Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees: Who Is the Real 2017 AL East Favorite?

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJune 23, 2017

Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees: Who Is the Real 2017 AL East Favorite?

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    Chris Sale is holding together an underperforming Boston Red Sox rotation with a Cy Young-caliber campaign.
    Chris Sale is holding together an underperforming Boston Red Sox rotation with a Cy Young-caliber campaign.Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    No matter their placement in the standings, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have onlookers who assign a grand meaning to their rivalry. For the first time in a while, the feud warrants everyone's attention.

    The archrivals have not finished first and second in the American League East since 2009, the last time both prestigious squads made the postseason. Lately, their successes have not intertwined, taking some fizz out of baseball's marquee feud. But this season, both titans are poised to play October baseball.

    Although the Bronx Bombers shattered preseason expectations to take an early division lead, the popular preseason favorite is making its move. Losing eight of their last nine games erased the 39-31 Yankees' lead. As of Friday, they're tied for the AL East lead with the 40-32 Red Sox.

    These foes don't meet again until after the All-Star break in July, but they are slated to battle in four more monumental series this season. While waiting for their next head-to-head encounter, let's compare both World Series contenders to determine which squad holds the upper hand.

Offense

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    The Yankees rank among baseball's premier offenses behind young studs Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.
    The Yankees rank among baseball's premier offenses behind young studs Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The Red Sox lost David Ortiz. The Yankees gained Aaron Judge.

    In hindsight, prognosticators did not fully appreciate the significance of losing Big Papi, who led all qualified hitters in slugging percentage and weighted on-base average (wOBA) during his final season. New York's hulking neophyte demonstrably tops both categories in 2017 with a major league-high 25 home runs.

    Judge headlines a potent power offense three long balls behind the Houston Astros for MLB's lead. Boston, meanwhile, has hit an AL-low 70 home runs. Sixty-two players have accrued more than a dozen homers, but none play for the Red Sox.

    The gap could lessen as the season progresses. After a sour start, Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .347 in June. Although preseason AL Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Benintendi has no chance of catching Judge for the honor, the 22-year-old outfielder has hit for more contact and power throughout the minors and in last year's short debut.

    New York has conversely received the best-case scenario from Judge, Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius and Matt Holliday. Gary Sanchez has failed to reach last year's unreasonable bar of best offensive catcher alive, but he still ranks fourth in wOBA among all backstops with at least 100 plate appearances.

    Both units will regress closer to each other, but Judge and Sanchez still give the Yankees the upper hand.

    Edge: Yankees

Defense

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    Boston's outfield, led by Gold Glover Mookie Betts, is one of baseball's best defensive units.
    Boston's outfield, led by Gold Glover Mookie Betts, is one of baseball's best defensive units.Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Last year, the Red Sox held a bigger defensive head start over the Yankees than Atlanta Braves fans racing The Freeze. Their 48 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranked fourth in MLB and 47 runs higher than their rivals from the Big Apple.

    It's anything but an open-and-shut case this season. Boston has 16 DRS to New York's eight, but it has also committed eight more errors.

    Ortiz's retirement obviously can't shoulder the blame here. Mitch Moreland has fielded first adequately, but Pablo Sandoval proved a disaster both offensively and defensively during his brief tenure away from the disabled list. Four-time Gold Glover Dustin Pedroia is no longer a major defensive asset, and Xander Bogaerts is already responsible for six errors and minus-seven DRS.  

    Although Gregorius flashes a superior glove to Bogaerts at short, the Yankees have surprisingly also endured issues at the hot corner. A plus defender for most of his career, Chase Headley has already been charged with 11 errors. Castro and Chris Carter aren't playing because of their gloves.

    New York's outfield—featuring 2016 AL Gold Glove winner Brett Gardner—is a strength, but it's nowhere near as strong as Boston's unit. Betts' 17 DRS lead all position players, and Kevin Kiermaier's injury would make Bradley the AL's premier defensive center fielder if not for the Minnesota Twins' Byron Buxton.

    Baseball Prospectus also ranks Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez among the game's top pitch-framers. Boston could expand its edge by replacing the injured Sandoval with a stout fielder.  

