron is a 37-year-old who plays a challenging defensive position. Some of the best center fielders of his generation (Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Edmonds, Bernie Williams) were more or less cooked by their age 37 seasons (though the first two are still at it anyway), so there’s considerable risk of collapse here, which increases Swisher’s edge.
Incidentally, Swisher and Cameron are the number-eight hitters for their teams. These lineups are insanely deep. No other lineup in baseball can compete with these two, not even the Phillies’.
2009: .270/.345/.379, .272; career: .256/.325/.352, .259
2009: .282/.379/.409, .286; career: .265/.337/.384, .258
Gardner and Scutaro are again a good match. Each is clearly the weakest hitter in his team’s lineup, and neither has a particularly long track record as a major league starter on which we can base our comparison. Last year was the first of Scutaro’s career in which he was given a starting job on Opening Day and kept it all year without the benefit of a teammate’s injury. Scutaro thrived given the opportunity, posting career highs in all three slash stats and spiking his walk rate. Had he done that in his late twenties, I’d be more confident of a repeat, but he’ll be 34 this year and will have to prove that last year was more than just a well-timed fluke, though given the lineup around him, I’m betting against a major regression.
Gardner has only played parts of two major league seasons and has yet to convince anyone that he can hold his own at the plate in the major leagues. Still, his 2009 line compares favorably to Scutaro’s career line, and given his youth (he’s 26), major league learning curve, and exploitable speed (this spring he was working on adding bunt base hits to his arsenal and if you factor in his 39 steals at an 86 percent success rate as I did with Ellsbury above, he has “slugged” a respectable .440 in his brief major league career), there’s reason to believe that the best from Gardner is yet to come. At the same time, Scutaro has appeared in 100 or more games for six straight seasons and is unlikely to significantly underperform his career line, whereas Gardner’s grip on the major leagues is still tentative enough that he could punt his starting job altogether leaving Randy Winn or some sort of platoon or replacement-level fix in his wake.
*because Johnson and Martinez split their 2009 seasons between two teams, I had to use GPA rather than EqA here. Though EqA is far more involved, adjusted for league and park, and includes basrunning, I find GPA does a good short-cut job of estimating it.
Right-handed bench bat/potential short-side platoon partner:
Marcus Thames: 2009: .252/.323/.453; career: .243/.306/.491
Mike Lowell: 2009: .290/.337/.474; career: .280/.343/.468
Thames has more pop, but Lowell is the better all-around hitter and can be a statue at infield corners, while Thames can only be a statue in the outfield corners. Lowell is also a better fit for the Sox starter most likely to need his platoon partnering: DH David Ortiz (Thames and Curtis Granderson are an odd-fit that requires a complex platoon). The Red Sox seem eager to trade Lowell, who is due $12 million this year, but I think he’s a good fit for their team as a bench bat and a better fit as a platoon DH.
Randy Winn: 2009: .262/.318/.353; career: .286/.344/.418
Jeremy Hermida: 2009: .259/.348/.392; career: .265/.344/.425
Hermida is another player escaping an unfavorable ballpark (the Marlins’ ballpark has a three-year James Index of 94 for left-handed home runs) for friendly Fenway. Hermida isn’t much in the field or on the bases, but he has hit .276/.359/.456 on the road in his career and is entering his age-27 season. Winn will turn 36 this year and seems to be approaching replacement level at the plate, but he’s an excellent defender in the corners, can bide time in center, and was 56-for-63 on the bases (88 percent) over the last three years. If one of your starters gets hurt, you want Hermida, but on a game-to-game basis as a fourth outfielder behind a set, deep lineup, Winn’s abilities as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner might be more valuable, provided they’re not overused.
Ramiro Peña: 2009: .287/.317/.383; mL career: .231/.310/.327
Bill Hall: 2009: .201/.258/.338; career: .251/.309/.441
Peña is a strong fielder at short, second, and third, but his hit-lucky rookie showing at the plate is unlikely to be repeated as he’s a .231/.310/.327 career hitter in the minors. Bill Hall was the Brewers’ starting shortstop, center fielder, and third baseman over the course of three seasons. He’s still just 30 and remains a defensive asset in the outfield as well as the infield, but at this point he’s no better at the plate than Peña (last three seasons: .229/.291/.391). I’m not sure there’s a winner here.
Francisco Cervelli: 2009: .298/.309/.372; mL career: .273/.367/.380
Jason Varitek: 2009: .209/.313/.390; career: .259/.344/.435
Cervelli is a superlative defender who should rediscover his batting eye in the majors now that he has some job security, but will never be a significant asset at the plate. Varitek will be 38 next week and didn’t find Posada’s fountain of youth. He has hit .222/.316/.382 in three of the last four seasons combined and threw out just 13 percent of runners last year. He still has some pop against left-handers, but he’s otherwise useless except as a coach and museum piece.
