Why the Red Sox -- not the Yankees -- will win the AL East

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Friday, June 29, 2018
ESPN

Is it accurate to describe the American League East as an epic playoff race? I believe so. TheBoston Red SoxandNew York Yankeesare both on pace to win more than 105 games. The last time two teams in the same division won 100 games was 2001, when theSeattle MarinersandOakland A'sdid it in the AL West. Yes, the wild card is a fallback, but you don't want to win 105 games and then have to beat a pitcher like James Paxton to keep your season alive.

The FanGraphs playoff odds favor the Yankees, giving them a 67 percent chance to win the division compared with just 33 percent for the Red Sox. I'm surprised the Yankees are 2-to-1 favorites to win the East, especially since there are five solid reasons why the Red Sox will win it.

1. Boston's lineup is just as strong as New York's.

Heading into Wednesday's games, the Yankees were averaging 5.17 runs per game, the Red Sox 5.16. The teams had identical wOBA (weighted on-base average) marks of .345. They create runs in different ways -- the Yankees hit more home runs and draw more walks while the Red Sox hold a 15-point edge in batting average and strike out less -- but the sum of the parts has been identical.

There are a couple of reasons, however, to be optimistic about Boston's offense improving in the second half. First, it has struggled big-time against left-handers:

vs. RHP: .270/.337/.476

vs. LHP: .250/.308/.396

Asked about this a few days ago, Red Sox manager Alex Cora acknowledged the team has had some problems with southpaws. "It feels that sometimes with lefties, they don't throw as hard but they have the curveball and the cutter and the changeup, sometimes I feel that we're in between and don't know which pitch to pick and stay with it," he said.

He also pointed out the Red Sox had hit well against three of the previous four lefties they had faced.

"We've been OK," Cora said. "There are some good lefties in our division. One of the best, and we've faced him three times, is [Blake] Snell. With J.D. [Martinez], they've limited the damage. We have lefties who can hit lefties. We'll be fine."

Indeed, Martinez absolutely destroyed lefties in 2017 with a .376 average and .892 slugging percentage. This season, he has a .698 slugging mark against righties entering Wednesday's game and just .478 against lefties with a poor 26-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

After going 4-for-5 against the Mariners on Friday in a game started by lefty Wade LeBlanc, Martinez didn't seem too concerned about his relative struggles against lefties and why that's happened. "That's for you guys to figure out," he said. In other words: It's just 73 plate appearances, a small sample size. Considering that Mookie Betts crushes lefties, if Martinez gets going, that will help.

The Red Sox also just signed Brandon Phillips as a potential right-handed bat who can fill in at second or third base against southpaws. He hit .297/.339/.373 against lefties last year.

The offense also should get a second-half boost from Jackie Bradley Jr., who was still under .200 entering Wednesday. There's been a lot of bad luck built into his start. His average exit velocity is up from 88.1 mph last year to 91.6, and he has a higher average launch angle and hard-hit rate. His expected wOBA based on his types is .334; instead, it's .276.

Bradley has seen all the numbers. He's aware of his exit velocity and line-drive rates and everything else. He knows he's been hitting into some bad luck and that luck will turn. Still, "It doesn't even out," he joked. "It never evens out."

2. Boston's rotation is better than New York's.

Surprisingly, the season ERAs for both teams also are similar: 3.70 for Boston, 3.76 for New York. The Red Sox have allowed a .302 wOBA, the Yankees a .303 wOBA. The Red Sox have a better strikeout rate, 25.7 percent to 24.4 percent, but have allowed a .295 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) to .283 for the Yankees. Of course, a primary reason the Yankees are close is because Luis Severino has been a one-man wrecking crew.

He can start only one out of every five games, however, and the depth of the Boston rotation should play out over the second half. With Jordan Montgomery out for the season and Masahiro Tanaka still on the disabled list, the Yankees have been scrambling with the likes of rookie Domingo German (5.40) and Luis Cessa, who made his first start on Wednesday. The Red Sox back up ace Chris Sale with David Price, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez, all with ERAs under 4.00.

The Yankees can look to fortify the rotation with a trade, but there won't be much available on the trade market. The Mets are unlikely to deal Jacob deGrom, and if they do, they won't trade him to the Yankees. J.A. Happ may be the best starter to switch teams.

3. Chris Sale is in better position to have a big second half.

Last year, Sale had a 2.37 ERA through July but then scuffled with a 4.09 ERA his final 11 starts. The Red Sox have been careful with their early-season usage of Sale, however, and through the same number of starts as 2017, he's thrown 11 2/3 fewer innings and 138 fewer pitches.

"The whole plan this year has been recovery, feeling good and staying strong," Sale said after his dominant start on Sunday in which his final pitch of the game was the fastest one he's thrown in his career. "I think we've had a good building-up action from spring training up to now."

Indeed, while Severino is more of a max-effort guy from the first inning on, we've seen Sale hold back a bit in the early innings and then ramp up the velocity, similar to what Justin Verlander has done. His average fastball velocity has picked up from 92.5 in April to 97.0 in June. He looks as strong as ever.

4. The Boston bullpen is fine.

Is the Boston bullpen as good as New York's? Maybe not quite as good, but it's good enough:

Yankees: 2.73 ERA, .194 average, .273 wOBA, 32.6 percent SO rate, 2.4 percent HR rate

Red Sox: 3.10 ERA, .219 average, .288 wOBA, 25.8 percent SO rate, 1.9 percent HR rate

Craig Kimbrelalready has allowed five home runs, just one shy of his career high, so that's a minor concern, but he's still about as tough as it gets in the ninth. Joe Kelly is throwing 98 mph cheese and has allowed a .152 average. Matt Barnes has developed into an excellent setup guy with 45 K's and just one home run allowed in 33 innings. The one guy the Red Sox maybe lack is somebody like Chad Green, who can bridge a couple of innings from the starters to the back of the bullpen. Maybe the Red Sox will go after the Padres' Brad Hand to fill that role.

5. The Yankees' youth have not faced pennant-race pressure

The Yankees have received tremendous production from Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. Not that they can't keep it up, but it's a long season and we'll see how they adjust now that the league has seen them a bit. If those two slide in the second half, the Yankees will need to find more offense from the rest of the lineup -- Gary Sanchez or Greg Bird, in particular.

Meanwhile, Red Sox youngsters such as Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers already went through the heat of last year's close division race. That little added experience could be vital.

In the end, it will come down to the remaining 13 games the teams have against each other and maybe a dazzling season finale: The teams finish up with a three-game series at Fenway. Let's hope a division title is on the line.