You may or may not have heard that the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox is back. If you have, congratulations, you have not been living under a rock since Opening Day.
Both the Yankees and Red Sox sat at 28-12 through 40 games, before Boston dropped a half-game back in the East with a 6-5 loss to the A’s on Monday night. It’s the first time since 2002 that two teams had a .700 winning percentage through 40 games. They also have near-identical run differentials, with Yankees at plus-65 and the Red Sox at plus-66.
They are also both projected to win 100 games by FanGraphs with the Yankees having a plus-171 run differential and the Red Sox plus-170. It’s the first time since 2003-05 that both teams are this evenly matched.
The issue for both teams is that one of these juggernauts will have to settle for the dreaded one-game playoff in the wild card round. It would be a hard pill to swallow for either of these teams to win around 100 games and have their season end in one game thanks to someone like Shohei Ohtani or James Paxton.
The Yankees settled for the wild card last season and went to within one game of the World Series. The wild card isn’t a death sentence, but there isn’t a soul who would willingly accept the wild card with how well the Yankees have been playing.
There are several deciding factors on how this summer-long division battle will play out. Both teams are great teams that will make the playoffs. However, these factors suggest significant differences that favor one over the other over the course of a long season. Let’s break them all down.
The Yankees have an easier schedule ahead. Their strength of schedule the rest of the way is .496, third-lowest in the American League, behind Cleveland and Minnesota. It really is nice to play in the AL Central after all. The Red Sox have a tougher road ahead of them as their opponents combine for a .504 winning percentage.
It’s not a significant difference, but with how even both teams are any small advantage can be considered important. The Yankees also already navigated through the hardest part of their schedule, and went 11-2 during the 13-game gauntlet against the Angles, Astros, Cleveland, and the Red Sox.
The Red Sox have yet to go on an extended stretch of games against excellent teams. Looking at Boston’s schedule reveals a tough 16-game stretch in the second half of June and early July. They face the Mariners seven times and travel to face the Yankees, Twins and Nationals.
They still have seven games against both the Astros and Cleveland. They also play playoff contenders all throughout the month of September. They have only five games the entire month against teams that currently have a losing record.
September’s a long way off, so Atlanta, the Mets, and Blue Jays may not be able to claim winning records, but they have a combined 12 games against the Astros, Yankees and Cleveland that month. The Yankees still have some tough stretches on their slate, but the Red Sox appear to have the harder schedule.
Why root for the Red Sox to lose against other teams when the Yankees can solve that problem themselves? If the Yankees want to win the AL East, take care of business against the Red Sox. It’s as simple as that. Right? Not necessarily. The Yankees won the season series last season 11-8. That is a very solid record.
In fact, if a team goes 11-8 every 19 games, they finish with 94 wins. Despite winning the season series, the Yankees finished second. The Yankees are 14-11 against the Red Sox since the start of last season, going 3-3 against them so far in 2018.
One thing that favors the Red Sox in the series matchup is that 10 of the 19 games are at Fenway Park. They host the Yankees for a four-game set the first week of August. Will the Yankees channel their inner-2006, where they swept a five-game set at Fenway in what was dubbed a redux of 1978’s famous Boston Massacre?
Or will it resemble 2016, when the Yankees were swept in a four-game set with all four games being close late? The sweep pretty much eliminated any real hope for the Yankees making the postseason that year.
Yankee starters have struggled mightily against the Red Sox in six games this season, posting a 9.00 ERA in 30.0 innings, if the Yankees starters continue to pitch poorly against Boston, the Red Sox will likely win the season series.
It’s not going to keep the Yankees from winning the division, as evidenced by last year, but the best way the Yankees can help themselves is by beating the Red Sox head to head.
The Red Sox started the season 17-2 and were averaging 6.47 runs per game. Over their last 22 games, they are 11-11 and averaging 4.55 runs per game. It might just be the ebb and flows of a season, but it’s possible the Red Sox offense has already peaked. Mookie Betts has an unsustainable 1.205 OPS. Mitch Moreland is at .992 after being a below league-average hitter his entire career. J.D. Martinez has a .427 BABIP and a career-high strikeout rate. Xander Bogaerts has a 2.8 percent walk rate and a .365 BABIP. Hanley Ramirez has been below replacement level in two of his three seasons since returning to Boston.
In the offseason, the Red Sox hired Tim Hyers as their new hitting coach. He pressured the Red Sox hitters to be more aggressive in the strike zone after taking the most strikes in baseball last season. They were last in Z-Swing percentage in the majors last season, they are second this year.
The change in offensive philosophy has undoubtedly helped the Red Sox hitters and they will remain one of the top offenses, but it’s probably only a matter of time until they start to slump as the rest of the league makes their adjustments.
The Yankees are seeing it with Didi Gregorius, who got off to a similar start as Betts but has been ice cold the last few weeks.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are waiting for Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez to terrorize opposing pitchers on a nightly basis. They are also patiently waiting for the return of Greg Bird, who, if healthy, can tip the scales in the Yankees’ favor in a huge way. Both offenses have been similar to this point, but the Yankees still have more upside.
The Trade Deadline
This is probably the Yankees’ biggest advantage this season and the way they can most directly control the division race other than their head-to-head matchups with the Red Sox. The Yankees stayed well under their self-imposed salary cap of $197 million to avoid a 50 percent luxury tax.
They entered the season at $167 million, allowing them plenty of money to make a trade deadline splash in need be. They also entered the season with Baseball America’s No. 2 farm system.
They have the available funds and the prospects to get anyone they want at the trade deadline and outbid any competitors.
The Red Sox don’t have that. They have baseball’s highest payroll at $234 million. They also have only $3.5 million available for in-season transactions, or they will have a 62.5 percent tax in 2019.
They are the only team in the American League that will pay a tax after crossing the $197 million threshold. They also only have the No. 24 farm system in baseball, after trades for the likes of Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel have left their minor league system empty.
In a lot of ways Boston general manager Dave Dombrowski has pushed all of his chips in for 2018 and they were certainly not wrong to sign Martinez to a five-year contract considering their big need, but it has cost them present and future payroll flexibility.
Expect Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to once again be extremely aggressive at the trade deadline to add a difference-maker to the starting rotation. In fact I think Cashman will do whatever it takes to set the Yankees up to win the division.
The Yankees have depth to withstand injuries to key players and to make in-season call ups. New York has already taken advantage of this with the call up of top prospect Gleyber Torres. They have already replaced the injured Bird, Brandon Drury and Jordan Montgomery with Tyler Austin, Miguel Andujar and Domingo German.
The Red Sox were able to do this last year with their then-top prospect Rafael Devers replacing the awful Pablo Sandoval. They currently don’t have the depth at the top of the minor leagues to replace anyone in the majors like the Yankees can. Boston has first baseman Sam Travis, who has major league experience, and pitcher Jalen Beeks, who is excelling at Triple-A, and not much else.
New York has outfielder Clint Frazier and top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield as candidates to make a contribution at some point this year. Frazier was a top 40 prospect last season, Sheffield is one this season. The Red Sox do have second baseman Dustin Pedroia coming back, but he is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and had a down year last year.
The Yankees and Red Sox have the two best records in baseball. They are both complete teams with great offenses, starting pitchers and relievers. But over the course of a long season, the Yankees have what it takes to outlast them and win the AL East.
They have more payroll flexibility and a deeper farm system to make a big splash as the trade deadline. They also have more organizational depth at Triple-A and an easier schedule. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Red Sox win the division, they are a great team, but so are the Yankees.
The difference is that the Yankees can add impact players, adequately replace them and have a roster that has more upside.