Sizing Up the AL East Contenders

With five weeks left in the season, the Red Sox and Yankees find themselves separated by less than a game in the standings, again dueling down to the wire for the division title. They’re also clearly the class of the American League, and while the playoffs are unpredictable, there’s a good chance they’ll meet in the ALCS for the first time since 2004.

We could use several methods to figure out which team is better. The Red Sox have won ten of twelve head-to-head matchups, outscoring New York 73-46 in those games. The Yankees have dominated lesser teams, going 75-38 (a 107-win pace) when not playing Boston. In all, the Yankees have scored five more runs and surrendered 39 fewer, suggesting that they should have a four-to-five game lead based on their abilities to score and prevent runs.

Those run differentials, however, include more than a few runs coughed up by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Bobby Jenks, two pitchers who won’t factor in the race for the division crowd or in a potential ALCS matchup. To best determine which team is most likely to win the division (and best suited to win in the playoffs), let’s compare the teams position by position. Numbers in parenthesis are Wins Above Replacement, per fangraphs.

First Base: Mark Teixeira (4.3) vs. Adrian Gonzalez (5.0)

Both first basemen are big stars and great players, but they provide value in very different ways. Teixeira has power (33 home runs vs. 18), but Gonzalez gets on base far more often (.406 vs .347, with almost a 100-point disparity in batting average). Gonzalez has great range at first base, while Teixeira saves runs by scooping up errant throws from infielders.

Gonzalez has been at the forefront of the MVP conversation all year, while Teixeira has struggled to hit .250. But until Gonzalez starts hitting more home runs (playing more games in New York would help), the difference between them is not all that big.

Slight Edge: Red Sox

Second Base: Robinson Cano (4.3) vs. Dustin Pedroia (6.9)

Cano was my preseason MVP pick, but it’s Pedroia who has played well enough to win the award this year. Pedroia has reached base a staggering 41 more times than Cano, and has stolen 16 more bases, creating more runs than Cano despite 16 fewer extra base hits. The real difference between the two comes in the field, where Pedroia has been the best defensive infielder in baseball this year, while Cano has cost his team five runs on defense.

Edge: Red Sox

Shortstop: Derek Jeter (2.0) vs. Marco Scutaro (1.6)

One of the rare positions at which neither team has a great player, this one’s not an easy call. Jeter has come alive after a miserable first half, hitting .413/.453/.500 in August. His defense has been nearly average making him a somewhat useful player.

Scutaro has struggled to keep his job as Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles come and go, but he’s played well when his name is in the lineup, reaching base at a .342 clip and playing slightly above-average defense. As with the catcher position, the Red Sox have the advantage of versatility at short, as Lowrie is an excellent hitter when healthy. However, the notion that the Yankees are burdened by an unproductive former superstar has been proven foolish again and again. Jeter will come through in a big spot in October. Will Scutaro?

Slight Edge: Yankees

Third Base: Alex Rodriguez (3.9) vs. Kevin Youkilis (4.1)

When healthy, Rodriguez has hit nearly as well as Youkilis this year, with only a few walks separating them. On the defensive end, Youkilis has been overmatched by third base, while Rodriguez has played it surprisingly well, saving 11 runs above average.

Youkilis’s WAR advantage is due to health, as Rodriguez has missed over 30 games due to injuries. When Youkilis hit the disabled list last week, that advantage was neutralized, as Rodriguez is on his way back and may be strong by October.

Slight Edge: Yankees

Left Field: Brett Gardner (4.4) vs. Carl Crawford (0.4)

I refuse to believe that Carl Crawford is as bad as he’s been for most of 2011. He will not have an on-base percentage under .300 next season. Alas, he hasn’t come around much from his miserable start, and it’s probably safe to say at this point that he’s a lesser player than Gardner.

Gardner gets on base (.357 OBP), steals bases (36 in 47 attempts), and has saved more runs on defense (19) than any player in either league. In October, Crawford may summon some of the tools that made him a star in Tampa, but that doesn’t make him the better player.

