Which is a worse sign: Playing poorly with your same team as last year or playing poorly with a similar team that is riddled with injuries? Welcome to Yankees-Red Sox 2019.
Their Story Thus Far
After winning 108 games and the World Series a year ago, the Red Sox slump into Yankee Stadium with a 6-11 record. They have the worst run differential in the AL at -32 runs and have given up 6.24 runs per game. Their bullpen has actually been middle of the pack while their starting pitching has let them down with a 7.17 ERA, the worst in baseball. Only David Price (3.79) has an ERA under 7.98 within their regular rotation.
Meanwhile, Boston’s lineup has been disappointing. J.D. Martinez is, more ore less, duplicating his results of a year ago while Xander Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland are both off to hot starts. However, Mookie Betts hasn’t been his All-Star/MVP self (more on that below) while Jackie Bradley Jr. hasn’t hit a lick. In total, the offense that set the world on fire in 2018 in 23rd in the league with an 83 wRC+.
Player Spotlight: Mookie Betts
Through 17 games, Betts hasn’t quite hit like himself. For Boston, that’s OK; it’s only mid-April. The question, however, is whether Betts will return to his 2016/2018 MVP-esque level or will be the 2015/2017 All-Star deserving version of himself.
The 26-year-old outfielder has six extra-base hits and has a .222 average a year after winning the batting title. Part of that is simply BABIP luck: He has a .229 BABIP after a .368 mark a year ago.
Yet, there are some underlying questions. His walk rate is right in between his 2017 and ’18 marks, though it’s still impressive at 12.2 percent. His strikeouts, meanwhile, have continued to rise as a mildly alarming trend. His average exit velocity is down from 92.2 in 2018 to 90.0 mph this season.
Perhaps Betts is just a hot week from re-establishing himself. With plenty of struggling players surrounding him, Boston could use the boost. Five of his eight hits have gone for extra bases in 36 ABs against Wednesday starter J.A. Happ.
Andrew Benintendi (foot contusion) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (flu) were both held out of the Patriots’ Day game and are day-to-day. Brock Holt (scratched cornea) should begin a rehab assignment this week while reliever Brian Johnson is on the 10-day IL with elbow inflammation.
- Andrew Benintendi, LF (.293/.364/.448, 117 wRC+)
- Mookie Betts, RF (.222/.324/.413, 94 wRC+)
- Steve Pearce, 1B (.125/.176/.125, -23 wRC+)
- J.D. Martinez, DH (.344/.417/.563, 159 wRC+)
- Xander Bogaerts, SS (.304/.403/.500, 143 wRC+)
- Rafael Devers, 3B (.254/.343/.305, 81 wRC+)
- Dustin Pedroia, 2B (.105/.150/.105, -39 wRC+)
- Jackie Bradley Jr., CF (.149/.196/.170, -7 wRC+)
- Christian Vazquez, C (.195/.233/.415, 58 wRC+)
Though the Yankees are starting two lefties, I doubt Pearce starts over Moreland (151 wRC+) in both games. Bradley’s illness could open the door for Pearce or Martinez to play the outfield and Moreland to man first.
Sale’s dreadful beginning to 2019 has been one of the biggest stories not just for the Red Sox, but for baseball. The lanky lefty received a $145 million extension this offseason and the Red Sox treated him carefully this spring, cutting down on his workload after he ended 2018 later than ever (the Fall Classic will do that) and with shoulder issues.
Boston lined him up to start in this series. The Sox did the same thing a year ago and it was intimidating. Now, with Sale owning a 9.00 ERA, a 7.31 FIP and an alarming drop in swinging strikes, it could be an opportunity for the Bombers.
His velocity on his four-seamer is down 3.4 mph from 2018 to just 91.3 mph in three starts. Now, his velo was down to start 2018, but not nearly this much and hitters have made him pay. He got his first swinging strike on a fastball in his third start and has a 6.5 percent K-BB rate after posting a 31.9 percent mark from 2017-18 to lead baseball by a healthy margin.
It isn’t just the velocity; His command has also been suspect. Rachael McDaniel detailed it well for Fangraphs, but he hasn’t had good location on his slider, leaving it up in the zone. Can he regain his fastball, slider and his season? The Yankees, or what’s left of them, will be a tough test.
Just like Sale, Eovaldi had the Yankees’ number a year ago and beat them in the postseason. I don’t need to remind you about ALDS Game 3, right? Good.
Well, Eovaldi has arguably been worse than Sale this season. He’s allowed six home runs in 15 innings, going just five innings in each of his three starts. He has 10 strikeouts and 10 walks, an 8.40 ERA and a 9.22 FIP.
The velocity on his four-seamer and cutter (high and low 90s, respectively) are about the same as last season with his splitter and slider down a couple of mph and curveball up half a mph. Still, batters have beat up on his signature cutter, owning a .941 slugging percentage against his second-most-used pitch.
Again, he was especially good against the Yanks last season, so the matchup favors him, but Eovaldi has had a rough 2019 thus far.
As you likely know, Alex Cora doesn’t have an established closer, instead mining for matchups without Craig Kimbrel under contract. Here’s my best guess as to how the bullpen hierarchy works:
Highest leverage: Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes
Medium to high leverage: Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and Tyler Thornburg, in descending order of average leverage index this season
Medium to low leverage: Colten Brewer and Erasmo Ramirez.
Long man/spot starter: Hector Velazquez
Velazquez started and went three innings in Patriots’ Day game Monday, so he’s likely unavailable for series. Brewer and Ramirez, the latter just called up, are newer names and have had mixed results for Boston thus far. (Ramirez has previously served as a starter and can provided length out of the bullpen.) Brasier and Barnes, meanwhile, have been strong, as has Brandon Workman who has yet to give up a run.
Brewer, Workman, Hembree and Thornburg each threw one inning Monday and should be available to relieve Sale on Tuesday if the need arises.
Keys to watch
Watching on TV, Sale’s velocity will be a constant topic of conversation. I’d guess it’ll still be hovering in the low 90s. But the focus, at least to me, should be on his slider command. If he can get his back-foot slider going to righties, the left-hander can still be effective at lower velocity. If he can’t locate it, the Yankees should tee off.
Calling on quality
Can the Yankees get a quality start? They’ve gotten three this season and neither Happ nor Paxton have completed six innings.
Quality starts as a stat are clunky, but the lack of QSs underline an issue for New York: They’re getting very little length out of their starters, 4.84 innings per start, to be exact. With Dellin Betances out and Chad Green struggling to perform, the team can’t afford to overload its bullpen, no matter its preseason hype. Six innings from either Paxton or Happ would be an upgrade.