Rivals in Exile: Great Expectations

Back when The Hardball Times started up, Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken were twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, N.Y., and the similarities pretty much ended there.

Well, now Ben follows the Red Sox from Florida and Larry follows the Yankees from Pennsylvania, but they’re still just as passionate about their teams. Ben and Larry haven’t traded barbs about the Yankees and Red Sox in over a year, but now they’re back.

Larry Mahnken: In 1997, the Baltimore Orioles finished with the best record in the American League and finished two games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East.

The next year, the Yankees won 114 games, and the Red Sox finished second. In 1999, the Yankees finished first, the Red Sox second. 2000, Yankees first, Red Sox second. 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004—Yankees first, Red Sox second. Last year they finished with the same record, but by league rules, at least, once again it was Yankees first, Red Sox second.

And usually there hasn’t been much competition for second place during that run. When there was it was because Boston had slipped back, not because someone had stepped forward. This year, it’s different. Neither the Yankees or Red Sox are nearly the best team in the league, and finally there’s a team nipping at their heels: the Blue Jays.

Before the season started I wouldn’t have predicted this. Sure, I could see that the Blue Jays had improved, and their 2005 run differential was nearly as good as both New York and Boston’s. But the Yankees looked like they’d have better results out of their pitchers, and had shored up their biggest weakness by signing Johnny Damon away from the Red Sox to play center field. It was this move that led me to predict to anyone who would listen that the Yankees would win the AL East easily.

Well, bold predictions always give bold results—you either look like a genius or a moron, and I’m looking a bit moronic at this point. Sure, the Yankees could still win the division and win it easily. And while I expected injuries, nobody could have predicted the disaster in the outfield, with Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui out at least until September, and perhaps the whole season, with wrist injuries.

But that happens. It’s happened before, and the Yankees have survived. Jason Giambi was pretty much done for the year in 2004 when he was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor, but they came within two outs of the pennant. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Nick Johnson and Giambi all missed significant time in 2003 and they did win the pennant.

But while the Yankees are sticking around the top of the East so far this year, that’s more because of what Boston hasn’t been able to do than what the Yankees have done. The Yankees aren’t nearly as good as I would have expected them to be, even considering the injuries, because some players haven’t been doing what I expected them to do.

Alex Rodriguez was the MVP last year and practically carried the team down the stretch, as they caught Boston to win the East. This, year he’s posting the second-lowest OPS of his career, more than 150 points lower than last season, and has struggled terribly lately. His performance is similar to 2004, when they got by OK, but without Sheffield and Matsui they need more from him. A lot more.

I was hoping that Williams could rebound from an awful 2005 playing more time at DH—nothing spectacular but at least not horrible. Well, he’s been stuck playing the field lately, and while his numbers from the right side are pretty good in a very small number of PAs, his overall numbers—which is, after all, what counts—are really worse than last year’s. I love Bernie, but he’s not helping this team at all. I’d rather put Kevin Thompson out there every day and hope he can hit some.
Shawn Chacon was the ace of the staff after coming over from Colorado last year. I’d be crazy to expect that again, but he’s been worse than he was in Colorado so far. He’s a big curveball pitcher, the kind that gets killed in high altitude, but so far this year he’s walking guys and giving up homers, like he was still in Denver. I would have thought he’d been average, but so far, no such luck.

But the biggest disappointment on the team by far has been Randy Johnson. We started to see signs of age last year, before he turned it on and started blowing everyone away, but Johnson seems to have lost it now. He was great in his first two starts, and cruising against the Royals in his third, when suddenly everything went south. Since “hitting the wall” against the Royals, he’s given up more than 7 runs per 9 innings. That’s not ineffective, or bad, or even replacement-level. That’s pure worthlessness. The Yankees could bring up almost anyone from the minors and they’d pitch better than that, and for what they’re getting from Johnson, they’re paying over $15 million.

Is Johnson done? Well, he’s still got a good fastball, though not as fast as it used to be. He’s not wild, but his control isn’t nearly as good as it used to be. His slider isn’t worthless, but it’s not as deadly as it used to be. Every now and then he’s good, when the fastball is hitting spots and the slider isn’t ending up in the zone, but too often he’s not remotely close to having a shot at looking good.

He can be salvaged. He’ll never, ever, ever be “Randy Johnson, Greatest Pitcher In Baseball” again, but if he were to utilize a changeup more often he’s got good enough stuff to be “Randy Johnson, Good Starter” again. Maybe he should spend some time talking to Mike Mussina.

Forget A-Rod, Bernie and Chacon, forget the injuries to Sheffield and Matsui. Forget every little thing that’s gone wrong. If Randy Johnson had a 3.50 ERA the Yankees would have a five-game lead in the East, and could probably start making plans for October—and with the way Mike Mussina’s pitched, they could be pretty optimistic about how things might go then. For me, that’s the biggest letdown so far.

Ben Jacobs: There’s no doubt that Johnson is the single biggest underachiever on either team, but if Josh Beckett and Matt Clement had a combined 4.25 ERA—not an unreasonable request, considering they combined for a 3.98 ERA last year—the Red Sox might be five games up in the East.

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Clement was a mild disappointment last year when he had a 4.57 ERA, mostly because he was 9-1 with a 3.33 ERA at the end of June before he struggled the entire second half of the season. Those struggles have continued this year, as he’s working on an ERA that’s 1.5 runs higher than the previous worst of his career.

But while Clement is a major problem this year, not many Red Sox fans ever trusted him anyway. Beckett is a more perplexing situation, because he was supposed to come over and give the Red Sox a second ace (or a replacement ace if Curt Schilling couldn’t bounce back from last year’s struggles). The Red Sox were even willing to take on the unwieldy contract of Mike Lowell in order to acquire Beckett.