Edge: Yankees

Center Field: Curtis Granderson (6.1) vs. Jacoby Ellsbury (6.6)

If the voters look past Jose Bautista’s superior season with a non-contending team, these two may be at the center of the MVP debate. Granderson rediscovered his ability to hit left-handed pitching and has become an offensive force, hitting 34 home runs and slugging almost .600. Ellsbury, meanwhile, is batting .313 with a surprising 22 home runs of his own, and has stolen 33 bases in 44 tries.

Granderson’s offensive advantage is countered by Ellsbury’s far superior defense. Ultimate Zone Rating claims that Ellsbury has saved 20 more runs in the field, which gives him more fWAR than Granderson. It’s possible that Gardner’s extraordinary range is making Granderson look bad, as Gardner patrols more of left center field than the average left fielder. For this reason I can’t give Ellsbury the edge.

Edge: Push

Right Field: Nick Swisher (3.4) vs. Josh Reddick (1.5)

Right field has been a sinkhole for both of these teams in 2011. Swisher was nearly unplayable for the first half of the season, but Boston’s JD Drew was even worse, and backup Darnell McDonald was no help.

As the season progresses, Swisher is finding his game, hitting .304/.423/.500 over the last month. Boston has also found the answer in Josh Reddick, who has cooled off after a hot start, but is still hitting .307/.357/.515 for the season. Both are good defenders. Swisher’s only real advantage is a track record of success.

Slight edge: Yankees

Catcher: Russell Martin (2.6) vs. Jarson Varitemacchia (3.1)
Martin started the season on a hot streak, and may be heating up again, with three homers in his last two games, but for the season, he’s been bland, creating two more runs than the average catcher.

In less playing time, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has hit slightly better than Martin, a little more power balanced by a little less patience. Jason Varitek has caught about two of every five games, though, keeping Saltalamacchia fresh but sacrificing a little offense and a little defense when he plays. Tek has hit a little more than Martin’s backup, Francisco Cervelli (who’s been worth .2 WAR). The teams’ total production from the catcher position has been similar, but considering they have the better starter and the better backup:

Slight Edge: Red Sox

Designated Hitter: Jordruw Josada (0.4) vs. David Ortiz (3.1)

Jorge Posada has had a miserable season, reaching base in barely 30 percent of his plate appearances and clogging the bases when he gets there. Andruw Jones seems to have taken his spot, and has shown patience and some power in a limited role. Rodriguez may get some DH at bats if Eric Chavez plays third.

What the Yankees won’t get from the DH position is David Ortiz’s production. Years removed from his peak, Ortiz is still raking, hitting .300/.388/.557 in a full-time role. And we all know Big Papi loves October.

(Huge) Edge: Red Sox

Bench

The Yankees’ best backup infielder, Eduardo Nunez, plays the whole infield, but not particularly well. Chavez doesn’t hit much anymore, but still plays a slick third base. If Jones, their fourth outfielder, assumes regular DH duties, the speedy Chris Dickerson may make the postseason roster.

After acquiring Aviles from the Royals and getting Lowrie back from the DL, the Red Sox have attractive options to back up their infield, but neither has shown much of a bat or a glove this season. Outfield depth is not a strength, as McDonald can play defense and pinch run, but doesn’t hit much.

Both teams may add a slugging catcher to their postseason roster, but it’s hard to predict how Jesus Montero and Ryan Lavarnway will react to the big stage.

Edge: Push

#1 Starter: CC Sabathia (5.9) vs. Josh Beckett (3.5)
Sabathia is closest to a sure thing in either rotation. Oddly, he’s anything but a sure thing against the Red Sox, against whom he’s 0-4 and has yielded 43 baserunners in 25 innings. Still, Sabathia has been one of the three best pitchers in the AL, consistently pitching deep into games and striking out 184 batters in 197 2/3 innings.

Beckett, who started the season in the fourth spot in Boston’s rotation, has been the team’s ace, but has faded some lately. He’s struck out a career low 7.85 batters per nine innings and only pitched into the eighth inning five times all year. Still, from a run prevention standpoint, Beckett has been as good as Sabathia, as his 2.46 ERA indicates. He may also enter the playoffs fresher than Sabathia, having pitched almost 40 fewer innings.