2009: 3.37 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 2.94 K/BB, 1.15 WHIP
career: 3.63 ERA, 7.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.69 K/BB, 1.23 WHIP
2009: 3.41 ERA, 10.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 3.53 K/BB, 1.23 WHIP
career: 3.66 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 2.39 K/BB, 1.33 WHIP
I know Josh Beckett will be starting against Sabathia tonight, but Lester is the proper comp as he’s Boston’s ace. Lester and Sabathia aren’t just aces, they’re Cy Young candidates (I was just one of four SI.com “experts” to project Lester for the award last week; last year I picked CC). They’re also both hard-throwing lefties who tend to struggle in April. Last year, Lester went 12-3 with a 2.31 ERA over his last 22 starts (19 quality), while Sabathia went 18-5 with a 3.06 ERA over his last 28 starts (also 19 quality). Lester came into his own in 2008, spiked his strikeout rate in 2009, and at age-26 is set up to have a huge 2010. Sabathia won the AL Cy Young award in his age-26 season and has been an absolute horse ever since.
There’s some lingering concern about the 779 1/3 innings Sabathia has thrown (including the postseason) over the last three years (an average of nearly 260 IP per season), particularly given the fact that his K/BB has dropped each of the last two years largely due to a subtle increase in walks. I don’t share that concern, but I am entertained by the manner in which his ability to endure all of those innings has changed the perception of his bulk from the result of a problematic lack of conditioning to a beneficial source of strength and endurance. The Yankees actually backed off CC last year, asking him to finish just two games after he had completed 20 over the previous three seasons and thus requiring him to throw “just” 230 innings in the regular season, a total that was happily enlarged by five postseason starts. CC is built to bear that load and is now conditioned to bear it as well, and he’s been a top-5 Cy Young finisher in each of the last three seasons. Lester has never received a Cy Young vote, but that should change this year.
2009: 4.04 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 2.01 K/BB, 1.40 WHIP
career: 3.84 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 2.22 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP
2009: 3.86 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.62 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP
career: 3.79 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 3.12 K/BB, 1.22 WHIP
Former Marlins rotation mates, Beckett and Burnett both tend to suffer from nagging aches and pains which dilute their effectiveness and or reduce their availability. When fully healthy, as both were last year, the primary difference between the two, other than the fact that Beckett is three years younger, is Burnett’s wildness. Burnett led the AL in walks and the majors in wild pitches last year, but he also came up with a quality start roughly as often as Beckett (21 in 33 starts to Beckett’s 20 in 32). Otherwise, both have similar strikeout and home run rates, a surly, unlikeable demeanor on the mound, have been known to throw at batters, and have shown past preferences for unproductive personal catchers, preferences both were encouraged to abandon this spring. Beckett’s relative youth and control make him the better bet, as does the fact that he’s entering a walk year, but there are more similarities here than there are differences.
2009: 2.87 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 5.41 K/BB, 1.03 WHIP
career: 4.19 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.48 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP
2009: 3.83 ERA, 7.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 2.96 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP
career: 3.81 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 2.72 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP
The differences hear are classic Javy Vazquez. He has clearly superior career peripherals, but the higher career ERA and lower rate of quality starts (55 percent to Lackey’s 59). Vazquez ceased to frustrate last year with an outstanding career year for the Braves and looked sharp in camp. Though he’s sure to come down from that high, concerns about his move back to the “tougher league” are overblown, and concerns about his seeming inability to handle New York in 2004 were eliminated by the revelation that, after making the All-Star game that year, he developed a shoulder injury that he never revealed to the Yankees. Often overlooked is the fact that Vazquez has the longest active streak of 30-start seasons in baseball, having started in 30-plus games (and thrown 198 or more innings) in each of the last ten seasons.
Lackey, on the other hand, hasn’t made 30 starts or reached 180 innings since 2007, though he seems to have avoided the spring training injury bug this year. Both of these pitchers were, save for Vazquez last year and Lackey in 2007, overextended as aces in the past, but inserted into this rivalry are now overqualified as number-threes. Like Lester and Beckett, Lackey has the advantage of relative youth (he’s almost two years Vazquez’s junior), but Vazquez’s reliability, particularly this deep in the rotation, counts for a lot.
