Thursday, April 23, 2009

Big Cuts: The Rivalry Resumes

A conversation about the Red Sox and Yankees.

Aviv: So Dave, here we are! The first of the six big showdowns between our rivals. Both have teams have gotten off to decent starts despite some early issues and both teams probably should have one or two more wins. Yet here they are, tied for second behind Toronto of all teams.

It's going to be a good series and the pitching matchups are fascinating. Joba Chamberlain vs. Jon Lester Friday, the former Marlins teammates A.J. Burnett vs. Josh Beckett Saturday and Andy Pettitte vs. Justin Masterson Sunday.

You'd have to think the Red Sox should take 2 of 3 simply because they are home, but I wouldn't be surprised if it goes the other way. Burnett loves facing Boston. He's 7-1 with a 4.97 ERA against the Red Sox and at Fenway, he's 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA. And the way Pettitte has been pitching, it's going to be tough for Masterson to outduel him.

The only thing that would surprise me in this series is if either team sweeps.

Dave: I don't think either team will sweep either. As we both realized during our preseason analysis, these two teams are very close to one another in quality. I would state that the one area that Boston has an edge is in their bullpen. The Sox 'pen currently has an ERA around 2.50; I believe New York's relief corps is flirting with an ERA around 7. In what should be a close series, that could be a critical difference. Again, how do you get to Rivera successfully?

The matchup that works best for the Yankees is Game 2. Burnett has simply had Boston's number for some reason. I'd like it to be different this time, but past experience tends to predict future results. Lester found his groove in his last outing and his experience as a starter, and being at home, should give him the edge over Joba. Who, by the way, is still being mis-used as a starter.

That brings us to the tossup; Masterson and Pettitte.While Pettitte has a very good lifetime record against the Sox (16-8, if memory serves me), lately it hasn't been so good. Taken together in 2007 and 2008, he is just 3-3 against the Sox and has an ERA of 5.80, with the Sox teeing off on him at a .338 clip. Masterson is admittedly an unproven commodity to some extent. But he always seems to keep his team in the game and has very good control. And while his lifetime record against New York isn't good, he has shown a maturity this year he hasn't possessed thus far. Add in that the game is in Boston, and I think you'll be surprised at how he does.

But to go off-topic for a second...what is going on in Toronto?? Here's a team that has nothing in their starting rotation behind Doc Halliday, they're getting nothing at the plate from their starting outfielders, and yet they lead the AL East. How long can this go on?

Aviv: Toronto has gotten off to a great start, but I think that it's more of a function of whom they've played: Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, Oakland and Texas. They haven't even played an AL East team yet. Look, last year everyone said the Rays were talented, but we didn't know if they were ready to compete. No one is saying the Blue Jays are talented. Unless they start beating the top teams, I'm not ready to worry about them.

But back to the big series. Dave to be fair, if you're going to call Pettitte-Masterson a tossup, then you have to call Joba-Lester a tossup, too. Look, I agree the Yankees are stronger with Joba in the bullpen, but to say he's being misused as a starter is wrong at this point. He was drafted as a starter and has what scouts say are four plus pitches. He was rushed to the majors in 2007 to help the pen and is being allowed to develop as a starter in the majors. And so far, the numbers say he's a capable starter.

Joba is 3-1 with 3.07 ERA in 14 career starts -- and the Yankees are 9-5 in those games. He's kept the Yanks in every game, never giving up more than five runs (two occassions) in any start, and he's pitched at least six innings in eight of those starts and 5-2/3 in another. He's even gone seven once -- against the Red Sox, in fact, in a 1-0 victory. Two of the times he's failed to go six were when the Yankees first put him in the rotation and had to stretch him out, and another was his last start last season when he was lifted with what turned out to be tendinitis.

Joba very well may end up in the bullpen, but it's very premature and unsupported to say he's being misused. Masterson, by the way, is 5-3 with a 3.49 ERA in 10 career starts, including Monday. But he's going up against Pettitte, who's throwing the ball better than he has in either of the last two seasons when he had a drop-off against the Sox. You were right, Dave, with Pettitte's career record of 16-8 against the Sox, but what you left out was Pettitte's 6-2 record with a 3.53 ERA in 15 games, 13 starts, at Fenway. That includes going 1-0 with a 1.50 in Boston last year.

