NEW YORK – As measuring sticks go, the series between the Red Sox and Yankees seemed all but unmarked.
The Yankees’ 11-1 shellacking of the Red Sox on Sunday night concluded a three-game set in which all three games — two wins by New York, one by the Sox — were lopsided and decided early. The cumulative score of the three games was 30-2. Not a single meaningful pitch was thrown by a reliever.
The most heavily used Red Sox reliever was Justin Haley, who contributed 4⅔ innings and 83 pitches of mopup work over two contests in which the Sox were getting blown out. Craig Kimbrel, Joe Kelly, and Matt Barnes threw a combined zero pitches during the series.
What to take from the three games that concluded with the two teams tied for first place?
“It was a weird series, honestly. It was very weird. Weird games,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora shrugged. “We move on. It’s going to be a dogfight. They have a good team, we have a good team.”
There was, however, one common denominator to the blowout losses that bookended the series for the Red Sox. The outings by David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez featured strikingly similar struggles. Both are lefthanders who worked with a mix of fastballs, cutters/sliders, and changeups, and who pitched in a fairly narrow range of velocities that allowed the Yankees to be on time with most of their offerings.
In between those starts, Chris Sale proved overpowering with his own fastball/slider/changeup mix, but the action on his pitches — and the distinction between them — was entirely different from those of his teammates. Sale’s mix proved tremendously disruptive to timing: A high-90s to 100-mile-per-hour fastball, a changeup around 90, and a slider in the low-80s. The three pitches operated in very different ways, and if any hitter looked for one offering, they’d have almost no chance of making contact with the other two.
Price and Rodriguez, on the other hand, saw a separation of fewer than 9 m.p.h. between most of their hardest and softest pitches. (Late in his outing, Price tried to mix in some curveballs, but he hasn’t been able to throw that pitch effectively this year.) In the case of Price, the Yankees lineup seemingly had its rhythm against everything that he threw, resulting in his career-high yield of five homers in just 3⅓ innings.
“It was a good approach [by the Yankees] today. If you take a look at the game, it seems like the righties, they decided not to swing at the inside part of the plate. They split the plate and did a good job going the other way,” said Cora. “It seems like as a team they do a good job. That was a good game plan and he wasn’t as sharp today.”
For two of the Sox’ lefthanded pitchers, a lack of sharpness meant disastrous outings. And in that development came a reminder: The Yankees — and, for that matter, the other American League teams that are already counting down their magic numbers to clinching playoff berths (Houston and Cleveland) — have been outstanding this year against lefties.
And so, in the wake of the series, it seems worth asking: Do the Red Sox have the right rotation mix to try to navigate the playoff field? While the group has been a strength throughout the regular season, will it remain so in October?
As currently constituted, it seems likely that the Red Sox would feature a postseason rotation of Sale, Price, Rick Porcello, and Rodriguez. That’s subject to change, of course, and there’s certainly a chance that Steven Wright could get healthy and reassert himself as one of the team’s top four starters. But the greater likelihood is that with their current roster, the Sox would rely on three lefthanded starters in the postseason.
That recipe can be successful. Last year, the Dodgers got to Game 7 of the World Series against Cora’s Astros with three lefthanded starters (Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Alex Wood), and won three of their five games with righties on the hill. Moreover, Rodriguez and Price have shown an ability to excel against elite teams.
Even so, the potential AL playoff lineups feature a plethora of righthanded mashers, raising the question of whether the Sox may want to explore the possibility of adding a righthanded starter. The likelier path after the addition last week of Steve Pearce is that the team adds to its bullpen — with some executives anticipating a repeat of last year’s market, in which rental relievers such as Addison Reed could be acquired at the deadline without giving up any top prospects.
But as president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski noted on Saturday, the Sox will be adding to their relief mix with at least one current starter for the postseason. Both Drew Pomeranz and Rodriguez can give the Sox lefthanded relief options down the stretch or in the postseason. That process would be facilitated further if the Sox add another righthanded starter.
The Red Sox’ thinned farm system, of course, makes it unclear whether such a trade would be possible. But in a market that promises to be loaded with sellers and limited in buyers, the cost of adding players — particularly rentals — via trade could be unusually low.
Last year, for instance, rental starter Jaime Garcia was traded twice for little prospect return. Rental righthander Jeremy Hellickson didn’t require any meaningful prospect return. There are rentals this year who are likely to move for similarly modest cost.
Twins righthander Lance Lynn — a pitcher with plenty of postseason experience from his years with the Cardinals — had an awful outing Sunday (1⅔ innings, 7 runs, 3 homers) on a day when the ball was flying out of Wrigley Field, but he had a 2.40 ERA in his seven previous starts while holding righties to a .205/.286/.284 line. Amidst a one-year, $12 million deal, he is likely to fetch a very modest return if the Red Sox are willing to absorb much of his remaining contract.
(To do so, they’d almost certainly have to go past the $237 million highest tier of the luxury tax threshold, something that would cost them 10 slots with their top pick in the 2019 draft. But Dombrowski said that such spending won’t be “a deterrent” to the team’s quest for upgrades.)
Padres righthander Tyson Ross (5-6, 3.78 ERA) has been dominant against righties, holding them to a .163/.246/.293 mark. While those numbers seem intriguing as a possible basis for handling potential AL playoff opponents, his marks against lefties (.291/.368/.487) offer caution.
It’s unclear how much of an upgrade pitchers like Lynn or Ross could offer a Red Sox playoff rotation relative to the team’s current inventory. But, at the very least, the weekend in the Bronx offered a reminder that the Red Sox should remain flexible in their approach to the trade market as they identify ways to improve, and that the needs that appear to exist at one moment might not be the same ones that will define how they stack up against their foremost postseason competition down the road.
|vs. RH starters||vs. LH starters|
|Yankees||34-21 (.618)||20-6 (.769)|
|Indians||30-29 (.508)||15-8 (.652)|
|Astros||37-17 (.685)||18-14 (.563)*|
|Mariners||39-19 (.672)||15-12 (.556)|
|Red Sox||44-19 (.698)||12-10 (.545)|