Red Sox or Yankees? AL East Goes Down To The Wire
By Michael Avallone
To win a World Series, or to even get to one, you have to be able to shut teams down once in a while. You have to win a low-scoring game now and then. You have to pitch. It’s a nearly inviolable law of baseball.
The Red Sox and Yankees know this, of course, which is why they spent most of the offseason trying to buy up every useable arm that they could find. Despite all the tit-for-tat spending, though, the two American League East superpowers are stuck with the worst two pitching staffs among the dozen or so postseason contenders. It doesn’t bode well for either franchise.
Yes, teams have won in the playoffs with less-than-dominant pitching before. The 1997 Indians gave up slightly more than five runs a game during the regular season, seventh in the AL, but made it as far as Game 7 of the World Series before finally losing to the Marlins. Those Indians are still the only club in the wild-card era to get to the Fall Classic with a staff that ranked worse than fifth in its league in runs allowed.
You have to have pitching. It’s in the books.
Like the ‘97 Indians, the Red Sox and Yankees are trying to be an exception to the rule. But can they win with their pitching? Can these two big swingers bash their way into the Series?
The Red Sox, who lead the East by just a ½ game, also lead the AL in scoring, averaging a 5.6 runs a game. They rank No. 1 in batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.357) and combined on-base and slugging percentage in the league (an .813 OPS).
The Yankees, who trail in both the AL East and wild-card races by only a ½ game, aren’t far behind statistically either. They average 5.5 runs a game (third, behind Boston and Texas), they’re second to the Rangers in home runs (209, 24 more than the Red Sox) and they rank in the top three in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The problems for these teams come when they score fewer than five runs in a game. The Sox are 12-39 when they score four runs or fewer; the Yankees are 14-46. To be sure, no team is very good under those circumstances. But suspect pitching means the Yankees and Red Sox are in a lot more danger when they struggle to score. And it doesn’t get much more suspect than this:
The Red Sox are relying on an aging knuckleballer (Tim Wakefield), a 42-year-old portly lefty (David Wells), a 28-year-old wanna-be-rocker with an ERA near 5.00 (Bronson Arroyo), a one-time ace with a bad ankle (Curt Schilling) and the best of the bunch, Matt Clement (13-6, a 4.65 ERA), as their starting five. And that’s the good part of their staff. The bullpen, a complete mess, has a 5.35 ERA, worst in the league by a wide margin over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The Yankees are nearly as bad. Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown — three-fifths of the opening day rotation — have missed major time with injuries (and Brown is now gone for the year). Rookie Chien-Ming Wang, a surprisingly good fill-in, hasn’t pitched since early July because of a bad shoulder. Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, the other two-fifths of that dream rotation, also have been injured at times and mediocre at best when healthy. If it weren’t for the bullpen (mainly Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera) and the late-season fire dousing of newcomers Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon, the Yanks would be toast.
How bad are these staffs? Both the Yankees and Red Sox have team ERAs in the bottom half of the AL. And, in runs allowed, the Yankees rank eighth in the league, at a little more than 4.8 runs a game. The Sox are 11th, at just more than five runs a game. If either the Yanks or the Sox make it to the Fall Classic, they would be able to boast the lowest-ranked staff to appear in a Series during the wild-card era, overtaking the ‘97 Indians.
The powerful lineups could make it happen. Just in recent years — again, during the wild-card era — the top-scoring teams in each league have made it to the Series four times. Last year, the NL champion Cardinals and the AL champion Sox both had the best-scoring teams in their leagues. But both of those clubs had top three pitching staffs, too. The ‘05 Red Sox don’t have anything close to that. The Yankees don’t, either. Yes, it could happen. One of those teams undoubtedly will make the postseason. Both might.
But getting to the Series? Or winning it? With that pitching? It’d be breaking just about every rule in the book.