As for the Yankees' pen I wouldn't get too caught up with those early season numbers. That unit's been beaten up in two of Chien-Ming Wang's disasters and has had to deal with the struggles of Jose Veras and Damaso Marte. However, Bruney has been great, Jonathan Albaladejo and Phil Coke are developing nicely and quickly, and even Veras seemed to have turned around with that fantastic outing Wednesday. Yes, this going to be a big test for the bullpen and if it doesn't perform, it will be the difference in this series. I'm just saying do not dismiss these guys just yet. They are better than you think.

By the way, if David Ortiz is going to warn Joba about throwing at hitters, he better do the same for his own pitchers. Do I even have to go into the number of Yankee hitters who have been plunked vs. the number of Red Sox hitters in recent years?

Dave: Actually, I don't think I have to call Joba-Lester a tossup. Lester is a proven starter who has victories in critical games under his belt, including a World Series-clinching victory in 2007. You remember the World Series, right? To Lester, this is just another game. To Joba, a closer playing dressup as a starter, this is a much bigger deal. You can say he is 3-1 in 14 career starts. What you fail to mention is that he has yet to register a decision in 2009 and is running with an ERA over 5. Lester has similar stats this year, but at Fenway and with his last outing, I think Lester is the favorite.

And the simple truth is that Joba is the best bridge to Rivera in the ninth. He should be, right now, what Rivera was to Wetteland back in 1996. Imagine if back then someone slotted Rivera into the five hole and wanted Bob Wickman to always pitch in the eighth. You'd have run them out of the Bronx on a rail. It's no different now. Take it from someone who has already seen his team try to turn a closer into a's not a good idea.

As for Pettitte, I cannot deny he won in Fenway against the Sox...and lost to them the other two times he faced them. Even in his win he couldn't get past six innings of work. And if you go back to 2007, he was 0-0 with a 6.32 ERA and a WHIP of 1.915 in Fenway. So do we really know which Pettitte we are getting come Sunday? It's a tossup strictly because of the fact that Masterson has shown an ability to keep games close this year and that Boston has a superior bullpen as of right now.

Yes, New York's bullpen is showing signs of actually understanding what it is they are supposed to do. I'll give them props for a masterful job against the A's, especially since CC looked like the CC of 2008 prior to his trade and the chance to strike out pitchers, and they had to cover for his ample posterior. But the truth is right now they are not as good as Boston's bullpen. They may well be later this year, but they aren't there yet. I think this will be the critical factor in the series.

And here's something interesting... All year long I have been hearing about this killer Yankee lineup and how Boston is going to flounder without Manny batting behind Ortiz. But when I look at the stats, the Red Sox have scored as many runs in fewer at-bats and have a better team average and OPS. Now how is that possible?

I think Papi was just warning Joba because he is known to have a tendency to...lose control. As for who plunks who...I looked back at 2008. The first game between the two teams where someone was plunked was July 4th, when Darrell Rasner and Beckett traded hits. Then came July 5, when Yankee pitchers plunked four batters to Boston's three, including hitting Manny three times in one game. In fact, there was only one game between the two teams prior to the final series where the Red Sox pitchers plunked the batter first and hit more batters than the Yankees. That was a game Tim Wakefield started, and getting hit by a knuckleball is like getting hit by a stiff breeze. As opposed to Mike Mussina, who seemed to think the Yankees got a win every time he drilled a Boston batter in the ribs. As with all things, the two teams were pretty even in this category. But let us not pretend that Joba doesn't like to ride a pitch head-high and inside.

Aviv: Dave you're missing a HUGE difference between Rivera in 1995 and Joba. Rivera came up as a starter with a plus fastball and a mediocre change. He was mediocre in his 10 starts with the Yankees and only emerged in the bullpen because he accidently discovered the cutter while fooling around with Ramiro Medoza. He never had a shot to be a good starter. And if the Yankees knew what that cutter was or what he'd become, they might have beaten the Mariners in the 2005 ALDS.

