By John Terhune
Boston University News Service
This is part two of a two part series! Part one, spelling out how we got to tonight’s Wild Card game, can be found here.
Based on the preseason narrative, tonight’s game might look like David vs. Goliath, but a year’s worth of data shows these teams are equally flawed, yet evenly matched.
The Yankees’ aura of inevitability came largely from the massive power potential of its lineup, but things have rarely fired on all cylinders for New York hitters this year. Though Aaron Judge has performed like Aaron Judge, and Stanton is finally living up to his $325 million contract, injuries and underperformance from cornerstones DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit and Gleyber Torres have limited the Yankees as a team to a 101 wRC+ on the year, meaning they’ve hit just 1% better than league average.
And while trade deadline pickups Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo have transformed the look of the New York offense, the team’s numbers have still stagnated for the last month.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox are coming off their two best offensive months by OPS, but Boston fans will probably be stunned to hear this after watching the team seem to sputter for weeks. The offense feels worse than it’s actually been for two reasons: poor situational hitting and underperformance from the team’s stars.
In the first half of the year, Red Sox sluggers were at their best in big moments, hitting 14% better than league average in high leverage situations, according to Fangraphs data. In the second half of the year, they have been just 3% better than league average in high leverage moments despite hitting significantly better in the second half overall.
Some of this difference might be meaningful, but it probably comes mostly down to luck. Boston was fortunate to get so many big hits early in the year and unlucky more haven’t fallen in lately. Moving forward, you’d expect their clutch hitting to more or less match their overall offensive output, which has been the fourth-best in baseball over the past two months, according to wRC+.
But, as any pessimistic Sox fan will tell you, the team’s core hasn’t really been performing lately. Despite his heroics on Sunday, Rafael Devers has barely been a league average hitter over the past two months, J.D. Martinez no longer looks like one of the league’s elite bats and Bogaerts has flailed through a brutal 5 for 39 stretch to end the year.
So, what’s more likely to happen? Will the role players who have been carrying Boston turn back into pumpkins and leave the team without any offense? Or will the stars wake up and combine with the team’s hot hitters to form the most dangerous lineup in the playoffs?
Red Sox fans had better hope for the latter, because they’ll be facing one of the best pitchers in the world tonight.
The other reason the Yankees were pegged as preseason favorites is the $324 million righty with the 100 mile-per-hour fastball. Despite concerns that Major League Baseball’s crackdown on grip aids for pitchers would negatively affect Gerrit Cole, the 6’4” hurler has put together another stellar season, headlined by his ridiculous 12.06 strikeouts per nine innings.
The ace will hope to repeat his Fenway performance from Sept. 24, when he earned the win after allowing three runs through six solid innings while striking out six.
Yet Cole otherwise struggled through September, tallying an underwhelming 5.13 ERA on the month thanks largely to problems limiting walks and the long ball. If the Cy Young candidate pitches like he’s capable of on Tuesday, he may well frustrate Boston’s hitters and hand New York’s elite bullpen a lead late in the game.
But if the Red Sox’ aggressive hitters manage to take some walks, keep an eye out for a game-changing home run.
Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi might be even more crucial to his team’s success. Though the former Yankee’s 3.75 ERA doesn’t jump off the page, his underlying strikeout and walk numbers suggest he’s pitched better than those results.
He’ll have to perform better on Tuesday than he did the last time he took the hill against New York, when the Yankees ambushed him for seven runs in only 2.2 innings.
No team wants to fall into an early hole, but that’s especially true for Boston given the state of their bullpen. Barnes has been a non-factor in the second half, set-up man Adam Ottavino has struggled over the last two weeks, and Josh Taylor still hasn’t returned from a back injury. Based on how the bullpen struggled to contain an anemic Washington offense, it’s tough to imagine where the Red Sox will go for outs if Eovaldi can’t get through at least five.
If he can do that, look for manager Alex Cora to lean on rookie Garrett Whitlock when the big spot inevitably comes.
Numbers aside, this is a baseball game, and anything can happen in baseball. As bad as the Red Sox have looked in recent weeks, they did what they needed to secure home field advantage in this game. And as uninspiring as the Yankees have been for most of the year, they found a way back into the playoffs yet again.
Since there’s no real rational way to separate differences this small, I’ll go with the heart: Boston wins 9-7 in a wild game that approaches five hours in length and gives Team Chaos one last thing to smile about.