    Edge: Red Sox

Starting Pitching

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    A healthy David Price should give Boston's rotation a big boost down the stretch.
    A healthy David Price should give Boston's rotation a big boost down the stretch.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Another category one would have expected Boston to dominate is instead surprisingly close.

    The Red Sox's rotation rosters two former Cy Young winners, and offseason acquisition Chris Sale is poised to become the group's third. No qualified starter has bested Sale's 1.97 fielding independent pitching (FIP) or 30.5 strikeouts-to-walks percentage.

    So how has the Yankees' starting staff yielded a better team ERA? A shell of himself since May's delayed debut, David Price has surrendered a 5.14 ERA. Rick Porcello, who posted a 2.62 ERA after last season's All-Star break, has relinquished an MLB-worst 124 hits and 61 runs.

    "When you're not sharp and you're not on your game, this is what happens," the 2016 AL Cy Young winner told ESPN.com's Scott Lauber after the Houston Astros pegged him for seven runs Saturday at Minute Maid Park.

    Entering 2017, the Yankees didn't know what starters they could trust beside Masahiro Tanaka. Battered to a 6.34 ERA and .292 opposing batting average, he's now their main concern. Luckily for the franchise, the youngsters have flourished.

    Rookie Jordan Montgomery holds a 3.74 ERA. The Bronx Bombers will gladly take Michael Pineda's 3.56 ERA after a maddeningly inconsistent 2016. A year after losing his rotation spot, Luis Severino has emerged as their de facto ace, but his ERA ballooned to 3.30 after he allowed 10 runs over his past two starts.

    Nearly three months into the 2017 campaign, New York has claimed the advantage. Yet that will change if Price recovers closer to full strength and Porcello merely pitches to his 4.16 FIP rather than his 5.05 ERA. Don't forget about an improving Drew Pomeranz and fellow southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez, who looked on the cusp of a breakout before injuring his knee in early June.        

    Yankees fans need only circle back to last year to consider the downsides of Severino and Pineda. At full strength, Boston should realize its preseason expectations as the AL's top rotation.

    Edge: Red Sox

Relief Pitching

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    Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman recently returned from the disabled list.
    Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman recently returned from the disabled list.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Hoping to counteract feeble rotations, the Yankees and Red Sox both prioritized relief pitching after watching the Kansas City Royals ride an elite bullpen to a 2015 title.

    This led the Yankees to sign Andrew Miller, trade for Aroldis Chapman and then sell both for top-tier prospects last summer. They then brought back Chapman, who returned from the disabled list Sunday, through free agency.

    Although the Red Sox paid a steep price for Craig Kimbrel, he could poach Cy Young Award votes for Sale—not that he should—with his 0.85 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 31.1 frames. Other relief acquisitions have not worked in their favor.

    They traded Travis Shaw—whom they desperately need right now—to the Milwaukee Brewers for Tyler Thornburg, whose season ended before it begun because of thoracic outlet syndrome. Acquired in 2015 during the offseason, Carson Smith has yet to pitch this term.

    And yet Boston's bullpen ranks second in team ERA (the Yankees are fourth), with stellar pitching from Joe Kelly, Robby Scott and Matt Barnes. It suffered a small taste of regression Wednesday, when Scott and Barnes each coughed up two runs in the eighth to blow a two-run lead against Kansas City at Kauffman Stadium.

    The Yankees may not wield a deeper unit, but they once again have a two-headed monster in Chapman and Dellin Betances. Adam Warren was a revelation in long relief before suffering right shoulder inflammation, but Chad Green is convincingly filling his shoes.

    Simply put, the Red Sox have one elite reliever. With Chapman back, the Yankees have two.

    Edge: Yankees

Prospects to Promote/Trade

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    Chance Adams should soon receive an opportunity to start for the Yankees.
    Chance Adams should soon receive an opportunity to start for the Yankees.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    For the sake of this conversation, it doesn't matter which farm system will deliver long-term value. New York's Gleyber Torres, MLB.com's No. 2 prospect who will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, is moot to this discussion.

