Coming into this season, there was one favorite to win the AL East division: the Boston Red Sox. It made sense, and I largely agreed with the logic. Boston, led by starters David Price, Chris Sale, and Rick Porcello, and sporting a young position player core of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, and Xander Bogaerts, is quite the formidable team on paper.
The Yankees, on the other hand, were not considered that team, but they might be. A rotation of question marks, a handful of top prospects with no proven track record, and a good bullpen isn’t necessarily enough to beat a team that may already be a juggernaut for years to come.
But here we are, on June 11th, and the Yankees are in first place in the AL East. The Yankees have won four of their first five meetings against Boston, as well, with a run differential of +22 runs. Gary Sanchez was mashing, Aaron Hicks—the surprise of the year—was mashing, and Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia were dealing. It’s not exactly how you’d draw it up.
There are going to be quite a few more match-ups. There will be a four-game set at Fenway after the All-Star break, including the postponement makeup, a three-game set at the Stadium starting August 11th, a three-game set at Fenway from the 18th to the 20th, and one final four-game set at home from August 31st to September 3rd. There are 14 more games, and they all have hugely important implications on the division race.
Let’s take a look at the FanGraphs projected standings. As of June 10th, the Yankees and Red Sox have the exact same projected win total: 90 games. That’s tied for fourth-best in baseball. What’s important to note, though, is that this projection system considers the Sox to be about 30 points better by win percentage than the Yankees (.562 vs. .531).
This makes sense. The Yankees over-performed at the very beginning of the season, winning eight in a row and pushing their projected win total up considerably. If you neutralize those eight games won to 4-4, then their record is 31-27, or a winning percentage of .534. It’s not like we can invalidate wins or anything, but it’s handy to keep in mind that, hey, maybe the Red Sox are still really good and we should watch out.
If one of the biggest prizes in the second-wild card era of baseball is the divisional title, then each single game against the Red Sox has a massive effect on said goals. It’s not like we don’t know this, but it’s been a long time since the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry mattered. Every game won is guaranteed game-up in the standings, which is why the Yankees are three games up in the division, as opposed to being tied if the Sox had won four of five themselves.
I’m still wary the Yankees can beat them, but I think it’s possible. Let’s put it this way, and it sounds overly simplistic: it comes down to Price. With David Ortiz out, Mitch Moreland is who he is. Dustin Pedroia is good but he is what he is. The young position player core will probably be incredibly good, and the bullpen led by Craig Kimbrel isn’t going to be an issue at all. But Price, if he can’t stay effective or healthy, would result in a very large win swing one way or the other, possibly as great as four or five wins. That, combined with the actual head-to-head match-ups themselves, probably decide the division.
I think the Yankees can at least somewhat maintain their performance, or at least stay above water enough that their initial great start keeps them at acceptable levels all year. I would love it if they could sustain another hot streak to give them a larger cushion, but beggars can’t be choosers. The Red Sox are going to be breathing down the Yankees’ necks for the entire year, and if New York wants to sit atop the division, they need to continue what they’re doing against their divisional foes.