The Red Sox are going to play in the World Series, having handily defeated the reigning champs, the Houston Astros, in five games in the ALCS. Meanwhile, the Yankees are at home, having been eliminated from the playoffs at the hands of those same Red Sox.
Aside from being extremely humiliating, should this serve as a wake up call for the Yankees? More specifically, are the Red Sox doing something the Yankees aren’t? If Boston is adhering to some sort of organizational philosophy which is conducive to better performance, then surely the Yankees should take note. The question is, has Boston really figured something out?
First, let’s look at the surface-level differences between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Looking at the two teams’ postseason performances, the contrast between Boston’s consistently high-octane offense and the Yankees’ anemic showing is striking. Of particular note is how well the Red Sox have hit with runners in scoring position compared to the Yankees.
In 9 postseason games, the Red Sox have gone 27 for 73 with RISP, for a batting average of .370. Meanwhile, the Yankees went 6 for 30 in their 5 postseason games (including the Wild Card Game), for a .200 average. Not great, Bob.
Even in the regular season, the Red Sox offense performed markedly better than the Yankees in pressure situations. With RISP, Boston ran a 128 wRC+, second only to the Astros’ 133 wRC+ mark, while the Yankees ranked sixth with a mark of 108. In “high leverage” situations as defined by FanGraphs’ Leverage Index, the Red Sox had a 108 wRC+ to the Yankees’ 97. That probably explains most of the 27-run difference in runs scored between the two clubs, despite their near-identical team wRC+ marks.
So we’ve established that the Red Sox offense did much better in the clutch than the Yankees, which is a big part of why the Red Sox are still playing and the Yankees aren’t. Now let’s move on to a deeper question: is Boston’s clutch hitting by design, or just a product of good timing or happenstance?
Many have faulted the Yankees offense for two main perceived deficiencies: relying too much on the home run, and striking out too often. Indeed, the Red Sox have largely avoided these two traits, running a team average 19 points higher than the Yankees’ while besting the Yankees’ K rate by 2.8 points. From this, it’s easy to conclude that the Red Sox have built their offense with a heavier emphasis on contact, and that’s what has made the difference between them and the Yankees.
However, there is one thing that puts a major wrinkle in this line of reasoning; namely, the 2017 season. The power/contact contrast in approach between Boston and New York was just as evident last year as it was this year, with the Red Sox running a lower strikeout rate while the Yankees hit 73 more dongs. However, last year the Yankees ended up outscoring the Red Sox by a margin of - what a coincidence - 73 runs, and outperformed them in both RISP (107 wRC+ to 104) and high leverage situations (100 wRC+ to 72).
If the hypothesis that Boston’s contact-over-power approach is more conducive to better performance, both in general and in clutch situations, is correct, then the Red Sox should have outhit the Yankees in 2017 as well. Instead, we see that the opposite is true. What gives?
Two developments explain the difference between the Boston’s 2017 and 2018 offense, namely, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez having the best seasons of their respective careers. Betts and Martinez finished second and third in wRC+ among all MLB hitters. No other team had two in the top 10, much less the top 5. Betts’ emergence as a challenger to Mike Trout as the most valuable player in baseball, along with the addition of Martinez to the lineup, accounts for much of the improvement of the Red Sox’ offense from last year. They are the reasons why the Red Sox led baseball in runs scored this year.
As such, I don’t see what the Yankees can glean from the Red Sox’ offense this year in terms of lessons to be learned. “Having two 170 wRC+ hitters in your lineup is a good idea” isn’t something that the Red Sox have a patent on. All Boston did was develop a young core, supplant it with a star-level acquisition, and hope for the best. Kind of like what the Yankees did this year, except it just turned out differently between the two clubs. Boston’s big bats had otherworldly seasons, while the Yankees’ bats weren’t quite at that level. That, more than any differences in offensive philosophy, was the difference.
The good news is that the Yankees’ lineup features players with the talent and the potential to have monster years not too far off from what Betts and Martinez have done this year. Ok, so maybe Judge is the only one likely to sniff a 170 wRC+. But I’d bet Giancarlo Stanton has a few more 140-150 wRC+ seasons left in him yet, and Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar certainly have the talent to pull that off at their absolute peaks.
The Yankees have all the offensive talent they need already in place. All it takes is two or three career years to coincide, and then for enough guys to get hot in October. Sure, that plan sounds worse than an offensive philosophy that guarantees World Series rings, but such a philosophy doesn’t exist. All the Red Sox did this year, and all the Yankees can do next year, is to put enough good players in the lineup and hope for the best.