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Color By Numbers: The Empire Strikes Back?

The Yankees and Red Sox enter this weekend’s showdown at Fenway Park neck and neck in the pennant race, but media coverage of each team might lead you to believe Boston is way ahead. Considering consensus expectations before the season, this divergence between perception and reality is understandable.  However, the more you look inside the numbers, the more it seems as if the Yankees are the better team.

Tale of the Tape: Yankees vs. Red Sox

Note: WAR calculations are an average of fangraphs’ and b-r.com’s versions. Data as of August 3, 2011
Source: fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com

Since their slow start, the Red Sox have been looked upon as an offensive juggernaut. In this case, the perception is dead on. The Boston lineup currently has four members on pace to produce over 6 bWAR, which, if accomplished, would match only the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates for the most ever. What’s more, the Red Sox dominance extends well beyond their four best hitters. As a group, the offense has scored 5.5 runs per game, which, compared to the American League average of 4.36, represents a historic level of production. If maintained over the final two months of the season, the Red Sox’ current 26.2% run premium over the league average would not only rank as the second highest total in franchise history, but also stand as the 13th best total in the majors since 1901.

Coming into the season, the Yankees were the team most expected to dominate with their offense, and, for the most part, they have. Although the Red Sox offense has rated a notch better by most metrics, the two teams are relatively close in runs scored. As a result, the Yankees can also boast an offense that is outscoring the league at historic levels. The Bronx Bombers’ 23.6% premium over the league ranks seventh in franchise history and just inside the all-time top-30.

Despite the potentcy of the Yankees’ offense, the real strength of the team has, ironically, been its pitching. Entering the season, no one could have (or should have) predicted that the Yankees would enter August leading the league in ERA+, but the team’s current rate easily outdistances the second ranked Rangers. From a historical standpoint, the Yankees’ ERA+ of 123 is also at its highest level since the strike shortened season of 1981.

Yankees Historical ERA+ and OPS+, 1961 to 2011

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Because the Yankees have been extremely good at both scoring and preventing runs, it should be no surprise that the team’s per-game run differential of 1.5 leads all of baseball (the Red Sox are second at 1.3). However, the 2011 Yankees’ ability to outscore their opponents is more than just unrivaled in the present. Since 1901, only 36 other teams have posted a higher per-game run differential, including 12 Yankees clubs from the past (the 1939 team’s 2.7 per-game advantage is the highest total in baseball history).

Yankees Historical Run Differential, 1901 to 2011

Data as of August 3, 2011
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Considering the Yankees’ comparative aggregate advantage over the Red Sox, they, not Boston, should probably be perceived as the favorite in the A.L. East. However, at this to this point, the sum hasn’t been equal to parts. Entering the weekend’s action, the Yankees have underperformed their expected record (also know as the Pythagorean winning percentage) by four games. That might not seem like much, but the Yankees’ current Pythagorean deficit ranks as the eight “highest” in franchise history and within the “top” 10% of all teams since 1901.

Yankees’ Historical Pythagorean Surplus/Deficit, 1901 to 2011

Data as of August 3, 2011
Source: Baseball-reference.com

The Red Sox’ current and expected win totals are in line, so perhaps Boston’s relative efficiency is another reason why it seems like they are having a better season? This dynamic is manifested in the Red Sox’ league-leading winning percentage in games decided by two or fewer runs. Meanwhile, the Yankees are under .500 in these games, which, perhaps more than anything, has left the impression the team has underperformed. However, a more optimistic person might regard this as a positive sign, especially when you consider how infrequently the Yankees find themselves on the wrong side of a lopsided defeat.

A.L. Records in Games Decided by “Two or Fewer” and “Three or More Runs”

Note: Close games defined as those decided by two or fewer runs. Data as of August 3, 2011
Source: Baseball-reference.com

If the season series hadn’t been so one-sided in favor of the Red Sox (for a yearly rivalry breakdown, click here), the Yankees might be marching into Fenway Park with a comfortable lead.  Instead, they’ll have to settle for flat-footed tie. Considering the two teams have been within three games of each other in the standings since May 13, it’s unlikely that the pennant will be decided this weekend. However, if the Yankees hope to turn the tables on Boston, just as they did in 2009, there is no margin for error. In other words, it’s time for the Yankees to give the Red Sox a first hand look at what they’ve been doing to the rest of the league for the entire season.

A.L. East Division Race, Game-by-Game Progression

Note: Negative numbers represent games out of first place; positive numbers represent games ahead.
Source: Baseball-reference.com


1 Mattpat11   ~  Aug 5, 2011 1:59 pm

Just win

2 RIYank   ~  Aug 5, 2011 2:09 pm

Playing below Pythagorean expectation and weak record in close games:
Underperforming, or Good Sign?

Both. It's a bad thing, but a good sign. Could have won some more games and led the AL East by a few, so, bad thing. Expect regression toward the mean, so good sign.

3 rbj   ~  Aug 5, 2011 6:47 pm

It's the epic series of the century of the week!

4 SteveF   ~  Aug 5, 2011 6:53 pm

Depends on what you're regressing. If you look at it from the perspective of third order win percentage, the Yankees and Red Sox are basically even, separated by roughly 1/2 a win.

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