Here is part two of the two part series on the Red Sox division lead. In the first article, I discussed why it is that the division lead isn’t safe. In this article I will discuss the arguments for why the division may already be in hand. Keep in mind, these arguments are meant to promote discussion and debate. I don’t literally believe that the Red Sox have the division locked up in May.
1. Red Sox Rotation – The Red Sox have arguably the best rotation in baseball. Their third starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka, may end up with better numbers than most team’s aces. The front four starters for the Red Sox have compiled a 3.51 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and a 2.63 K/BB over 228 IP. And while Tavarez is an acceptable replacement starter, the Red Sox rotation will only get better with the addition of Jon Lester.
Momentum starts and ends with starting pitchers. With solid pitching, throughout the entire rotation, Red Sox are unlikely to go on the extended losing streaks that would allow anyone back into the division race. Equally important as their quality pitching, is the quality depth that Red Sox starters are providing. The top four members of the rotation are averaging over 6.5 innings per start.
2. Red Sox Offense – Not only do the Red Sox have one of the best rotations in the league, but they also have one of the best offenses. So far they’ve managed an incredible team OBP of .360. Such patience has routinely allowed the Red Sox to face the middle relief of their opponent’s bullpens. And by getting to the weak underbelly of other team’s pitching staffs, they’ve been able to elevate their team average to .275 and their team SLG to .439.
An increasing part of the Red Sox offense is their mobility on the bases. The Red Sox have done a tremendous job on the basepaths this season. They’ve managed to steal 26 bases, getting caught only 4 times (87%). The speed they enjoy thanks to Julio Lugo, Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew and Dustin Pedroia has given them a new dimension that they have lacked in the past. The Red Sox now have an offense that can beat you in multiple ways. No longer are they station to station sluggers.
3. Bullpens – The Red Sox have been significantly better at finishing their games. Going into Tuesday’s game, the Red Sox bullpen has 15 saves and 24 holds. They’ve converted 88% of their save opportunities. They’ve converted only 25% of their save opportunities, with 5 of their bullpen arms blowing saves.
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has been spectacular, converting 11 of his 12 save opportunities and earning an ERA of 1.76. He’s also struck out 12.94 batters per 9 innings pitched with a K/BB ratio of 3.67. Red Sox set up man Hideki Okajima has been even better, converting both of his save opportunities. Going into Tuesday’s game, Okajima has pitched more than 20 consecutive scoreless innings.
Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has struggled more at the beginning of this season, than he ever has in over a decade as the Yankees closer. While New York’s media and their fans refuse to admit he’s not the same old Mo, but he is 37 years old. In his last 5 years he’s averaged 14.2 earned runs for every year he’s pitched. Only 16 appearances into the 2007 season, he’s given up 11.
The Yankees have also struggled this season to find a set up man. They may have found one in Proctor but if they have to move him up, they won’t have a guy to pitch the 7th inning. With a rotation that doesn’t give you innings, that’s as much a problem as not having a reliable set up guy.
4. Age/Injury – To put it simply, the Red Sox are younger and less injury prone than their rivals. First of all, Phil Hughes isn’t coming back any time soon. 22 days later, he still hasn’t pitched off a full sized mound after injuring his hamstring more than 3 weeks ago. Getting on top of a mound is the easy part of rehabbing. After that, it typically takes another two or three weeks to get major league ready. What originally looked like a late May return will now be a late June return, barring any further set backs.
The Yankees rotation is full of injury questions which Roger Clemens will only add to. But when you plan on going into a season with Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina and Andy Petitte in your rotation, you pay the consequences. Mike Mussina has been injured in each of the past three years. At age 38, even former Yankee Al Leiter has admitted that the quality of his pitching is decreasing even when healthy. Mussina got off to a great start last season before wearing down as the innings piled up. This year, even with a fresh arm he has an ERA of 6.52 and a WHIP of 1.45 in his first 6 starts.
Both Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang have significant wear on their arms coming into this season. Pettitte turns 35-years-old next month and has pitched 462 innings over the past 2 years. He’s struggled to come of 200 inning seasons in the past. Last year was the first time since 2001 that he stayed healthy after pitching 200 innings the season before. Wang pitched more than 224 innings last year, an increase of more than 80 innings compared to the previous year. As Tom Verducci points out, such an increase for young pitchers puts them at an increased risk for injury.
The Yankees have also been unfortunate with both back up starters Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner going down with injury. And the Toronto Blue Jays haven’t been much more fortunate with their team health either. Both shut down closer B.J. Ryan and Cy Young Award winning pitcher Roy Halladay have been lost to injury.
5. History – The Red Sox have their largest division lead since 1995. That was the last year the Red Sox won the division. Furthermore, the Red Sox are one of only two teams in the history of baseball to have a 10 game lead through their first 40 games. The only other team to have the 10 game lead in their first 40 games was the 2001 Seattle Mariners. They eventually went on to win their division by 14 games, even their the second place Oakland Athletics won 102 games that year.
This just proves what I’ve been saying all along. I could care less about how the Yankees play. If the Red Sox continue to play at all similar to the way they’ve played to begin the season, no one’s going to catch them. And apparently, Johnny Damon agrees.
The Red Sox are only the third team in the history of the American League to allow 136 or less runs in their first 40 games of the season since the inception of the DH. The two other teams to accomplish the feat were the 1984 Detroit Tigers and the 1990 Oakland Athletics. Both teams not only won their divisions but went to the World Series.