The always intense rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox has somehow managed to reach new heights. Last season, the pair became just the fourth set of division rivals to each win 100 or more games. That’s quite a rare feat, considering divisional play began 50 years ago.
Both teams recently underwent extreme makeovers in order to climb back to the top of the baseball world. Curiously, the two organizations also took radically different approaches to these rebuilds. Although there exists noticeable differences between the clubs’ offensive philosophies — the Red Sox lean on speed in their lineup while the Yankees continue to rely on their traditional power-centric run production — the most significant contrast lies in the construction of their pitching staffs.
The dominant Yankees bullpen
In the late 1970s, the Yankees became the first MLB team to place multiple firemen at the back end of their bullpen in an effort to shorten games. The club has remained on the leading edge of efforts to create a dominant bullpen ever since, and has won multiple championships at least in part because of this approach.
Over the last few years, they’ve taken this strategy much further. After moving on from utilizing a pair of setup men to support a single closer, the Yankees have succeeded in building a bullpen around multiple pitchers with closer experience. They also added in guys who have closer-type stuff and the mentality to go with it, and as a result, are now on the verge of boasting a complete seven-man bullpen with each pitcher possessing the ability to enter the game at different points when needed to help nail down a win.
The Yankees have gone all in on this dominant bullpen approach, and have spent significant capital to do so. They inked star closer Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million agreement two winters ago, a record contract at the time for a reliever. This offseason, the Yankees committed a sizable investment to land coveted setup man Adam Ottavino, and to re-sign former All-Star closer Zack Britton.
General manager Brian Cashman has also traded prospects to maintain the team’s dominant bullpen, acquiring Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson during the 2017 pennant chase and Britton last summer. The Yankees have not depended exclusively on outside help, though, having produced a long lineage of top bullpen arms from their own system. Unanimous Hall of Fame inductee Mariano Rivera heads a list that includes Robertson and four-time All-Star Dellin Betances. Jonathan Holder came up through the Yankees system to earn his way into the bullpen circle of trust last season, and the organization was successful in developing Chad Green into a bullpen weapon after acquiring the then-starter via trade.
The Red Sox ignore their bullpen problems
Suffice to say, developing and acquiring dominant bullpen arms is deeply embedded into the Yankees’ organizational philosophy. In contrast, the Red Sox have taken an entirely different approach. Although they traded for standout closer Craig Kimbrel three years ago to head their barren bullpen, they did little else to create a dominant relief corps ramping up to their championship run last season.
Heading into the 2018 postseason, Boston’s bullpen was considered its Achilles heel. We quickly saw why, as Kimbrel put the Yankees within a mere single of winning ALDS games on two occasions. This bullpen weakness remained painfully obvious on a game-to-game basis, even as the Red Sox went on capture the title. Rookie manager Alex Cora was repeatedly forced to use starting pitchers in relief in order to close out wins.
Despite this glaring deficiency, Boston’s front office did nothing to shore it up over the winter. In fact, the brass seemingly made the problem worse by letting the team’s top setup man, Joe Kelly, depart via free agency, and has thus far showed no interest in re-signing free agent Kimbrel.
Boston’s high-ceiling starting rotation versus the Yankees’ high-floor
What Boston has done in recent years is build a high-ceiling starting rotation. David Price, Chris Sale, and Rick Porcello have combined for 15 top-six finishes in the Cy Young Award balloting, including two wins. None of them came out of the Red Sox minor-league system.
The Yankees used to prioritize acquiring high-ceiling starters, which was a critical component of their nineties-era dynasty. Former Cy Young Award runner-up Jimmy Key was signed by the Yankees before the 1993 season, and he responded with a pair of top-four showings in the Cy Young voting over his four years in pinstripes. Key also came through for the Yankees when they needed him most, famously out-dueling future first-ballot Hall of Famer Greg Maddux in the clinching Game Six of the 1996 World Series.
Key’s teammate, David Cone, was acquired by the Yankees in a mid-summer trade the year after he won the Cy Young Award. Coney helped the Yankees win four championships in his five and one-half seasons in the Bronx. The Yankees also targeted and successfully acquired perennial Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, who helped them win four pennants and two titles during his initial five-year stint in the Bronx.
New York inked coveted free agent Mike Mussina to a record contract in 2001, who helped the club reach the World Series twice while winning a string of division titles. Ten years ago, Cashman prioritized signing the top two free agent starting pitchers in CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett. The duo helped the Yankees capture their 27th championship during their first year with the club.
Cashman’s priorities have apparently shifted, as his focus now appears to be on acquiring starting pitchers with high floors, rather than those with demonstrated high ceilings. The GM has repeatedly passed on opportunities to acquire the latter, while continually tapping the former every time the Yankees need a starter.
This offseason was no exception. After he proclaimed that shoring up the starting rotation was his number-one priority, Cashman re-signed veterans Sabathia and J.A. Happ, and acquired James Paxton via trade. Once Luis Severino suffered an injury that pushed his 2019 debut back until at least May, the Yankees inked Gio Gonzalez to a minor-league deal, even though he struggled with effectiveness last year and former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel remains unsigned.
Happ finished sixth in the 2016 Cy Young voting, but that came during his age-33 season. Since then, he produced a pair of 3.3 WAR campaigns in each of the last two years. We certainly got a glimpse of what Paxton is capable of when he threw a no-hitter last year, but to date, the 29-year-old has never produced more that 3.6 WAR in a season — and has also been unable to stay healthy.
Although the Yankees’ new strategy of prioritizing a dominant bullpen, while simultaneously eschewing an equally dominant rotation, did result in the team getting back to the League Championship Series following a four-year absence, and also winning 100 games for the first time since 2009, it’s unclear whether this will yield the same result as Boston’s. The ultimate goal, of course, must remain capturing a World Series championship. Although organizational philosophy and team-building strategy is only one component (the players on the field must produce), there is still a lot riding on the outcome of the 2019 season. The Red Sox seek to become the only team besides the Yankees to ever win four straight AL East titles. Meanwhile, the Yankees hope to avoid missing a World Series for an entire decade for the first time since Babe Ruth joined the team in 1920.