    This is solely an evaluation of 2017, but prospects can help by either receiving a promotion or getting exchanged for big league contributors. Even without Torres, the Yankees maintain the upper hand on both fronts.

    The Red Sox used most of their ammunition to acquire Sale and Kimbrel. Their remaining crown jewel, Rafael Devers, could receive a late-season promotion if they don't acquire another third baseman. Although MLB.com's No. 12 prospect is their future at the hot corner, jumping from Double-A to a playoff chase would put a lot of pressure on the 20-year-old.

    Red Sox rookies Sam Travis and Brian Johnson have shown some promise in limited action, but they won't make high impacts or net notable trade returns.

    The Yankees, meanwhile, have several pieces to promote and/or sell. Eight prospects rank among MLB.com's top 100, and a few are major league-ready.

    CC Sabathia's hamstring injury could open the door for Chance Adams, a 22-year-old righty brandishing a 1.65 ERA through Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. Given Carter's struggles at first, Tyler Austin may soon return from Triple-A. 

    They're not future stars, but infielder Tyler Wade and outfielder Dustin Fowler could contribute immediately if needed. Rather than siphoning their farm for short-term upgrades, the Yankees could bolster their roster by bringing them up during the summer.

    Edge: Yankees

Managers

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    John Farrell and Joe Girardi have each managed one World Series champion.
    John Farrell and Joe Girardi have each managed one World Series champion.Elsa/Getty Images

    Joe Girardi and John Farrell are both fine skippers. Neither is going to infuriate even-keel fans with a dreadful batting order or a superstar slugger sacrifice bunting. As AL managers overseeing strong squads, neither needs to be a masterful tactician.

    Despite seemingly renting out a home on the hot seat, Girardi has never overseen a losing season in 10 years with New York. Does he deserve credit for the Yankees thrice engineering a winning record with a negative run differential, or is it merely a mix of luck and strong relief pitching?

    Under Farrell's watch, the Red Sox have finished last in the AL East twice after winning the 2013 World Series. Yet he's a respected clubhouse presence who rescued the team from last to the top in his first year.

    Winning a championship wouldn't be a new experience for either manager. Since they're both stable, reliable generals whose philosophies don't stand out, for better or worse, let's call it a draw.

    Edge: Even

Final Verdict

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    While Mookie Betts is in store for a huge second half, Judge is likely to regress.
    While Mookie Betts is in store for a huge second half, Judge is likely to regress.Hunter Martin/Getty Images

    It's never as easy as tallying up each category and declaring a winner. Boston's starting pitching edge isn't as secure as New York's power advantage, but the Yankees bullpen isn't as significant an upper hand as the Red Sox defense.

    Unlike managers, the final call can't end in a draw. Even if they need to settle the division via a tiebreaker, only one team can claim the AL East crown.

    Dissenting projection models don't make the decision any easier. Baseball Prospectus gives the Yankees a 44.5 percent probability of capturing their first division title since 2012, ahead of Boston's 39 percent. FanGraphs, on the other hand, favors the Red Sox with a 53.3 percent chance of topping the AL East standings. 

    And by the way, the Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles are still all in striking distance.

    Although a losing streak slashed New York's lead, its plus-102 run differential still towers above Boston's plus-30 margin. Their Pythagorean expected records associated with those scoring patterns suggest the Yankees should wield a seven-game edge.

    They'd certainly be the comfortable choice if that were the case. But can the Bronx Bombers sustain so many best-case outcomes, or will they pay for not optimizing their hot start?

    Too many Yankees are poised for regression, while the Red Sox should enjoy positive regression to the mean. Just look at each team's star position player. Betts, a career .299 hitter, is batting .273 with a 8.2 strikeout percentage and 86.1 contact rate. Judge, who hit .179 in 95 plate appearances last year, is hitting .331 despite a 30.1 strikeout percentage and 68.8 contact rate.

    Midseason trades could also swing the pendulum. But for now, the Yankees will rue letting their early lead shrink before the Red Sox catch fire.

    Verdict: Red Sox

                

    All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Team Rankings unless otherwise noted.