Instead of Beckett being a boon and Lowell a millstone, Lowell hasn’t been that much less productive than A-Rod, while Beckett has an ugly 5.13 ERA. The biggest problem for Beckett has been home runs. He’s already allowed more homers this year than either of the last two years. despite pitching 98 fewer innings so far than last year and 76 fewer innings than in 2004.

I don’t know if it’s just the change from a good pitcher’s park in a league without the DH to a hitter’s park in a league with the DH, or if there’s something more seriously wrong with Beckett. The strange thing is that he’s frequently fine, with seven quality starts out of 14 trips to the mound. In the other seven starts though, he’s allowed nine runs, eight runs, seven runs and five runs one time each.

Add it all up, and you’ve got a pitcher who’s ERA is at least a run higher than could reasonably have been expected.

The Red Sox have had some disappointing hitters as well, but their impact has not been as severe. Jason Varitek has been underperforming compared to last year, but he’s been pretty hot so far in June. Alex Gonzalez has been slightly more terrible than the Red Sox probably expected, but it’s not like he was going to be a Silver Slugger anyway.

In reality, the Red Sox haven’t been that big a disappointment. Heading into the season, Boston looked like a team that would finish with a win total in the low 90s, but one that could also vary from that projection greatly depending on the health and effectiveness of Schilling and Keith Foulke.

Schilling has been both healthy and effective. Foulke has been neither, but the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon has more than made up for that. And right now, the Red Sox look like a team that should finish with a win total in the low 90s.

I wish I could say that the Red Sox are just as good a team as the Yankees and have also been unlucky to not be on pace for 100-plus wins, but I can’t. The Yankees have been unluckier with established players falling apart, and they’ve been unluckier with injuries. Despite that, the Yankees still have a significantly better run differential than the Red Sox.

So the Red Sox are pretty fortunate to be running neck and neck with the Yankees.

Larry Mahnken: I’ve gotta admit the Yankees have had their share of good luck, too. I’m not really surprised that Jason Giambi’s resurgence has continued, but it really was no sure thing. He’s 35, and even without the steroid scandal and injury problems, I doubt that most analysts would have predicted his OPS would be over 1.000 at this point in his career back when he signed with the Yankees.

Jorge Posada had a down year in ’05, and older catchers usually don’t come back from that. He has. Melky Cabrera’s overall numbers have been poor, but he’s played suprisingly good defense after making several horrible plays in the outfield last year, and his OBP is very good, somewhat mitigating his pathetic SLG—at the very least he keeps the lineup moving along, even if he’s not doing much damage along the way.

But the biggest break they’ve gotten is the resurgence of Mussina. After several nagging injuries limited his effectiveness the past couple of years, it seemed like Mussina was on the downside of his career and would be, at best, a #3 starter from now on. But while Johnson has struggled to perform with diminished stuff, Moose re-invented himself and has been as good as ever—in fact, his numbers are almost exactly the same as they were three seasons ago, when he was the best pitcher on one of the best starting rotations in baseball. He’s a legitimate Cy Young contender, and by the end of the season he may go from a borderline to a probable Hall of Famer.

Chien-Ming Wang has been solid and efficient, Jaret Wright has been less than horrible, but after that the Yankees are groping for starting pitching. If Mussina had just repeated 2004 and 2005 this year, the team would be in major trouble. Does everything balance out? Maybe, but I suppose the injuries push the overall picture back to be unlucky.

OK, it’s not even July yet, so a lot of these performances can turn around. Johnson looked done last year, too, then was dominant down the stretch before a horrible start against the Angels in the ALDS. A-Rod has plenty of time to heat up and post his typical numbers, Shawn Chacon might still turn it around, and Bernie … well, Bernie’s probably done, his recent hot-hitting nonwithstanding. And if Melky doesn’t start hitting with more power he’ll get very few pitches out of the zone to walk on, and unless he starts hitting those strikes hard, his value with disappear completely. Posada will probably tire and his numbers will drop, Giambi could stop hitting, and Mussina could end up with an ERA over four again.

And, of course, there could still be more injuries, and there could be injuries to the Red Sox, too. The Yankees could finish on top of Boston even if nothing else goes their way. But the biggest difference this year is that neither the Yankees or Red Sox are going to run away from the league. The Blue Jays could pass one or both teams, and the Wild Card is going to be tough to win for all three teams. And I certainly didn’t expect that.

Ben Jacobs: The biggest piece of bad luck for Red Sox and Yankees probably doesn’t actually have anything to do with their own performances. The AL Central looked like it would be improved this year, with three or even four quality teams. But I don’t think anybody expected two teams from that division to still be on track for 100-plus wins around the 70-game mark of the season.

The continued excellence of the White Sox and the amazing emergence of the Tigers means that for the wild card to come out of the AL East, two out of the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays will need to heat up significantly and one of the Tigers and White Sox will need to cool off. It could happen, but the longer things stay the way they are, the more likely it is that the AL East won’t have the wild card to fall back on this year.

That’s what makes this year so interesting for these long-time rivals. For the last three seasons, it’s almost been a foregone conclusion that both the Red Sox and Yankees would make the playoffs (although that conclusion almost ended up being wrong last year). This year, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that a postseason without either the Red Sox or the Yankees is perfectly realistic.

We seem to agree that the Yankees were the better team going into the season and they’ve been the more unlucky team over the first 67 games. Now the teams are, if not even, then at least both obviously flawed. It’s going to be interesting to watch the rest of the season and see which team does a better job of fixing and/or hiding its flaws.

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