The Boston Red Sox’ arch rivals the New York Yankees acquired possibly the best reliever in baseball, but what does this mean for the Red Sox in 2016?
Warning Red Sox Nation – the New York Yankees have made an offseason acquisition likely to make their team better (one may argue it would be difficult to do the opposite) and suddenly your offseason morale has plummeted to Earth like Hanley Ramirez’s helmet with each hulking swing. Your gut reaction is disgust, dejection, disbelief, truly only the Yankees could inspire this gamut of emotions in the hearts and minds of fans of the last place Boston Red Sox.
Let’s step back for a minute though. The Yankees got Aroldis Chapman, you may have heard of him, from the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for 4 prospects whose names I won’t list as you won’t remember them and may well not have to. The deal, considered a steal by today’s going rate, gives New York one year control of one of best relievers in baseball. Chapman brings with him a 104 MPH fastball, 94 MPH changeup and ongoing criminal investigations into alleged domestic abuse.
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The move comes as a surprise not only due to Chapman’s questionable activities off the mound, though it’s debatable whether the Yankees actually care, but that they even were interested enough in the first place. The Yankees, of course, already have two elite relievers in the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. Miller sat pretty with a FIP of 2.16 alongside an obscene strikeout rate of 41% last year. Meanwhile, Betances was no slouch, with an FIP of 2.48 and strikeout rate of 40%. Both are easily in the top 5 relievers in baseball today and any team would be delighted to have either, never mind both.
So it comes as a surprise that, already having a lights out bullpen, the Yankees would choose to target Chapman, bargain or not. Still, couldn’t hurt to toss his 1.94 FIP and 42% strikeout rate, second best in the Majors last year, to the mix. What this means is New York can lean less on their starters, say 6-7 innings and let the revolving relief door show the opponents the way out.
Such a strategy, as we’ve discussed before, worked well with the current World Series champions, the Kansas City Royals. No aces, indeed only league average or below pitchers in the rotation, but a lights out bullpen and a solid group of positional plays with an uncanny knack for making contact. We speculated before that many teams would try to replicate the Royals’ success by following a similar pattern over the offseason and that has certainly shown itself to be the case.
The offseason kicked off with the Red Sox acquiring elite closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres. From there the competition for top young relievers has been sky high, with a King’s ransom being demanded in return, such as the Philadelphia Phillies demanded and received for Ken Giles from the Houston Astros. Much of this can be attributed to Kansas City’s fortune, but in many ways this only tells part of the story.
In New York’s case, little improvements have been made to the order, aside from the expectation of a revitalized Mark Teixeira. While Kansas City may indeed have seen success from their automatic bullpen, the other key ingredient of top of the order and reliably consistent bats aren’t exactly as prevalent in the current Yankees’ lineup. Their lineup is filled with sporadic contributors who blow hot and cold faster than an Aroldis Chapman fastball. Not only that, but defensively they rank among the lowest teams in the American League, with only four positional players achieving over 2.0 WAR in 2015 and only 1 managing (and only just) over 3.0 WAR. Mookie Betts, for comparison, was worth 4.8 WAR in 2015 and, being only 23, is projected to get better. The Yankees will undoubtedly see drop offs as their agey lineup gets agey-er.
That’s not to say Chapman won’t make a difference, or that New York’s new look bullpen doesn’t terrify me. Red Sox hitters are a mere 15 for 199, or .126 AVG against Chapman/Miller/Betances in their careers, which is both worrying and entirely unsurprising. They officially have the best back-end relief in baseball and that’s only going to be an asset for them. With a rotation that carries many question marks, the requirement for only a mere 6 innings is a godsend and should keep them in contention, if they weren’t already there.
How do the Red Sox counter this? Hit hard, hit early. Get to the Yankee starter and turn to their own, now lights-out, bullpen to close the door. Boston’s relief pitching lineup is not to be found wanting. Indeed, Red Sox President of Baseball Ops pursued Chapman originally, however with the emergence of details of criminal investigations and the ridiculous price demanded for what would amount to being only a year’s rental, turned his attention to Kimbrel.
Kimbrel is elite in every sense of the word, with his own 100 MPH fastball, 40%+ strikeout rate and pedigree for success. Not only that, but with the addition of Carson Smith and the still deadly Koji Uehara, Boston shouldn’t feel they’ve missed the boat. Indeed, while the Yankees have hit collectively .214 against the three, this is mostly brought up by Uehara’s struggles in 2014. In 2014, Yankees sluggers hit Uehara about for a .250 AVG, along with going yard some three times. To contrast, in 2013 Uehara held the Yankees to a .073 AVG and gave up three homers to all teams for the entire season.
In the end, the Yankees have got better, but I don’t feel this damages the Red Sox hopes for contention in 2016 any further. If anything, it should make for a more enjoyable experience. What could be more fun than having the most hateful team in baseball add another hateful player to their line? Between Alex Rodriguez’s PED use and Chapman’s domestic abuse, there’ll be plenty to shout about when the two teams clash. Between now and then though, let’s just hope this is the end of the Yankees maneuvers.