2009: 4.16 ERA, 6.8 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 1.95 K/BB, 1.38 WHIP
career: 3.91 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.33 K/BB, 1.36 WHIP
Daisuke Matsuzaka/Tim Wakefield
Matsuzaka career: 4.00 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 2.0 K/BB, 1.40 WHIP
Wakefield career: 4.33 ERA, 6.1 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.75 K/BB, 1.35 WHIP
Here’s where faith starts to become important. Andy Pettitte, a man of faith himself, has settled in as a veteran innings-eater who, save for 2008, becomes something more than that in the second half of the season. That’s a great pitcher to have in the four-hole (though Pettitte will actually take the third turn ahead of Vazquez in the Yankee rotation), but Andy also turns 38 in June and has had elbow concerns in the past. His Brett Favre routine every fall reminds us that he’s pitching on borrowed time at this point.
Matzusaka, meanwhile, has gone from hero to zero in a hurry as a series of injuries and conditioning-related conflicts with the Red Sox limited him to a dozen starts last year (only three of them quality, all in the season’s final weeks) and have him back on the DL with back and neck issues to start this season. When he does return to action, there’s no telling what to expect, particularly given all of the red flags from his 18-win 2008 season when he had a .258 BABIP, averaged less than six innings per start (and 4.05 pitches per plate appearance), and was overly reliant on pitching out of jams. Company man Tim Wakefield, now 43, will take Matsuzaka’s place for now. Forty-three isn’t necessarily old for a knuckleballer, but a 43-year-old knuckleballer wouldn’t be many team’s first choice for their fourth starter, either. I’m sure Red Sox fans have faith that Matsuzaka will return in late April and pitch like the front-end starter he’s never really resembled in the States. Me, I’ll place my faith in another 200 innings from Pettitte and hope he has enough left for another big second-half push.
2009 (7 GS): 5.45 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 2.07 K/BB, 1.50 WHIP
career: 4.20 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 2.46 K/BB, 1.28 WHIP
2009 (16 GS): 4.21 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 1.89 K/BB, 1.38 WHIP
career: 4.91 ERA, 7.6 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 1.86 K/BB, 1.50 WHIP
Phil Hughes was a first-round pick out of high school in 2004. Clay Buchholz was a first supplemental round pick out of college in 2005 (taken with the compensation pick received when the Mets signed Pedro Martinez). Both quickly rose to the top of the prospect lists and made their major league debuts in 2007. In Hughes’ second major league start, he threw 6 1/3 hitless innings against the Rangers before pulling a hamstring and being forced to leave the game. In Buchholz’s second major league start, he completed a no-hitter against the Orioles. Big things were expected from both as they opened the 2008 seasons in their teams’ respective rotations, but Hughes got hurt again (stress fracture of a rib), and Buchholz was given surprisingly little rope, being demoted after a pair of poor starts in May. Both finished 2008 with ERAs over 6.00 and opened 2009 in the minors. Both would finish the season back in their team’s good graces.
Hughes came up at the end of April to fill Chien-Ming Wang’s vacated rotation spot, and though he didn’t excel, he pitched well enough to stay in the majors when Wang returned. Hughes slid into the bullpen and began to dominate, posting a 1.40 ERA and striking out 65 men in 51 1/3 innings against just two homers and 13 walks over the remainder of the season. Buchholz came up after the All-Star break and in ten starts from August 8 to September 24 posted a 2.37 ERA, turning in nine quality start in those ten outings while the Red Sox went 8-2 in his games. That earned him the third spot in Boston’s postseason rotation.
With those successes under their belts, the oxymoronic veteran prospects once again open the season in their teams’ rotations hoping to finally live up to their prospect hype. Buchholz is now 25. Hughes won’t be 24 until June. Hughes’ career line above looks more impressive, but if you limit those numbers to his starts only, they look a lot more like Buchholz’s: 5.22 ERA, 7.1 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 1.90 K/BB, 1.44 WHIP. Anything could happen with these two. They could dominate or lose their rotation spot before the end of May. Hughes could get hurt again. If one goes one way and the other the other, this spot in the rotation could very well decide the division, and if either pitcher finally puts it all together, he will instantly become a key player in this rivalry for the first half of the new decade.
This doesn’t need a detailed breakdown. Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon are both automatic and, with Joe Nathan out for the year, only Kansas City’s Joakim Soria can be fairly listed as their equal. Over the last two seasons, Rivera has converted 83 of 86 saves (96.5 percent), while Papelbon has saved 79 of 87 (90.8 percent). Last year, they finished 1 and 2 in the majors in WXRL, with Rivera’s edge being partially due to his leverage index being a smidge higher. If you had to pick one, you’d pick Rivera, but he’s 40 now and though he’s been as good as ever the last two years, there’s a lingering worry now about when the end will finally arrive.
