We’re a little over three weeks into Anthony Rizzo’s tenure as a Yankee, and his acquisition is one the Yankees’ organization would do all over again if they had the chance (and they’d do it with full support of the Yankee fan base as well). Since making his debut with the Yankees on July 30th, Rizzo has posted a 127 OPS+ and shown his glove is as good as the reputation that preceded it. Additionally, regardless of whether or not you believe in clutch, several of his hits have come in crucial situations in games that eventually became Yankee wins, making him an instant fan favorite.
Due to underwhelming play from some players, and recurring injuries to Luke Voit, the lack of production from first basemen had been a serious problem for the Yankees until July 30th. The Yankees' lack of run-scoring, in general, was a problem, and it’s really hard to be a good offensive team when you’re not getting significant production from your first basemen. Rizzo’s presence certainly isn’t the only factor that the Yankees are 11-1 in games he’s played and 18-6 overall since his arrival, but he certainly has been a significant contributor to their recent turnaround.
Another aspect of Rizzo’s presence on the Yankees to weigh is that he’s not on the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox, despite being in first place on July 30th, were similarly not getting production from their first baseman in 2021. It was widely and frequently reported in July both locally and nationally that the Red Sox were interested in Rizzo. ESPN insider Buster Olney predicted as late as July 26th that Rizzo would end up calling Fenway Park his home for the remainder of 2021.
Since Rizzo ended up in pinstripes, Boston has continued to use Kevin Plawecki, Franchy Cordero, Bobby Dalbec, Marwin Gonzalez, and Travis Shaw at first base. Due respect to all players who reach the Major Leagues, but none of those players are reminding Boston fans of Mo Vaughn, to put it mildly. The Red Sox, who were in first place on the day of the trade deadline, have gone 7-15 since (including 0-3 against New York) and are currently seven games out of first and tied for the second Wild Card spot.
Is the lack of a good first baseman the Red Sox’ only problem lately? Of course not. Their pitching staff has the worst August ERA in the AL (unless you count Baltimore as a big-league team, in which case Boston’s August ERA is second worst). Boston’s offense, which was very good in April through July, has also slumped of late, as the Bosox rank eighth in runs, ninth in home runs, and 14th in batting average among AL teams in August. Given there are eight other hitters in the lineup besides the first baseman, once again, it’s not all the collective fault of the first basemen.
Yet it begs the question, “How would each team have fared if Anthony Rizzo ended up in Fenway Park and not the big ball orchard in the Bronx?”
Obviously, we can only do something between speculation and outright wild guessing to address that question. Whether or not further trades or acquisitions would have been made with both teams, and how players would have been deployed with or without Rizzo on their team are only two of many variables for which we can’t account. But the answer is things probably would not be that much different now than they would if Rizzo went to Boston instead of New York.
If you did the math above, you might have noticed that Rizzo has only played in half of the Yankees games since his arrival due to his stint on the COVID-19 IL. Even if he hadn’t been on the team at all, the Yankees likely would have spent the first week of August with DJ LeMahieu at first base, and Tyler Wade, Andrew Velasquez, and Rougned Odor around the horn — the latter two haven’t produced in the manner Rizzo has, but over one week the difference would be infinitesimal in the big scheme of things.
LeMahieu and Wade have been phenomenal in August, and Luke Voit returned to play first base a week after Rizzo was acquired — and well, you know how Luke’s been doing. Giancarlo Stanton and Brett Gardner have been red hot in August and Aaron Judge has been consistently doing Aaron Judge things — it would be a major reach to say Rizzo’s acquisition had anything to do with those successes. (He also didn’t have much to do with the pitching staff’s AL-best 2.82 ERA in August.)
As noted, Boston has had many issues contributing to their recent downward spiral in the standings. As good a player as Rizzo is and has been over his career, even he wouldn’t be able to plug all the holes Boston has had recently. But what about the question of what would happen the rest of the season if Anthony Rizzo were on Boston instead of the Yankees?
Once again, we’re in the land of pure speculation. We fans have a tendency to get caught up in the fun of day-to-day happenstances and small sample sizes — which I must note, there’s nothing wrong with, as that’s why we’re fans and that’s what fans do. Yet in the interests of due diligence, we should remind ourselves that three weeks is a couple of sneezes in baseball time. It’s extremely unlikely that the Yankees will continue to win 74 percent of their games over the rest of the season as they have over the last seven weeks —the 1998 Yankees and 1939 Yankees both won 70 percent of their games for some perspective.
We fans also like to figuratively kick our enemies when they’re down, but it’s extremely unlikely the Red Sox are preparing white flags to wave. Just like this Yankees team isn’t the 1998 or 1939 Yankees, the Red Sox didn’t just turn into the 2021 Orioles either. They certainly aren’t the team that was on pace to win 99 games as they were at the end of July, but they also are much better than the 7-15 team they’ve been since.
What if we simply use Rizzo’s projected WAR and switch it from one team to the other? If you told me that’s a good-sized chunk of simplification, I’d agree — but the purpose of WAR is to measure a player’s value in terms of wins — so let’s go ahead and use it for discussion’s sake.
Rizzo has averaged about four wins per season over the course of his career. If you extrapolate that pace over the remainder of this season, it comes out to close to one win. If you took one win from the Yankees and gave it to the Red Sox, that certainly may end up being significant in the year-end standings. Of course, that doesn’t factor in the WAR contributions of players who would play in place of Rizzo for either team, so we’re very likely talking less than one win over the remainder of the season. As much as fans love Rizzo, his presence is unlikely to have a huge impact on the 2021 AL East standings, as a Yankee or even if he had ended up in Boston.
Before you start typing nasty comments to me in the comments section, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: Anthony Rizzo is a very good player and it’s always preferable to have a very good player on your team rather than on your rival’s team. The only problem with Anthony Rizzo’s presence is that Aaron Boone has more good players than he has spots in the outfield, first base, and DH — that’s a darn good problem to have and it’s a much better problem to have than the Red Sox’ problems.
Which is to say, we can put the math and the analytics aside for now and relax a little. There’s still a lot of baseball left to be played, but I think you and I would agree that the Yankees are better off than the Red Sox right now, which is always reason to rejoice and smile.