Monday, April 27, 2015

Sox Struggle, Yanks Surprise



Going into the 2015 season, the way it looked for Boston and New York was this:

  1. Boston's above-average hitting would balance out their average pitching and keep them as a favorite for winning the AL East.
  2. New York had too many question marks in their rotation and too many years on their players to compete.
I think that is a pretty fair two sentence summary. So where do they actually stand?

The Sox are a game out of first at 10-9. They got their asses handed to them Sunday night in an 18-7 shellacking by the Orioles.

And their starting pitching, in a word, sucks.

Some want to immediately start throwing blame on Rick Porcello. At 1-2, and after signing that big pre-season deal, he is an easy target.

But the truth is that he hasn't been horrible. Outside of that bad April 19 start (5 innings, 12 hits, 8 earned runs) he hasn't pitched badly. Except in one area; home runs.

Porcello has surrendered six home runs so far, most for a pitcher in the AL. He averages between 16-18 a year, so he is far ahead of his usual pace. So this could be an anomaly. Or it could be adapting to a new catcher and a new park. But more than anything else, this is why Porcello has a 6.48 ERA.

The rest of the rotation has been mediocre at best. Wade Miley is a mess. More walks than strikeouts and only 15.2 innings pitched over four starts. That is how you get a 8.62 ERA. Masterson leads starters with two wins but his 5.16 ERA speaks of trouble. Buchholz, for all the crap he gets, has not been horrible. His first and fourth starts were actually quite good. But he was bad in the other two. Consistency continues to be a problem for Buchholz and at the age of 30 you have to wonder if he will ever find it. Joe Kelly has been decent enough as a fifth starter. But when your fifth starter has the lowest ERA of your rotation...not good.

The bullpen has also been a mess. Outside of Tazawa (who has looked great), every pitcher has blown an appearance or two. Which puts more pressure on the starters. And when they can't go six innings, that pressure goes back on the bullpen. It's a reinforcing cycle and when neither group is doing well, it makes things worse.

As for hitting, the supposed strength of the Sox...one-third of the starting lineup has a batting average under .200 and an on-base percentage of .302 or less. Mookie Betts' bat, much like Jackie Bradley's last year, has cooled off considerably. David Ortiz has a .705 OPS. Only Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia are really giving us the kind of performance we expect. Bogaerts and Sandoval are doing okay. Other than that the lineup is under-performing.

Meanwhile, in New York...look, Aviv usually writes these parts. I hate the Yankees with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. So it is really hard for me to write that the Yankees are in first and defying expectations. And the reason is a simple one...

They're healthy. Insanely healthy. Outside of Ivan Nova (who was injured before the season began), all of New York's expected starters are playing.

The only black mark on the rotation is CC Sabathia and his 0-4, 5.96 ERA record. But I think people expected this to some extent. Otherwise, they're getting it done. Pineda is 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA. He hasn't used any pine tar so far this year, is chewing up innings and performing damn well. Tanaka is working around his elbow with relative success. It may be a fragile success (I still think Tanaka's elbow is going to give out at some point this year) but the rotation is getting it done.

And then there is the tandem of Miller and Betances. These two are the main reason the Yankees are in first. Neither have surrendered a run. Betances has four holds and is 3-0. Miller has seven saves in eight appearances. Can this continue? Probably not, but neither player has shown any signs of weakness so far. When a team knows that all it has to do is get to the seventh inning with a lead or even one-run down, that is a huge advantage for the Yanks. Just like it must be demoralizing as hell right now to be down against New York and then you see Betances coming to the mound.

In the lineup you have a healthy Teixeira and A-Rod hammering the hell out of the ball. Brett Gardner is being his usual under-rated remarkable self. Ellsbury hasn't broken anything yet and is hitting well and getting on base. Really, the only batter who is playing poorly right now is Carlos Beltran, which you had to see coming a mile away.

New York's only weak area is fielding. The Yankees have 16 errors so far; in the AL, only Oakland has more with 20. Their fielding percentage is below the AL average. So you can look at this two ways. Either the Yanks would have more wins with better fielding and it will get better. Or that this is as good as it gets on defense and they can't lose anyone to injury because that could impact run production or their rotation.

I think the truth is in the middle. I don't think the offense can keep going at this clip. But I don't think New York's defense is actually this bad. New York is succeeding right now but it is a success that could stutter and stop with one or two untimely injuries.

Of course, for all the negativity around Boston and positivity around New York, they are only separated by a game. If Boston's bats wake up, or their rotation reaches league average, they will win more games. New York, conversely, can't wring much more out of their pitching or bats. They need to keep this level of performance up and hope their defense improves. Any slip and they'll tumble back down the standings.

But for today, at least, the Yankees are back on top of the AL East.

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