Joba has four plus pitches. Relievers don't have or need that kind of repertoire. And Joba's development as a starter was stunted because the Yankees rightfully believed he could help them in the bullpen in 2007. To declare that Joba is or should be a reliever and the future closer without even giving him the chance to find out what he could be as a starter would be foolhardy both for Joba and the Yankees' future. The fact of the matter is that while we all agree on what Joba is as a reliever, no one knows what he is as a starter. He could be a Cy Young winner or a dud, but there's only one way to find out and that's for him to start while he's still at the beginning of his career. The Yankees HAVE to go through this now, even if means redevolping a bullpen that is unproven, but has the potential to be good. Joba will return to the pen if stating turns out not to be his strength.

But let me get this straight, you're calling Masterson-Pettitte a tossup because the Sox have a better bullpen and you're not sure which Pettitte (also a guy who's had a ton of World Series experience and for whom this will be another game) will show up, despite the fact that in three starts this year he's 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA and 0.94 WHIP and has gone at least seven innings in every start. Meanwhile Lester, who's had one good start this season against the wOes and is 1-2 with a 5.50 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, gets the edge over Joba because you think Joba, who, like Masterson, has kept the Yankees in every game he's started, should be in the bullpen. We'll agree to disagree.

But Dave, you can't seriously be comparing the production of the Red Sox's offense so far with the Yankees', which has been without Alex Rodriguez and has an automatic out in Cody Ransom. Even Papi knows this is not the true Yankees offense, saying:

"This one is an easy one -- they are missing A-Rod. ... You don't have the
best player in the game in your lineup, it makes it different."

The better question is why aren't the Sox outscoring the Yankees? And let's not get too excited about the Red Sox's run production. The surge this week has been against the pitching poor wOes and Twins.

But let's get back to hitting batters. Here are the numbers: starting in 2004, the Red Sox have hit 55 Yankees and the Yankees have hit 43 Sox. The Red Sox have outhit the Yanks in four of the five seasons and were tied in the other. A-Rod has been hit 10 times, Jeter 7, Youkilis 8, Manny 4 and Papi 0. The only pitchers of note who have not hit a batter are Pettitte, Curt Schilling and ... Joba, who came high and tight four times to Youk, but has hit no one. Even Mo has hit six, an no one would say they don't respect him.

Here's the bottom line for Papi, pitching inside, intimidation, hitting batters, it's all part of the game for both sides. If Papi doesn't want Youk to experience an up-and-in pitch, then he also needs to tell his pitchers not to do it. Otherwise his words are merely an invitation for fireworks.

Dave: Why I am giving you advice on your pen is beyond me. I should be content to let you guys keep Joba in the rotation and leave it at that. But if you look at what he has done as a starter and as a reliever...he's a better reliever. As a starter, he has been decidedly average thus far. Not bad, but not great. But as a reliever/closer, he has shown a lot of promise. All the Yanks are doing now is depriving themselves of a proven eighth inning guy and future closer in return for a 4/5 starter. But hey, that works for Boston so here's hoping they keep it up.

I think Lester gets the edge because of his experience as a starter and that the game is being played in Fenway. With Masterson-Pettitte, my contention is that Masterson can hang with Andy and get to the Sox bullpen, which is (right now) better than New York's. That makes it a tossup. That said, Pettitte could easily throw a gem and it won't make a lick of difference if Masterson can get through 5-6 innings.

Really? You are saying the Sox's lineup is that superior to New York's right now? We've had Jed Lowrie batting somewhere around .050 most of the season before his wrist went balky. The entire top third of the lineup has been MIA for most of the season. Meanwhile, all we have heard going into the season is about how great Mark Teixeira would be in New York and how Boston would falter without The Great Manny. Instead, the Sox are holding their own and are, in fact, slightly better. Oh, and are the wOes so bad when they play New York? I seem to remember them taking two of three from you guys to start the season...

Here's the bottom line with Joba; the guy can't stop throwing at Youk's head. And as far as I can tell, there isn't any reason for him to be doing it besides the idea that Joba is being a fool. Pitching inside and the occasional ball in the side? That's part of the game. Throwing at a guy's head? That goes beyond the pale and everyone except Joba seems to get that. I guess we'll see what happens this weekend.

Oh, and as a bonus non-baseball treat, I figured that as fellow UConn alumni we should predict which, if any, Huskies may go in the first round on Saturday. I'll throw out two names -- Darius Butler and William Beatty.

Aviv: Donald Brown will go at 21 to the Eagles and Bulter toward the end of the round. Beatty will slip to the second round because he was a late bloomer.

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