Both were looking at the prospect of a bridge year. For the Red Sox, it was rebuilding after shipping away Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, with few good choices on the free-agent market and the upcoming players not quite there. For the Yankees, it was finding a way to produce the same amount of wins with a smaller payroll, as the team tries to get itself under the luxury tax threshold.
Both were coming off down years. For the Red Sox, it was really down — 69 wins down. For the Yankees, it was wilting in the playoffs at historic levels. Both teams had marquee players and high expectations. Both teams failed to perform.
But a little over a week into the season, with just a few games separating them and so much still to be determined, the similar storylines are starting to take different trajectories. While a week can’t tell much more about how this baseball season will turn out than the heavy speculation throughout spring training could, a few trends have arisen. If they continue, they could mark some real separation between the Red Sox and the Yankees, with the Red Sox headed up and challenging in the American League East.
While the Yankees (4-4) are playing with a short deck due to injuries and the Red Sox (5-2) have seen many of their preseason hopes realized so far, the early success of Boston while New York middles isn’t luck. The Red Sox are using a strategy that has traditionally been hard to beat, while the Yankees are relying on — well, being the Yankees.
That’s why Boston has a good chance to skip its bridge year, while New York is facing one of those intermittently bad seasons that every team save the Yankees seems to get.
The separation starts with the two teams’ strategies, whether their areas of emphasis are intentional or not. The Red Sox are betting heavily on pitching this year. Former pitching coach John Farrell was brought in as the new manager, and he’s being counted on to help Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey rediscover their mojo and also get Felix Doubront‘s career off on the right foot.
The common refrain on the Sox’ rotation is that it can be the best in the bigs when it’s clicking. A cycle and a half through so far, Boston’s starters have shown just that. The team’s 2.95 ERA is fifth best in Major League Baseball and second in the American League, with the team seventh in strikeouts at 82 (third in the AL) and ninth in WHIP (1.21, fourth in the AL). That includes a shaky first start by Ryan Dempster and an injury-stalled beginning for Lackey.
By themselves, the Red Sox’ starters’ numbers are hard to argue with. Lester is 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA and 13 strikeouts, and Buchholz is 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA and 12 strikeouts. Even Dempster (0-1, 5.40 ERA, 8 Ks), Doubront (0-0, 5.40 ERA, 6 Ks) and Lackey (0-1, 4.15 ERA, 8 Ks) are nowhere near the messy lines that Sox pitchers put up for months last year. The 2012 Red Sox were second-worst in the American League in both runs allowed (4.98) and ERA (4.70), with just Cleveland and Minnesota more horrendous at shutting teams down.
The stat lines of Boston’s starting pitchers may flatten somewhat, but the Red Sox’ strategy of sticking with their talent and making it sing again is already showing that it can stake Boston to success. A rested, effective bullpen has only bolstered that effort, with the Sox having yet to give up a lead in the late innings, as they did in about a third of their losses last year.
Contrast the Red Sox’ pitching situation with that of the Yankees. New York’s problem is less that it doesn’t have the talent and more that it is hoping to stretch that talent past its expiration date. The Yankees have the big guns of pitching, but they differ from the Red Sox in this area in that their pitching slumps cannot be as easily dismissed. When the Boston rotation falters, it has been attributed to a fixable quality like mental focus or chemistry. When the New York rotation falters, the concerns are much deeper.
CC Sabathia (1-1, 3.00 ERA, 9 Ks) has been the definition of an ace, but injuries are starting to creep up with age. Andy Pettitte (2-0, 1.20 ERA, 7 Ks) is unreal in starting games after a Yankees loss, but at 40, he doesn’t provide much hope beyond this season, and flukes like last year’s broken ankle show how quickly the team can come apart without him in the rotation. Hiroki Kuroda (1-1, 6.75 ERA, 7 Ks) continues to be one of the best options for New York, but he’s also not a long-term solution (and, as another fluke injury showed, also a huge part of what’s holding the Yankees together). Phil Hughes (6.75 ERA, 0-1, 4 Ks) and Ivan Nova (0-1, 7.71 ERA, 5 Ks) have oscillated between brilliance, injury and ineffectiveness.
The Yankees are 22nd in MLB in ERA (4.89) and dead last in WHIP (1.71), coming off a year when they were fourth-best in runs allowed per game (4.12) and second in the American League in strikeouts. When their bats croaked in their playoff series against the Orioles last fall, their pitching dug them out. This year, however, that same mix of pitching is one year older and several stray balls more injured.
It can be said that the Red Sox and Yankees are both relying heavily on their pitching to carry them this year, but the difference is that the Red Sox are leaning on an adjustable foundation, while the Yankees are going all or nothing, and merely hoping for the all.
What the Yankees are depending on — and what the Sox have somewhat eschewed this year — is power hitting. What’s strange about this is that the Yankees have lost most of their power hitters, with Nick Swisher (24 home runs), Russell Martin (21), Raul Ibanez (19) and Andruw Jones (13) all gone in the offseason. Furthermore, New York’s biggest current bats are on the disabled list: Curtis Granderson (43), Mark Teixeira (24), Alex Rodriguez (18) and Derek Jeter (15). As every New York beat writer with a calculator has noted, that’s 72 percent of last year’s total home runs.
But the Yankees still have Robinson Cano, and they’ve added curious pieces like Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis and Lyle Overbay — players who are supposed to be washed up but have donned the pinstripes and started driving in runs instead. The Yankees have 15 home runs in eight games — tops in MLB — as well as 49 runs scored and 46 runs batted in, both second only to the Reds.
Their home runs have bailed them out in all their wins this year, and the Yankees have eight home runs over their last two games (coincidentally or not, both against Terry Francona’s Indians).
This Yankees lineup brings memories of the famous line from Catch Me If You Can, where the question is why the Yankees always win. “It’s because they have Mickey Mantle.” “No, it’s because everyone’s looking at their pinstripes.” A new wardrobe has instantly produced power for the players filling the stray holes in this lineup.
But that’s exactly why the Red Sox, and their meager nine home runs so far (six of them on Sunday, and three of those thanks to Will Middlebrooks), should not be worried. The Red Sox scored tons of runs last season (4.53 a game, fifth in the American League), and it didn’t help much thanks to the poor pitching. Even if the Yankees somehow repeat their 245 home runs from last year — improbable with this lineup — what happened in the playoffs shows the source of true power.
Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.
If the Red Sox finally have the rotation figured out, this could be a fun year. Whether it’s enough to hold off other American League teams and go somewhere is still a question.
But at least this much is certain: As the two perennial American League East powers come into this season with similar struggles and needs to achieve, the way they’ve won so far has been very different. And the one-week-in statistics are favoring the team that’s not staring at the pinstripes.