Yankees fans toiled away a rainy Sunday without the hometown team taking the field. Rainouts always bring disappointment, but it’s always worse on the weekends. The one bit of good news we got involved the Red Sox, as they dropped their second game in three chances against the Mariners. That gave them their 46th loss of the season, tying them with the Yankees. The loss column, we’re told from a young age, means everything. You can’t make up a loss. That axiom puts the Yankees in a virtual tie with the Red Sox, though it doesn’t feel that way.
One statistic captures nearly 100 percent of everyone’s disappointment with the 2011 Yankees: 10 losses. In a dozen games against the Red Sox the Yankees have dropped 10, leaving them with a pathetic .167 win percentage. They’re only under .500 against two other teams, the Tigers and the Royals, and in both cases they’re just one win away from .500. There’s just something about the Red Sox this year that completely stymies the Yankees. Could it be their undoing in 2011?
In one way, it would seem that is the case. While the Yankees must fare well against other teams in order to make the playoffs, they will have to tumble the Red Sox if they’re to take the AL East, and, perhaps, the AL pennant. They’re the one team that truly stands in the way. Their offense tops the Yankees, and their pitching staff, while not quite as strong, does have a quality top end that has proven it can handle the Yankees’ lineup. But that’s not the only way to think about this issue. There are plenty of aspects that make this seem like an anomaly rather than some ingrained malfunction.
No prior imbalance
If you look at the Yankees vs. the Red Sox in every year since the rivalry re-intensified in 2002, you’ll see that the results are pretty even throughout.
With such evenly played ball for the past nine years, it seems quite out of line that one team would rise to dominance in the 10th. Of course, the 2011 versions of the teams are nothing like the 2002 versions, so there might be something else at play. But as we’ll soon see, the overall landscape doesn’t appear all that different.
Performance vs. the league
If the Yankees are 2-10 against the Sox yet have the same number of losses, it means that they’re playing better against the rest of the league. To wit, the Yankees are 70-36 (.660) vs. all other teams, while the Red Sox are 63-44 (.589), giving the Yankees a 7.5 game advantage. Even if you take interleague record out of the equation, the Yankees are 57-31 (.648) against AL opponents, while the Sox are 53-36 (.596), giving the Yankees a 4.5 game lead. Essentially, the Yankees are better against everyone else, except the Red Sox themselves.
Measuring toughness of schedule is always difficult, but there are a few stats that give us an idea of toughness at a glance. One place I like to look is Baseball Prospectus’s quality of batters faced. It measures the triple slash of opponents facing each pitcher in the league. In that way, it appears that the Yankees’ pitchers have faced tougher opponents than the Red Sox. Freddy Garcia (6th), CC Sabathia (27th), and Bartolo Colon (30th) all rank in the top 30 for highest OPS by opponents, while none of the Red Sox rank in the top 30. Ivan Nova ranks No. 31 as well.
(To be clear, this measures how well opponents have hit overall, not how they hit against the specific pitcher. In other words, it makes Freddy’s season look even better, since he has an ERA in the low 3s despite facing hitters with an average .757 OPS.)
That Boston has the league’s best offense does play into this, since their pitchers don’t face their own hitters. But in the same way, it somewhat dampens their top two starters, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, since they haven’t faced opponents as tough as the Yanks’ top four. Josh Beckett ranks No. 38, Lester ranks No. 42, and Tim Wakefield ranks No. 93. They are the only Sox starters on the list.
Another way to view this is Baseball Reference’s Simple Rating System. If you pull up the main page you’ll see the current standings, with SRS as the final item. This is a formula that determines how much better a team is than the average team, based on run differential and strength of schedule. Here the Yankees have led the Sox all year, and currently lead the league. Again, this is because Boston is tough and does not play itself. But the same can be said about the Yankees. Yet they still top Boston.
Adding it up
We can look at the Yankees performance relative to the Sox from any angle we want, but it will not erase the poor head-to-head showing. This isn’t to excuse any of that; if the Yankees want to win this year, they’ll almost certainly have to topple the Sox at some point. But given the available evidence, it appears that they’re able to do just that.
There has never been a year in recent memory that has been this unbalanced. Even in 2009, with the infamous 0-8 start, the Yanks came back to tie the season series. In no year did either team have more than a three-game advantage over the other. Things tended to balance out when it came to the top teams in the East. Things should balance out again this year, at least to some degree. After all, we’ve seen from multiple angles that the Sox aren’t actually better than the Yankees outside of the head-to-head matchups.
Does this mean that the Yankees will sweep the remaining games to finish the season 8-10 against the Sox? Hardly. They’ll be lucky to split the remaining six games and finish 5-13. But even that will provide the Yankees with a boost. They’ve played better against every other team in the league, and so could still win the East even with that dismal record against the Sox. It’s not the ideal way to go about it, but the Yankees cannot undo games. All they have is what’s left. And what’s left favors them pretty heavily when you add up the available evidence.