Slight Edge: Yankees

#2 Starter: Bartolo Colon (2.1) vs. Jon Lester (2.8)

There’s no guarantee that the Yankees use Colon as a number two starter in the playoffs, but he’s arguably been their second best starter throughout the season. He hasn’t pitched into the eighth inning since May, but he’s still striking out batters (over seven per nine innings) and may actually be convinced that it’s 2003 again.

Lester, on the other hand, is a candidate to start Boston’s first game. He’s walking too many batters right now, but he’s still striking out almost a batter an inning and has kept his ERA close to three. No contest here.

Edge: Red Sox

#3 Starter: Phil Hughes (0.2) vs. John Lackey (0.9)

This is a gut feeling. Freddy Garcia has the best ERA and strikeout/walk ratio among the Yankees’ third starter candidates. Ivan Nova has the most wins, and AJ Burnett has the big contract and playoff experience. But Hughes has great stuff, and a month to audition for a spot in the rotation, and I think he may actually claim the number two spot.

As for the Sox, this call isn’t much easier. Clay Buchholz’s injury dictates that someone from the pool of Lackey, Erik Bedard, and Tim Wakefield has to start that game. None of them feels like a third starter, but Lackey, for all his faults, strikes out more than twice as many batters as he walks and has gone at least 5 2/3 innings in each of his last eight starts.

Edge: Yankees

I won’t go any deeper into the rotation, as each team will go out of its way not to use a fourth starter in the playoffs.

Late inning relief: Mariano Rivera and David Robertson (3.8) vs. Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard (3.5)

These are four of the best relievers in the American League. Rivera has struggled lately, but is the greatest closer in baseball history. Robinson strikes out an insane 13 batters per nine innings, and leads all AL relievers in WAR.

Papelbon is next on that WAR list, and his 67 strikeouts to eight walks have made him one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers again. Bard has been excellent too, keeping his walks and home runs down while striking out more than a batter per inning. Recent results give an edge to the Sox, but I can’t doubt Rivera in October.

Edge: Push

Middle Relief

The Yankees tend to match up in the seventh inning with lefty Boone Logan and righties Luis Ayala and Cory Wade, with Hector Noesi picking up long-relief and extra innings. These are all adequate pitchers, and Ayala’s got a great ERA, but they’re likely to use the starters who don’t make the cut (maybe Nova and Garcia) in key relief situations in October.

The Red Sox struggled in the seventh and eighth earlier in the season, but with Jenks banished, they primarily use Matt Albers (who gives up a lot of hits, but strikes out more than a batter per inning), a resurgent Dan Wheeler, and lefty Franklin Morales (who’s been unhittable with Boston, but walks too many batters). The Sox do have former Yankee Alfredo Aceves, who is capable of pitching several effective innings in relief, a bonus of Lackey or Bedard can’t get through the fifth inning in a playoff game, but the Yankees can probably accomplish the same thing with their spare starters.

Edge: Push

If we give two points for a full edge and one for a slight edge, each team gets eight points. The Red Sox opened the season looking a little better, but with Granderson and Colon playing better than expected, Crawford playing much worse, and Buchholz not available in October, there’s no real difference between the two teams as they’re currently constituted.

Expect another tense autumn in New England.

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2 Responses to Sizing Up the AL East Contenders

  1. I agree with most everything you say here. I doubt that Colon is going to be the Yanks #2 postseason starter, but regardless, Lester is a big edge over whomever the Yankees have there. Also, I’m not sure I’m ready to consider Hughes-Lackey as advantage Yankees.

    The one significant name you forget to mention is Rafael Soriano, who’s pitched well since returning from injury. Adding him to the mix, I think, gives the Yankees an edge in the bullpen.

    • Bryan says:

      I totally forgot about Soriano. You’re right that if he’s healthy and effective, the Yankees have the deeper bullpen, particularly if there’s something wrong with Albers. I should also add that Bedard has pitched well enough lately to compete for the #3 spot, or at least make the Sox more comfortable going four starters deep, which they may have to do in every series they play.

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