Behind those two, however, the Yankees clearly have a deeper corps. Hideki Okajima has proven to be a reliable full-inning lefty set-up man over the last three years, and Daniel Bard is an exciting young arm, but Okajima benefited from abnormally low opponents batting averages on balls in play his first two years and was less dominant when some correction occurred last year, and Bard could as easily turn into Kyle Farnsworth as Billy Wagner. Things get significantly shakier from there. Ramon S. Ramirez (the former Yankee farmhand) got away with a lot of bad pitching last year thanks to a .262 BABIP and an ability to bear down with runners on base. He won’t survive another year of a 1.63 K/BB and opponents hitting .285/.363/.477 against him at home. Manny Delcarmen was awful in the second half last year, hurt his back in a car accident in October, and revealed to the team this spring that he hid some shoulder fatigue from them last year, which put him on more of a rehab track in camp. Scott Schoeneweis is a generic journeyman LOOGY with a career 1.43 K/BB and .294/.367/.469 split against right-handed batters. Scott Achison is a 34-year-old with 68 major league innings to his credit who spent the last two years as a swing-man in Japan.
Against that the Yankees throw Joba Chamberlain, who is looking to return to his eighth-inning dominance (his career relief split includes a 1.50 ERA and 11.9 K/BB). Chan Ho Park, who was dominant out of the pen for the NL Champion Phillies last year, dominated in camp, and seems to have revived his career by moving to the bullpen. David Robertson has struck out 99 men in 74 major league innings. The top two from that group of three should best Okajima and Bard, and the remaining reliever, whomever he his, will be a better bet than Ramirez. The health of Damaso Marte‘s shoulder seems to be a constant issue, but he avoided the disabled list to start the season, and Delcarmen is in a similar place. No mere LOOGY, Marte is a significant asset when his arm is right, as he was in the postseason last year. Alfredo Aceves gives the Yankees a legitimate utility pitcher, something the Red Sox lack save perhaps for Achison who last pitched in the majors in 2007, and a wily junkballer who serves as a significant change of pace from the hard-throwers already named. Finally, Sergio Mitre may not have much of a track record, but two years removed from Tommy John surgery, he has impressed in camp with an excellent 4.75 K/BB ratio and, like Park and Chamberlain and Phil Hughes last year, he’s a hard-throwing starter who should benefit from being able to come in and throw his best pitches at max effort for an inning or two without having to turn the opposing lineup over.
Adrian Beltre is perhaps the best defensive third baseman in the majors. Alex Rodriguez post-hip-surgery is sub-par. Robinson Cano often looks like he could be one of the better defensive second basemen in baseball, but Dustin Pedroia legitimately is. Kevin Youkilis and Mark Teixeira are, again, a wash. Marco Scutaro has Derek Jeter beat. That’s edge: Red Sox in the infield. The Yankees’ catching corps are vastly superior in gunning out runners. Though Jorge Posada‘s receiving and pitch-blocking leave a lot to be desired, Francisco Cervelli is superb, so the Yankees get the edge there. As long as Curtis Granderson is in center and until Cameron’s legs give out, Mike Cameron will be the better center fielder. Brett Gardner, a legitimately supurb center fielder playing in a huge left field, beats out Jacoby Ellsbury, a poor enough defensive center fielder that he was moved into Fenway’s tiny left field for the team’s benefit rather than Cameron’s. Nick Swisher is better in right field than he looks, but J.D. Drew is far better than that. Edge: Red Sox in the outfield and at five of the eight non-pitching positions with a sixth being a draw.
Terry Francona‘s only significant flaw is that he thinks too highly of Jason Varitek and is a threat to give him too much playing time. Joe Girardi was greatly improved in his second season as Yankee manager and is an expert handler of pitchers, particularly bullpens. I see more Yankee games than Red Sox games, so Francona’s idiosyncrasies don’t reveal themselves to me as easily, but Girardi does have tendency to overmanage when games get tight and, despite his overall flexibility with bullpen roles, can be a bit too quick with his hook in those situations, most infamously taking David Robertson out of Game 3 of the ALCS last year after Robertson had retired the only two batters he faced in the 11th. Francona, like Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel, knows that with a loaded team a manager’s best move is to let his players play. Girardi is learning that, but Francona still has the edge in experience and world championships . . . for now.
The Yankees have the stronger lineup and bullpen and a slight edge in the rotation due to the uncertainty and unreliability of Matsuzaka. The Red Sox have the better defense and a manager less likely to undermine their efforts. I picked the Red Sox to win the division, in part because I felt that, after everything came up heads last year, something has to go wrong for the Yankees this year. The differences between these two teams are small enough for that to make the difference, but I picked the Yankees to turn the tables on the Sox in the ALCS and repeat as World Series champions because, ultimately, and at full-strength, the Yankees are the better team. I picked the Red Sox to win the division last year as well, and to beat the Yankees in the ALCS. I was happily wrong about that. This year I’ll be happy to be wrong again, but only about the division.