Boston Red Sox: 5 Reasons They're About to Bury the Yankees in AL East Race
Carrying a 5.5-game American League East lead into their final 2017 series, Boston could have placed a dagger in New York’s chest. Even splitting the four games would have preserved a comfortable edge for the last four weeks.
Instead, the Yankees outscored their foes 20-9 to take three of four games. As of Thursday, their division deficit dropped to four games. The race is now more interesting, but let’s not read too much into the weekend slate.
Projection models still heavily favor Boston to maintain its AL East edge. After Wednesday night's win over the Toronto Blue Jays, FanGraphs gives the club a 90 percent probability of winning the division. While a bit less favorable, Baseball Prospectus still pegged it as the team to beat with a 81.3 percentage.
Let’s look at why the Red Sox remain favored to stave off the Bronx Bombers for the AL East crown.
Hitters Heating Up
The Red Sox were desperate for any semblance of third-base production when they promoted Rafael Devers. They merely needed an upgrade over the discarded Pablo Sandoval, but they have gotten way more from the 20-year-old.
Devers has hit .290/.351/.507 with eight home runs, including an opposite-field blast off Yankees flamethrower Aroldis Chapman to spark a memorable comeback on Aug. 13. He's not the only unexpected source of significant offense.
After getting sent over from the Minnesota Twins last summer, Eduardo Nunez tallied eight home runs in 126 games with the San Francisco Giants. He has matched that clip in 36 games for Boston while also submitting 11 doubles and a .311 batting average.
After hitting .145 with no homers during an ice-cold July, Mitch Moreland rebounded to bat .342 with six long balls in August. His cumulative OPS repaired to a healthy .764 OPS, making him a solid starter rather than a possible liability.
Christian Vasquez has paired strong pitch-framing with a sizzling .320/.376/.470 second-half slash line. So much for Boston needing a new catcher.
Andrew Benintendi might be the hottest of them all. The rookie outfielder is suddenly on the cusp of a 20-20 campaign after recording seven homers and nine steals since the start of August. Now brandishing a 2.0 WAR, the preseason Rookie of the Year hype would be validated if not for Aaron Judge's early onslaught.
These hot streaks have kept Boston afloat amid injuries and slumps from the stars expected to shoulder the burden. If the marquee names improve in September, an average offense should challenge the Evil Empire's thunderous lineup.
Big Names Will Bounce Back
That last slide of surging sluggers notably did not mention Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts or Jackie Bradley Jr. The Red Sox have managed to comb over the young trio's shortcomings, but a decreasing division lead will stabilize if they restore normalcy.
Bradley, who endured a power outage before going on the disabled list with a sprained left thumb, returned on Saturday. Boston can certainly use the Gold Glove-finalist who posted an .835 OPS last season.
Hitting .195 since July 1, Bogaerts spent both weekend games against the Yankees on the bench. While the Red Sox will want their All-Star shortstop back in peak form, they could keep him sidelined if needed, with Dustin Pedroia back and Nunez able to field short.
Betts is the key to their postseason aspirations. Last year's AL MVP runner-up is now hitting a middling .262/.341/.434. He recorded his last home run on Aug. 3.
While breaking down the star outfielder's recent troubles, Bleacher Report's Zachary D. Rymer noted a rise in second-half strikeouts and decline in average launch angle and exit velocity. Yet Betts remains a career .292 hitter with an 85.8 contact rate and as many walks as strikeouts (68) this season
As long as he's healthy, Betts is too polished of an elite hitter to struggle this mightily for another month. Steamer's projection model forecasts a .299/.368/.504 rest-of-season slash line. With an explosive two-way outfield working on all cylinders, the Red Sox should finally show what their lineup can accomplish at full strength.
At least a toiling Betts is still valuable due to his MLB-high 29 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Despite a 101 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) pinpointing his offense as league average, he has a 4.0 WAR.
"I’m still taking pride in affecting the game," Betts told the Boston Globe's Alex Speier. "When the opportunities come up, I try to capitalize. Pretty much, I just try to affect the game in some way, whether it be stealing a base or beating out a double play, making a catch, whatever it is."
The same can be said for Bradley and Bogaerts, who have respectively amounted 2.4 and 2.3 WAR despite substandard seasons.
Boston can't match New York's power or bullpen depth. With David Price injured, the rotations are closer to a stalemate. Defense, however, remains a distinct advantage for the Red Sox.
New York also plays above-average defense, especially with Todd Frazier now manning the hot corner. They also just lost Aaron Hicks' cannon arm in center field. Jacoby Ellsbury, who has regressed at the plate and in the outfield, will have to assume a larger role.
Boston needs to milk its stellar glovework for all it's worth to punch an express path to the American League Division Series.
Doug Fister Is Dealing
Price's absence could have derailed Boston's rotation. The team instead found an apt replacement in Doug Fister.
While the Yankees surrendered promising prospects to acquire Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia, the Red Sox plucked Fister off waivers in June. He wields a 3.91 ERA on the strength of a dominant four-start streak. During those outings, including Friday's seven-inning gem to beat the Yankees, he has allowed five runs and posted 27 strikeouts over 30 innings.
That may not seem like a major haul, but they found an above-average starter for free. Had Fister flopped, they may barely have a lead to protect.
Red Sox manager John Farrell praised the 33-year-old righty to ESPN.com's Scott Lauber.
"He's been such a boost to this team and our rotation," Farrell said. "He pitches with such conviction, and you see it in his body language. You see it in his attack plan. He's got a clear understanding of what he's trying to do on the mound—a veteran guy who knows what his capabilities and his limitations are."
Fister swinging the AL East race sounds laughable. Although he doesn't need to dominate, the Red Sox can use a few more quality starts with Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello trading gems with hit parades.
New York's revamped rotation is still much stronger from No. 2-5, but Chris Sale and Boston's defense lessens the gap. Unless Price comes back and immediately contributes, Fister is a vital part of the club's contingency plan.
Although the Yankees and Red Sox won't meet again this season, some scheduling overlap remains. Each World Series hopeful plays most of its remaining games against other AL East foes. In the limited space between, the Red Sox hold a slight edge.
Outside of the division, Boston gets a pair of three-game tilts against the last-place Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds. Removed from the playoff hunt, those teams will let younger players audition for 2018 roster spots.
The season then concludes against the Houston Astros, who should have the AL West secured long before the final weekend. Home-field throughout the postseason, however, could be on the line if the Cleveland Indians stay hot. That doesn't mean they will be aptly motivated to preserve an extra home tilt when they can instead set their rotation and rest key stars.
The Yankees, meanwhile, get middling, yet motivated AL teams hoping to punch a ticket to the AL Wild Card Game. That's generous to the Blue Jays, so their schedule is far from difficult. Boston's is simply a tad better.
Entrenched in the driver's seat, the Red Sox don't face anyone with a winning record until a potentially meaningless final series against the Astros. Even if the Yankees do their part, the Red Sox should maintain their ground.
Note: All advanced stats, updated as of Thursday morning, are courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.