Rivals in Exile: East Meets West

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both — whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

New York Yankees: 43-24
Boston Red Sox: 39-29

Ben Jacobs: Well, a lot’s happened since the last time we chatted, Larry. It’s Friday night and the Red Sox just won the type of game the Yankees were winning with regularity for awhile. At the same time, the Yankees lost their second straight game. So, while New York’s lead bulged to 5.5 games while I was on vacation, it’s now back to a less-intimidating 3.5 games.

Of course, the standings aren’t the biggest part of what’s happened recently. The Red Sox have gotten a lot of good news, as Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon finally began their seasons (and Scott Williamson also returned from the DL). Some of the best news for me is that Mark Bellhorn’s only missed one game since Nomar returned. With Bellhorn hitting .266/.402/.429, it’s important that the Red Sox keep using him.

With Nomar and Trot back, the Red Sox now have a lineup perhaps even more impressive than last year. Johnny Damon’s been much better than he was last year, Bellhorn’s been better than Todd Walker was, David Ortiz is hitting almost as well as he did last year and Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek have been better than they were last year. We’ll have to see just how well Nomar and Trot hit, but Kevin Millar’s been getting better and the only true weak spot in the lineup is when they use Pokey Reese.

And while the Red Sox lineup has gotten whole, they’ve also received good news on their pitching. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe (despite the walks) have both been excellent in their last two starts and it looks like Curt Schilling will avoid the disabled list. Tim Wakefield has been worrisome recently, but the Red Sox will be very tough with that lineup if Schilling and Martinez are both doing what they’re capable of doing.

Meanwhile, the Yankees have lost Kevin Brown to the disabled list and Mike Mussina had to leave his last start early. It doesn’t sound like Mussina is seriously hurt and Brown might not be on the DL for more than the required two weeks, but the Yankees had problems with depth in their rotation even before those two guys started getting hurt. Also, Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill are still being overworked to a scary degree.

On offense, Jason Giambi just looks bad recently and Hideki Matsui has been in a slump as well. Everybody talks about this stacked Yankees lineup, but the Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored again (although the White Sox are the only team on pace for more than 900 runs).

Obviously, my vacation put me in a good mood and the last two days have me a little giddy, so I’ll try not to get carried away. The Yankees still have to be considered the favorites to win the AL East because they have the lead and both teams are very good, but they’re no more of a sure thing than the Red Sox were when they had a big lead a month and a half ago.

What I’m trying to say, in a very convoluted sort of way, is that I really, really like the way this Red Sox team looks right now. And that’s a nice feeling to have after two months with the nagging thought that a great opportunity could be ruined by injuries.

Larry Mahnken: Another thing to consider when weighing each team’s chances is the remaining schedule, which the Yankees still have a fairly sizable edge on.

I guess being gone for two weeks changes your perspective, Ben. The Red Sox dropped a game in the standings to the Yankees since we last talked, and had dropped three games in five days at the start of this week — but because they gained two of those back in two days, it seems all right. Well, let’s not forget that Boston’s dropped 8 games since they swept the Yankees, and with Yankees playing the Orioles and Mets this week, and the Sox playing the Phillies and Twins, they might drop a couple more before the rematch.

The Yanks did have those two injuries in recent weeks with Brown and Mussina, but it really doesn’t appear to have been a concern. Brown will only miss two starts, Mussina only one, and the Yankees have already won two of those missed starts. Much more of a concern is their bullpen–and not the heavily worked back end of it. With Gabe White traded back to Cincy for minor leaguers, the only lefty the Yankees have left in their pen is Felix “The Run Fairy™” Heredia. Brad Halsey, the 23-year old lefty who started for the Yanks Saturday, might be able to become a situational lefty, but if he can’t — or the Yankees won’t use him — then they’ll have to make a trade.

Giambi and Matsui are slumping, but Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter are on fire. Do you think Jeter’s out of his slump yet, Ben? His average is up to .255, his GPA is around average for a shortstop again. And Bernie’s proven there’s still life left in his bat. He’s batting over .350 since mid-May, he’s got a .382 GPA in June. Slumps happen, but the Yankees always seem to match the slump with a hot streak. With the good news about Mussina and Brown, and first place in the division, I ain’t got no worries.

BJ: Well, Saturday certainly dampened my enthusiasm, and Sunday doesn’t look any better with Bronson Arroyo taking on Jason Schmidt (talk about a mismatch…), but I’m still feeling good about the Red Sox.

