One month into the season, everyone is talking about the Rays. They have the best record in the MLB, a run differential of +85, and are looking for all the world like the team to beat this season. But don't overlook the Yankees. Sitting just one loss behind them, the Yankees are not willing to release their hold on the AL East just yet. It's these Yankees—winners of seven of their last eight—who come into Fenway Park for the second time this season to open up a three-game weekend set with the Red Sox.
If you're looking for an important May series, this is about as good as it's gonna get. Having fought their way back to one game over .500, the Sox actually managed to gain no ground at all in the playoff race thanks to four game winning streaks by both the Yankees and Rays. Now, five games back of the Wild Card, the Sox have the opportunity to both get some wins for themselves, and knock the Yankees down a peg. Unfortunately, this will be no easy task.
Despite slow starts from stars Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the Yankees have a league-leading wOBA of .365, led by impressive early-season performances from Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher, and unlikely suspect Brett Gardner. This is an offense that doesn't strike out much, and draws walks as well as any team in the business. Once they're on the basepaths, there's not much of a stolen base threat outside of Gardner, but against the Red Sox catchers, there's really no telling what's going to happen. The best case scenario is that Martinez and Varitek can continue their recent success at catching base stealers, and that the Yankees will underestimate them based on their reputation. But that seems a bit too optimistic. If there's one thing the Red Sox can take solace in, it's that Curtis Granderson, who hurt the Red Sox so much in the first series of the year, will be out for nearly a month with a groin strain. But given his slow month afterwards and the hot start of his replacement, designated lefty-masher Marcus Thames, this could be a curse in disguise.
Defensively, at least, this lineup is nothing particularly special, though it's not necessarily as bad as it's just barely negative UZR suggests. At 11 Defensive Runs Saved, the Yankees sit right around the middle of the pack. But with the defensive contributions of team leading Curtis Granderson (at +6) unavailable due to injury, and being carried partially by traditionally mediocre Robinson Cano, the Yanks might look a lot less impressive than their numbers suggest.
Originally scheduled to start tonight in the first game of the series, struggling starter Javier Vazquez has had his start moved to Monday against Detroit. What remains for the Red Sox is a murderer's row of some of the hottest starting pitchers of the year in Phil Hughes, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. At 2.74, C.C. Sabathia has by far the highest ERA of the group, with Hughes and Burnett both coming in under 2.00. But looking at their FIP, and then their xFIP, it's clear that they're not pitching as well as it might seem. Low BABIPs for Sabathia (.237) and especially Hughes (.162) are unsustainable. Hughes is currently walking more than four batters per nine innings, and neither Burnett nor Sabathia are striking out their usual eight-or-so (though both Hughes and Burnett have had more impressive starts recently). Add in tiny HR/FB% numbers that should not hold up against the home run hitting Red Sox, and you have three guys with xFIPs around 4.00 just begging for some regression to the mean.
If the Yankees have their three guys going, so do the Red Sox. Having just gotten a Daisuke start out of their way, the Sox will send Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester to the mound to try and quiet the Bombers' lineup.
Of the three, Beckett is by far the most suspect. He has been walking a good number of batters, striking out very few, and has been shelled in half of the games he has started. His last outing was quite encouraging, though, going seven innings against the Orioles, allowing only two runs on six hits, striking out six while waking none. If he can carry this success over against the Yankees, the Sox will have a good shot in starting this series off on the right foot. The successes of Clay Buchholz have been well documented this season, and while he too has benefited from some HR/FB luck, his xFIP is only slightly higher than his opponent Sabathia's, and his 3.11 FIP show his 2.97 ERA is, in many ways, the real deal. Finally, there's Jon Lester, who has once again returned to being the ace of the team just in time for May. There's no real concern to be had about Lester, whose 3.93 ERA is actually somewhat unlucky. Lester is fresh off the two best starts of his season, striking out more than a batter an inning with his walks under control, and could dominate just about any lineup—well, any lineup except maybe the Yankees, whose .904 OPS against lefties leads the league by a mile.
The clear weakness for these teams comes after the starters leave the game, though, as both will struggle to find more than six outs at the end of the game. After the top-2 for both teams—Bard and Papelbon for the Red Sox, and Joba and Mariano for the Yankees—there's just not a lot of life to be found in the bullpens. Sergio Mitre, Alfredo Aceves, and Boone Logan have all managed to keep runs off the board, but have been the beneficiaries of a great deal of luck, each having FIPs and xFIPs over 5.00, and Mitre and Logan have barely pitched at all. For the Red Sox, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard are both outperforming their FIPs by a good deal, but Bard has been hurt by high home run rates, and Papelbon has looked quite a bit better of late, finally working his splitter back to form. Meanwhile, Manny Delcarmen is playing the part of mediocre pitcher getting lucky, and Ramon Ramirez is trying to work himself back into form some, but relying on either would be foolish. The Sox are going to need 7 innings from their starters—luckily, they've been getting just that of late.
Hopefully, with the offense suddenly clicking (the Angels series boosted the Sox' wOBA from a middle-of-the-pack .333 to third place with .357, and the starters suddenly pitching, the Red Sox can pull out some wins at home against the Yankees. It's not going to be easy, but for a team who broke .500 for the first time since opening day last night, it's going to be necessary.