For all intents and purposes, the AL East race ended in early August. The Yankees went up to Boston, got swept in four games — they were outscored 28-13 in the four games — and fell 9.5 games behind the Red Sox. That was it. The Yankees never again drew closer than six games behind Boston. The Red Sox took care of business that series and were able to coast the rest of the way.
Starting tomorrow though, the slate will be wiped clean, and the Yankees and Red Sox will go into the ALDS on a level playing field. No deficit to make up in the standings. First to three wins moves on to the ALCS. Given how close these teams usually play — even with that four-game sweep, the Red Sox only won the season series 10-9 — it would not surprise me at all if the ALDS goes the full five games.
The Yankees team going into the ALDS is much different than the Yankees team that was swept in that four-game series in August. The Yankees went into that series shorthanded. I’m not making excuses. The Yankees had enough talent to win and didn’t do it. They played terribly. But the fact of the matter is they were not at full strength. Consider:
- Aaron Judge had just been placed on the disabled list with his wrist fracture.
- Gary Sanchez was on the disabled list with his second groin strain.
- J.A. Happ was on the disabled list with hand, foot, and mouth disease.
Given Luis Severino’s second half struggles, you could argue the Yankees went into that series without their best starting pitcher. (Chance Adams had to fill in, which he did admirably.) The Yankees definitely went into that series without their best hitter. And while Sanchez had a terrible season, he tends to rake in Fenway Park, and the Yankees were without him as well.
When the ALDS opens tomorrow night, the Yankees will have Judge and Sanchez in the lineup, and chances are Happ will be on the mound in Game One. Furthermore, Andrew McCutchen and Luke Voit will be in the lineup. McCutchen was not a Yankees when these two clubs met in August. Voit was a Yankee and he did appear in two games in that series, but he was still Luke Voit and not American Hero Luke Voit at the time.
The Red Sox have a left-handed heavy pitching staff — Chris Sale and David Price are starting Games One and Two, the club announced — and the Yankees will now have four premium righty bats in the lineup that they did not have in August. Three if you’re really down on Sanchez. McCutchen replaces Brett Gardner, Judge replaces the Neil Walker/Shane Robertson platoon, and Voit replaces Greg Bird. Considerable upgrades all around.
I should note this goes beyond platoon matchups as well. McCutchen, Judge, and Voit all mash left-handed pitchers — Sanchez does as well, he had a .229/.354/.518 (136 wRC+) line against southpaws this season — but they’re also better against righties than the guys they replaced. McCutchen’s a much better hitter than Gardner. An inferior defender? Yes, but the decline in defense is more than made up by the increase in offense. Going from Walker/Robinson and Bird to Judge and Voit is just a massive upgrade. Massive.
The Yankees will also have Happ on the mound, presumably in Game One but also possibly in Game Two. Happ is one of the few starting pitchers who consistently pitched well against the Red Sox this year. Just last week he carved them up for five innings before giving up what amounted to a garbage time grand slam to Steve Pearce in the sixth inning. Happ made four starts against Boston this year and three times he allowed no more than one earned run.
Four times in six September games the Yankees beat the Red Sox, and while that feels good, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. The BoSox had nothing on the line in any of those games, especially in that final weekend, and they never really seemed to give the Yankees (or anyone) their best effort in September. They earned that. They had a huge division lead and were able to rest their regulars and audition others for the postseason roster down the stretch.
These two teams last played a meaningful series in August, in that four-game sweep, and the team the Yankees take into the ALDS is going to look much different than the team they sent to Fenway Park in August. McCutchen and Voit are big upgrades over Gardner and Voit, Happ is healthy, Judge is healthy, and Sanchez is healthy too. Right now, the Yankees match up better against the Red Sox than they did at any other point in 2018.