Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Sept. 4, 2018 – Source: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox do not play until Friday, and it is Tuesday, so my focus is being redirected towards the elimination games that will be happening starting tonight. Wednesday’s AL Wild Card game has huge ramifications for Boston, as it will determine who they play in the ALDS.
It will either be the New York Yankees or the Oakland Athletics, finishing with 100 and 97 wins respectively. Either team will pose a challenge but which would be more formidable? The Red Sox vs. Yankees postseason narrative would be lots of fun but would it be the path of least resistance?
To answer this, we need to look deeper into the squads’ 2018 season and present roster construction.
While standings are a point of reference, they do not reveal the whole story. Win-loss record can be flukey, influenced by randomness. Over at Fangraphs, BaseRuns strips out this volatile sequencing and arrives at what a team’s record should be. According to this, New York should have been a 97-65 club and the Athletics a 95-67 one. This is so close it feels like we are splitting hairs, especially because the bulk of Oakland’s success came in the second half.
Second half results, while still victim of small sample, matter more because they are more recent. Obviously, the first half A’s are not the same as the second half ones. They have made additions and subtractions. Ditto New York. Since I can’t retrieve second-half BaseRuns records, regular win-loss records will have to suffice. Of course, keep the obvious caveat in mind.
Post All Star Break, the Yankees went 38-29 while the Athletics went 42-23. This does not tell us much because this does not factor elements of luck, strength of schedule, etc. Their records are simply too close to make any sweeping declarations, although subjectively it feels like the A’s have played slightly better.
Anyway, it would probably be helpful to breakdown the facets of each team: their position players, starting pitchers and relief pitchers.
In terms of offense, they are strikingly similar. The Yankees finished the season with a tied league-best 111 wRC+, narrowly ahead of the Athletics at 110. Oakland had a subtle amazing season with the sticks. Moreover, the A’s position players actually accumulated more fWAR than the Yankees (and the Red Sox). They finished with a 31.0 position player fWAR mark, second in the bigs to only the Los Angeles Dodgers. Meanwhile, the Yanks placed fourth with a 29.4 fWAR. Again, they did not lag very far behind and one needs to tread lightly with such a small gap in fWAR.
The reason the A’s reign supreme in this category, however, is because of their defensive advantage over the Yankees. Let’s call it the Matt Chapman effect. The team’s UZR and DRS were 36.7 and 25 respectively. New York, on the other hand, finished with a lowly 0.1 UZR and 6 DRS in 2018. Oakland was irrefutably the better defensive team and split hairs with the Yanks on offense. New York, though, seemed to have been the definitively better baserunning team.
All told, it appears Oakland’s position players may slightly edge New York’s. At the very least, it is wash. Although, a healthy Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez (?) may teeter this conversation in another direction.
Moving to the bullpen, New York fielded the better group even though both are vaunted. Yankees relievers posted a 3.38 ERA and 3.33 FIP, translating into a 9.7 fWAR. Their Wild Card opponents put up a 3.37 ERA and 3.91 FIP, which was good for a 5.7 fWAR. This conversation does not stop and end there but it comes pretty dang close. For one, the Athletics actually have a better bullpen ERA than the Yanks. FIP is more predictive but one has to be cognizant the green and gold squad received two of their best relievers in Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia in the second half. They’re a much better group than they were in the first half.
Still, it seems pretty evident New York gets the advantage in the ‘pen. Considering Oakland’s leg up in position players, they are about equal after reviewing two of three facets. The comparison of rotations is where the answer lies.
Yankees starters accumulated a 4.05 ERA, 3.84 FIP and 16.9 fWAR in 861.2 innings.
Athletics starters accumulated a 4.17 ERA, 4.39 FIP and 8.9 fWAR in 824 innings.
It is not even close, as the Yankees rotation is vastly superior to the Athletics. This should make intuitive sense when one is thinking about the composition of them.
For all the negative publicity the Yankees have received for their rotation early on, the group finished with the fifth-best fWAR in baseball. Boston finished sixth.
Looking at those playoff rotation objectively, though, the Yankees are definitively more imposing.
With the team’s position players and bullpens being so close, the stark gap between the club’s starting pitchers is the X-factor. New York is the better ball club, even if it is closer on paper than one may think.
Many want to see a Yankees vs. Red Sox ALDS. It is the rivalry and would be incredibly exciting. With that said, Boston has a better chance of winning the World Series if Oakland manages to win the Wild Card game. Do you want more compelling television or an easier path to the World Series? That comes down to the individual.