Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Slowly Climbing...Slowly Falling

I have been saying for most of this season that the Red Sox and Yankees are both performing at unexpected levels, just at opposite ends of the spectrum. I have also said that the only silver lining for Boston was that they had a lot of room to improve. And that the danger for the Yankees is that they were already hitting close to their ceiling.

As of today, the Yankees have lost seven of their last 10 games while Boston have won six of their last 10. The Yankees are tied for first with Tampa Bay while Boston sits just 2.5 games back in third. The Yankees just lost Jacoby Ellsbury to a knee injury. Boston changed their pitching coach and Wade Miley looks competent on the mound.

The latest turn of bad luck for the Yankees - besides the Ellsbury injury - was Andrew Miller giving up the game-winning homer to Washington in their 8-6 defeat of New York last night. One of the keys to New York's unexpected good start was the combo of Betances and Miller holding opposing teams to doing little more than getting outs. That has since been undone to some degree. Overall, they are still one of the best 1-2 punches late in a close game. But tiny cracks in their armor are starting to show. That will make it harder for New to regain the form they had early in the season.

Injuries will also make that job harder. Ellsbury getting injured kind of goes with the territory; it's one of the reasons Boston fans weren't that upset when he jumped ship. And he has definitely been one of the better bats in New York's lineup. He currently leads New York in Offensive WAR at 1.6 and that means New York is going to miss him. Chris Young may be an adequate replacement but he'll be a step back. Slade Heathcott is an interesting call-up. A 2009 first-round pick whose career appeared to be derailed by alcohol, Heathcott has turned things around and now could be starting in New York's outfield. Whether his numbers in AAA will carry over into the MLB is, as always, the big question. At the least, things will be interesting in New York.

The Red Sox fired pitching coach Juan Nieves on May 7. They hired pitching coach Carl Willis two days later and he officially joined the team on May 10. From that day on the Sox have gone 6-3. Wade Miley has cut his ERA by almost two whole runs. Joe Kelly's outing on May 14th was his best since April 11. And Clay Buchholz threw a masterpiece against the Mariners five days ago that was wasted thanks to Boston's bats going cold.

Now, correlation doesn't mean causation. And perhaps it is too simplistic to tie Boston's improved pitching to the hiring of a new pitching coach just 10 days ago. But sometimes a single change can make a big improvement. No one can deny that Wade Miley pitched last night like you'd want a Number 3 to pitch. Two earned runs over seven innings. Seven strikeouts and one walk. Two straight quality starts. That is not the Wade Miley we saw earlier in the year.

Of course, now Boston's hitting has dropped off. No regular starter has a batting average over .280. Only one starter (Hanley Ramirez) has an OPS over .800. The Red Sox now sit 24th in the majors for team OPS and 17th in on-base percentage. Run production? They have fallen to 19th.

This was a common frustration last year; the inability of the Red Sox to get all facets of their team performing well at the same time. What is helping them stay in games right now besides the improved pitching is their defense. It ranks sixth in the majors and doesn't look to drop off any time soon. The hope is that they can maintain that quality in the field while their bats start to wake up.

This could all change in a moment's notice. Boston's pitching could go south again and Heathcott could be the best Yankee call-up since Gehrig pushed out Pipp. But right now the Yankees and Red Sox are slowly switching positions.

No comments: