Anytime the Yankees play Boston, especially this late in the season, there aren’t too many secrets. But if you do enough digging (I did) you’ll always find some interesting things on which you can cogitate this weekend while watching the games. Or alternatively, you can listen to Simpleton Summer Camp’s Al Leiter say things like “I know there are percentages on this, but I don’t believe them” (he literally said that on Wednesday) and Paul O’Neill say bunting “puts pressure on the defense” (Every. Time.) without ever realizing that said “pressure” leads to fewer runs scored. Ever.
I digress…let’s get the obvious out of the way first:
The Sawx can pitch and they catch the ball – they’re 2nd in the American League in run prevention, but they can’t hit. Not even a little.
Among 125 American League players with 300 Plate Appearances, Boston doesn’t have anyone near the top of any significant offensive category, with a few minor exceptions. Andrew Benintendi leads the team in Weighted Runs Created Plus (59th in AL among 125) and On Base Percentage (30th out of 125) while Mitch Moreland leads them in Slugging Percentage at a just above league average .452. They’re actually very similar to last season’s Yankees who had Didi Gregorius leading the team with a .447 SLG.
The exceptions: Moreland is 10th in the AL in percentage of batted balls that are hit hard, and Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are 4th and 5th respectively in Base Running Runs above average.
Put a pin in that, I’m going to come back to it.
As a slight aside, another curious thing about the Sawx is the down season of Mookie Betts. Betts went from one of the best five players in baseball to a good player – still a very valuable player but hasn’t been the force this season that he was in 2016.
Mookie’s OBP, SLG, wRC+ and overall Wins Above Replacement are all significantly down this season from last.
Looking deeper into the numbers, I found two possible explanations for the drop off:
First: As you would imagine his Batting Average on Balls In Play is significantly lower this season – .267 this season down from .322 in ‘16. Given that his percentages of balls hit hard, medium and softly are virtually identical from last season, this would indicate he’s been hitting into some bad luck.
Secondly: He’s pulling the ball significantly more in ’17, while going to the opposite field significantly less than he did in ’16. I don’t have inside information on how teams defend their opponents, but I would assume this makes him more susceptible to defensive shifts.
No way to know for sure, but it sure looks like a combination of bad luck and being easier to defend can explain the offensive drop off.
In spite of the Boston “parts” not doing well individually, the “whole” is about average. As a team, Boston is 4th in the AL in OBP but their severe lack of power (13th in AL in SLG) brings them to the middle of the pack in the league in runs scored.
So how are they going to beat you offensively? They won’t. You just can’t beat yourself.
Boston as a team, swings at the 2nd lowest percentage of pitches in the American League. They aren’t going to help you get them out by chasing outside the zone and they will run your pitchers’ pitch counts up.
They’re also 3rd in the AL in base running efficiency. They know how and when to take extra bases and they aren’t going to run into outs for you.
Simply put, they’re aren’t going to hit, but they aren’t going to get themselves out either. If you a) don’t put runners on base, forcing them to swing the bat and b) you don’t play sloppy defense of which they can take advantage, you can keep their run scoring down.
I know, hard core statistical analysis – throw strikes and catch the ball and you’ll win. But with Boston it’s more true than with most teams, as they don’t have too many other ways to beat you.
A final note that always comes into play with Boston: John Farrell is archaic with regards to his bullpen management. Yes, worse than Joey Bullpen.
With the caveat that Andrew Miller has been injured, Craig Kimbrel is the best relief pitcher in the world and Farrell barely lets him affect the outcome of games. Generally speaking, you’ll only see Kimbrel in the 9th inning or later if Boston is leading, greatly minimizing his potential value.
In literally two thirds of Kimbrel’s appearances in 2017, the game situation could be classified as either medium importance or low importance*. In other words, only a third of the time is the game on the line when Farrell calls on Kimbrel. Boston is in the process of giving him $42 million to be a mop up guy.
So watch for tight situations between the 6th and 8th innings where Kimbrel could be used but won’t be, and see if the Yankees can capitalize.
As always, thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for the information.
*And also as always, the terms “high leverage” and “low leverage” will never be used in this blog.