You continue to point out that the Yankees should have an easier schedule the rest of the way, but you continue to ignore something else: the Yankees are lucky to have 43 wins. In fact, the Red Sox have played about half a game better, fundamentally, than the Yankees thus far.

I know you’re a believer in Pythagorean Records and while the Red Sox trail the Yankees by 4.5 games in the standings, they’ve scored seven more runs and allowed just four more runs than the Yankees have this season. The Red Sox have outplayed their Pythagorean Record by a game, while the Yankees have outplayed theirs by six games.

What’s more, the Yankees have scored about as many runs as they should have scored based on their component statistics, but the Red Sox have under performed on offense by at least 20 runs. That’s largely because the Red Sox have hit .274/.359/.453 overall, but just .213/.267/.315 in 89 at-bats with the bases loaded. There’s no reason to expect a player with a .275 GPA to have a .199 GPA with the bases loaded, and there’s no reason to expect a team to either.

So, while the Yankees can expect to benefit from an easier schedule the rest of the way, they can’t expect to continue to benefit from superior luck the rest of the way (it might still happen, but it can’t be expected). If they Yankees start having bad luck and the Red Sox start having the luck the Yankees have had, then the easier schedule might not be enough to help New York.

For now, however, I don’t want to put too much weight on that. I’m content just saying that both the Red Sox and Yankees have good teams, both the Red Sox and Yankees are going to make the playoffs, and the Red Sox still have a decent shot at winning the AL East.

And yes, Jeter’s out of his slump, now leave me alone about that. He still doesn’t deserve to be the starting shortstop for the AL All-Star team any more than Nomar did. Of course, Giambi probably won’t deserve to be the starting first baseman either…

LM: Like anyone cares about who starts the All-Star Game. Home Field Advantage sure helped the Yankees in the World Series, didn’t it?

Anyway, you misinterpret my feelings on Pythagorean Percentage–just because a team is playing above or below their Pythag. doesn’t mean they’re lucky or unlucky, it means that they’re winning more or fewer games than that formula projects.

Good luck is when events out of your control go in your favor, not when you win more often than your runs scored and allowed would suggest. You can win with bad luck, you can lose with good luck.

If you outplay a team, but because of bad calls by the umpires, or maybe a bad bounce, or fan interference–whatever–you don’t score as many runs as you could, and maybe give up some runs that you shouldn’t, you’ve been unlucky. But you end up winning the game by one run. Say the same sort of things happen again the next day, you win by one run again. You won two one-run games, but not because you were lucky–bad luck made them one run games.

Pythagorean Percentage also doesn’t account for how your runs are distributed either–the tenth run you score is nowhere near as important as the third run, unless your pitching stinks that night. And how many runs you score against another team’s mopup pitchers are not as indicative of your offensive prowess as how you do against the more important starters and relievers. And if the Yankees blow out the Orioles this week, does that suddenly mean they played better in all the games before this last one?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Pythagorean Percentage is worthless, but it’s most important contribution to the discussion is that it demonstrated that runs and wins were directly related to each other. But don’t interpret it as something it’s not. Boston’s been below their Pythagorean Projection for years, their “luck” hasn’t turned around yet.

Runs Created–which accounts for Clutch Hitting–without the Park Adjustments, puts the Yankees’ offense right where it is–361 runs through Saturday–and Boston is only 12 runs below their projection, not the 20 you suggest. Adjust for Park Factors, and New York’s lineup has performed better than Boston’s.

Hey, the Sox are great, no doubt, and adding two All-Star caliber players makes them almost as good as the Yanks, but the games past are past, and the wins count just the same. The Yankees, don’t forget, played two months without Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams hitting a lick–now both are hitting the ball like it was the late 90′s. That they got all those wins without those two bodes well for the rest of the way.

Don’t cling to the hope that because the Yankees may have had good luck and Boston may have had bad luck, that it’ll flip-flop the rest of the way–you know it doesn’t work like that. The expectation should be that they’ll both have normal luck, but the Yankees have just as good a chance to have good luck the rest of the year as Boston does.

Speaking of luck, the Dodgers got a little bit lucky last night, getting a gift from Hideki Matsui and the home plate umpire, though it’s no sure thing, or even necessarily a likely thing, that the Yankees would have won–Giambi might never have hit a homer in the ninth if the score was 4-3. Still, Boston lost two of three to the Giants too, and the Yanks end the first round of interleague play 4½ up. Moose comes back Tuesday, Brown is back next weekend. Boston better turn it around quick, or that series in two weeks might just become a must-sweep.

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