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.