For the Red Sox and their followers, the playoffs obviously are a time to evaluate. And so as both League Championship Series begin this weekend in Philadelphia and in Texas, the obvious focus here in Boston should be on Cliff Lee.
Acquired by the Texas Rangers during the season, Lee will not pitch until Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees. Maybe that is just as well. Lee is a free agent after the season and most everyone believes that he will end up in New York. In the interim, if the Rangers are to defeat the Yankees, they would seem far better served to pitch Lee and lefthander C.J. Wilson at Yankee Stadium, which is precisely how their pitching currently lines up.
All of which brings us to the Red Sox and the impact that Lee could have on the American League East for years to come.
Consider: since moving into the new Yankee Stadium for the start of the 2009 season, the Yankees have played 162 games at home and 162 games on the road, the equivalent of a full season of each. At home, they are 109-53. On the road, they are 89-73. The obvious inference is that the Yankees are world-beaters on their own field and a borderline playoff team most anywhere else, which prompts an investigation into that most distinguishing area of the new Yankee Stadium.
That would be the joke that is right field.
Examined in greater detail, the numbers further support this argument. In terms of runs allowed by the Yankees over the last two years, the numbers are almost identical at home (725) and on the road (721). But examine the number of runs the Yankees have scored – 933 at home, 841 on the road – and you quickly come to understand the impact their new ballpark has had on the Yankees’ success.
Simply put, over the last two years, the Yankees have had more quality lefthanded pitching (C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte) and lefthanded or switch-hitting batters (Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher) than most anyone else. In the case of the former, they can neutralize the quality lefthanded batters on other teams. In the case of the latter, they can pummel inferior righthanded pitching by hitting popups into those laughable right field stands.
And while this was obviously true at the old Yankee Stadium, too, the new ballpark in the Bronx has taken the absurdity of Yankee Stadium and the challenge of playing against the Yankees to entirely new levels.
On the entire Yankees roster, nobody better exemplifies this than Swisher, who had a good year all the way around. Still, of the 15 home runs Swisher hit against righthanded pitching this season, 13 of them came at Yankee Stadium, where he had an OPS of .906. Against lefties in New York – that is, when he batted from the right side - Swisher hit .264 with two homers and an OPS of .748. The point? This year, the moment Nick Swisher moves from the righthanded batter’s box to the lefthanded box at Yankee Stadium, he turned from someone like, say, Jeff Keppinger (.744 OPS) into someone like say, Cano (.914 OPS).
Of course, Swisher was not the only player affected. As a team, at home, the Yankees had an .848 OPS against righthanded pitching this season, a .799 OPS against lefties. Both numbers are good, largely because the righthanded and switch-hitting power hitters on the Yankees roster (Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira) could hit the ball out of the Grand Canyon. Just as Theo Epstein has built the Red Sox to fit Fenway Park, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has done the same in New York – righties with great power, lefties with good power - where the Yankees now have one of the great home field advantages in baseball.
And yes, the pitchers benefit, too, no matter how good they already are. During his career in New York, C.C. Sabathia is 18-4 with a 3.08 ERA at Yankee Stadium, 22-11 with a 3.43 ERA on the road. He’s good everywhere. But in New York, with that offense and given his ability to neutralize lefthanded batters, Sabathia is borderline unbeatable.
For example: since Sabathia arrived in New York, in games played at Yankee Stadium, lefthanded hitters on the Red Sox are 3 for 28 against him with 13 strikeouts. That’s a .107 average. None of those three hits were for extra-bases. Against Sabathia in New York, J.D. Drew and David Ortiz might as well stay at the hotel while the Yankees hit popups into the right-field stands against a rotation that currently features 80 percent righthanders.
Thank heavens for Jon Lester, eh? In two games at Yankee Stadium this season, the left-handed batters in New York’s lineup went 0 for 10 against Lester. The Red Sox won both games. Over the last three seasons, the Yankees lefties have hit .135 against Lester in New York, a period during which the Sox have gone 4-3.
Do the math. At home, over the last two years, the Yankees have won 67.3 percent of the time. But a guy like Lester pitches against them and the number drops to 42.9 percent. Such is the benefit of being able to throw a good lefty against the Yankees in their new shoebox of a home.
All of that provides a long, circuitous route back to Lee, who is the best free agent talent available on the market this winter. His teams have never lost a postseason game he has started, Lee posting numbers that nearly mirror those of Sandy Koufax, who made seven postseason starts in his career. No one is suggesting that Lee isKoufax, but rather that his performance has been beyond historic. In the recently completed five-game series against Tampa, Rays lefties (a group consisting primarily of Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford) went 1 for 16 against him with seven strikeouts.
So what happens if Lee ends up on the Yankees? It means that New York would have a rotation built around Sabathia and Lee for years to come, which would almost certainly spell doom for any team heading into New York. It’s the kind of tandem that cannot help but make you wonder if there is a way, any way, for the Red Sox to thwart the plan. The Red Sox have obvious needs in the middle of their lineup and their bullpen this offseason, and those cannot be ignored. But if the Sox could somehow create space in their rotation by trading either Daisuke Matsuzaka or, perhaps, Josh Beckett, must they not explore it?
After all, the Yankees aren’t building a new stadium anytime soon.
And if you’re going to beat them, you need more people like Jon Lester. And Cliff Lee.
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