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Yankees vs. Red Sox: Series preview

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The Yankees head to Fenway Park to open up the second half.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The All Star break is over, and the Yankees are returning to action tonight. They'll waste no time getting back to business with a key series against the Red Sox. The Yankees (45-41) enter the series scuffling, while the Red Sox (50-39) have surged to a 3.5-game lead in the AL East.

Interestingly, the Yankees may have outplayed the Red Sox in the first half, with New York's run differential (+98) dwarfing that of Boston's (+65). Even so, the Yankees didn't win as many games, and they probably can't be expected to outplay the Red Sox from here on out. The Red Sox project for a .564 winning percentage the rest of the way, with the Yankees at .528

The Red Sox built their division lead, somewhat surprisingly, on the back of their pitching instead of their hitting. Boston's staff ranks 3rd in baseball by adjusted ERA and 5th by adjusted FIP, but their offense ran an unimpressive 97 wRC+.

A number of Red Sox hitters have performed well, including Mookie Betts (116 wRC+), Xander Bogaerts (109), Jackie Bradley Jr (121), and Andrew Benintendi (106), but none have put on dominant performances. Notably, Boston's lineup has more glaring weak spots than it did last season, most notably at the corner infield spots and at catcher.

The Red Sox enter the second half with a leg up, but the talent gap between these teams is probably narrower than we thought before the season. The Yankees still can win the division, and a series win here would be big start towards that goal. Let's look at the matchups.

Game 1: Jordan Montgomery vs. Drew Pomeranz

During his tenure with the Red Sox, Dave Dombrowski has made plenty of moves where he sacrificed future value for current players. That's not entirely surprising, given Boston's status as a contending team and Dombrowski's proclivity for dealing away prospects, but his most curious may have been bringing in Pomeranz. The left-hander has struggled to stay on the field in his career and cost the Red Sox Anderson Espinoza, a premium pitching prospect.

Even so, Pomeranz has been invaluable for Boston this year. He has totaled 90 innings with a 128 ERA+, striking out 98 and walking 32. Pomeranz's best pitch is probably his four-seam fastball, which only sits 91 or 92 mph, per Brooks Baseball, but has yielded only a .218 batting average across his career.

The Yankees’ rookie starter, Jordan Montgomery, will kick off the second half for New York in Friday’s matchup. Montgomery was briefly optioned to Triple-A at the end of the first half in a purely procedural move, but he has been a reliable stopper for the Yankees all season. In 16 starts this year, Montgomery’s ERA is second only to Severino among Yankee starters. In a season where Aaron Judge hasn’t practically already wrapped up the Rookie of the Year award, Montgomery’s name would have to be among the favorites.

Game 2: Luis Severino vs. Chris Sale

The Yankees get a date with Chris Sale in game two. Given how dominant a career he's had, it's almost a little surprising Chris Sale has not won a Cy Young award yet, but he is on track to earn his first such honor this year. Sale is the best starter in the American League.

Sale's 168 ERA+ is shiny enough. At the All Star break, he has already totaled 178 strikeouts, more than most pitchers are capable of recording across a full season. His 8.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio leads the majors, as does his 2.09 FIP and his .901 WHIP.

Sale has leaned on his secondaries this year, using his changeup and slider more than 50% of the time according to Brooks Baseball, a smart decision considering how devastating those offerings are. They both induce whiffs on over 40% of opposing hitters' swings and are the perfect complements to Sale's 95 mph heat.

The Yankees will start Luis Severino. This is a good time to step back and appreciate that Severino just made the All Star team, held a 129 ERA+ across 106 innings, and struck out 124 batters. He did so as one of just three qualified 23-year-old starters, while sitting 97 mph on his fastball. He’s the Yankees’ most exciting starter going forward.

Game 3: Bryan Mitchell vs. Rick Porcello

Porcello takes the ball hoping to emulate his Cy Young form from 2016 rather than his disappointing 2017 performance. After posting a 142 ERA+ in 223 innings last year, Porcello has a 97 ERA+ in 119 innings.

Most of Porcello's problems have come on balls in play. He's still been highly durable, taking the ball 19 times this year, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (109 to 24) is strong as ever. His BABIP, however, has shot to .346, and he's allowed 19 home runs after allowing 23 all of last season. He's simply allowed too much damage when opposing hitters have made contact.

The Yankees are opting to start Bryan Mitchell instead of Michael Pineda in the series, which makes a lot of sense with the way that Pineda finished the first half. It will be Mitchell’s first start of the season in the big leagues after being stretched out a bit in Triple-A the last few starts. His last start on July 5th was a seven-inning, one-run performance against the Buffalo Bisons.

Game 4: Masahiro Tanaka vs. David Price

Sunday will feature a doubleheader, with the second game coming as the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball matchup. Boston will throw Price, who's had a tumultuous second season with the Red Sox. Price has had numerous run-ins with Boston media, most recently getting into shouting matches with Evan Drellich and Dennis Eckersley.

On the field, Price has been solid. He owns a 119 ERA+ over nine starts, with 50 strikeouts against 19 walks in 53 innings. He profiles as a quality number two starter, a fine if somewhat underwhelming distinction considering the $217 million deal he signed prior to 2016.

Tanaka will start, setting up a starry matchup in name if not in performance. Tanaka looked like he may have turned a corner when he started throwing heat and dominated for a few starts, but he got smashed for three homers in his final outing before the break. His ERA+ is 84, and while his strikeout and walk totals are great, his FIP (5.03) is unsightly thanks to the 23 homers he's already allowed. Every start now is a test to see if Tanaka can keep the ball in the park. When he does, he can be great, but there's no telling if he will.