The Red Sox Will Not Stop
It's still too early to give Boston the division, but they have shown no signs of slowing down.
John Cetrino, EPA-EFE
A lifetime ago, on June 21, it seemed like the New York Yankees were probably going to win the AL East. After defeating the Mariners 4-3, giving them a two-game lead over the Boston Red Sox, their odds of winning the division, per FanGraphs, stood at a season-high 79.1 percent. It had taken some work to get there—the Red Sox were virtually unbeatable over the first three weeks of the season, while the Yankees spun their wheels in .500-adjacent mediocrity. Through May and June, though, the Yankees coalesced into the slugging, flame-throwing nightmare that everyone thought they were going to be. The AL East division title promised to be every bit the nose-to-nose two-horse race that had been expected before the season.
And the stats bore that out. On June 21, the Yankees and the Red Sox had the same number of wins at 50, though the Red Sox had played four more games. They had allowed the same number of runs at 275, second only to the World Series champion Houston Astros in the American League; their respective runs scored differed by only two, with the Sox edging out the Yankees 383 to 381. These marks were, again, second only to Houston. Their offensive numbers through that time were extremely similar, though the Yankees held the edge in terms of power: a .253/.331/.466 collective line with 122 homers, compared to Boston's .261/.328/.458 and 107 bombs.
In terms of pitching, too, the two teams were evenly matched, with the Yankees again taking the slight edge in terms of overall value, thanks to their fearsome, endlessly deep bullpen. This was despite the fact that Boston’s rotation—featuring the indomitable Chris Sale at the top, backed up by David Price and Rick Porcello—featured rather more firepower.
Seven weeks later, the Yankees’ two-game lead has transformed itself into a nine-game deficit. It is their rivals who now look poised to challenge for the most regular-season wins in MLB history. The race for the AL East isn't looking like much of a race anymore. It's all Red Sox.
There have been a few contributors to this reversal of fortunes. The Yankees bullpen has remained a strength, but the rotation has fallen off the map in terms of performance, its weaknesses exposed as the season went on. Jordan Montgomery’s year was lost to Tommy John surgery; Sonny Gray continued the struggles he's had since arriving in New York, precipitating a move to a relief role. Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia have been competent, but not great. And Luis Severino, the rotation’s only true ace, has struggled immensely since the All-Star break, with a 9.60 ERA in 15 innings pitched.
The bigger problem for the Yankees, though, has been the bats. The Yankees offense has slowed down, while the Red Sox have exploded. Over the past seven weeks, the Red Sox lineup has absolutely outclassed them and pretty much everyone else in baseball, posting a team batting line of .286/.355/.481. (For comparison, the 2017 Astros, one of modern baseball’s best offenses ever, had a .282/.346/.478 line for the season.) The Red Sox don’t walk all that much, and they don’t have the home run power that the Yankees do, but they make up for it with the sheer relentlessness of their attack, leading baseball in doubles and tied for the lead in stolen bases. And in a league-wide hitting environment where strikeouts are on the rise, the Red Sox have maintained one of baseball’s lowest strikeout rates. The Yankees, their lineup full of high-strikeout power bats, have struck out in 22.9 percent of their plate appearances this season; the Sox, have struck out in only 19.9 percent of theirs.
The Red Sox have also made a fortunate habit of clobbering shitty teams. Boston's June 21 division low point coincided with the beginning of a stretch of games primarily against teams stuck either below or around .500. Over 21 games against teams with losing records. And they haven’t wasted that opportunity, losing only four of those games. The Yankees, though, have failed to take advantage of the would-be softballs lobbed at them over the past few weeks, winning only three out of six against the lowly Orioles and losing two series to the Rays, one via sweep. Boston's record within the two-thirds bad AL East is 38-14; the Yankees stands at a mediocre 29-24.
Injuries have waylaid the Sox to some extent—Chris Sale is on the DL with shoulder inflammation in his throwing arm literally as we speak, starter Eduardo Rodriguez has been sidelined with an ankle injury, and Dustin Pedroia was moved to the 60-day DL on August 4th, return date unknown. But their stars have been shining throughout. J.D. Martinez, acquired for what many thought was too great a price over the offseason, is baseball’s best hitter. And if Mike Trout doesn’t return promptly and unscathed from his hand injury, Mookie Betts could end up being the American League MVP. The Sox core of young position players—Betts, Benintendi, Bogaerts, Bradley, Devers— is as exciting a group as you'll find in baseball.
The Yankees have their own young stars, but Gary Sanchez has only appeared in 66 games this season, and even then as a diminished version of himself, his power sapped by the injuries that have sidelined him. Aaron Judge has a broken wrist. The Yankees now find themselves alone at the bottom of a very steep hill, with the red-hot A’s not far behind. They are facing the very real prospect of having a 100-win season end in a one-and-done Wild Card loss.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, look like world-beaters. They exude confidence. They handily swept the Yankees in four games over the weekend, in a series that highlighted their strengths and threw the Yankees’ weaknesses into sharper relief under the Fenway lights. Their lineup produced 19 hits in Thursday’s 15-7 blowout; on Friday and Saturday, their pitching held the Yankees to two runs in 18 innings, winning both games by a score of 4-1. And on Sunday's finale, the Yankees, with a 4-1 lead of their own going into the bottom of the ninth, threw that lead away on three walks from Aroldis Chapman and an extraordinarily ugly error.
We've seen the Red Sox collapse before; we've seen history-chasing teams have disastrous Septembers as recently as last season. It’s too early to hand over the division title just yet. Watching them pummel a sad parade of Blue Jays pitchers on Wednesday afternoon, though, they certainly seemed like a team that's unstoppable, their unbelievable 17-2 start to the season clearly not a fluke. They close the season with three games at home against the Yankees—a chance to clinch the division, or, maybe, a chance for a victory lap.