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September 20, 2004

"They're better and it's not even all that close"
by Larry Mahnken

When the Red Sox were super-hot a couple of weeks back, some Sox fans tried to read more into their hot streak than was really there. These were the real Red Sox, not the team that had played .500 from May 1st to August 6th. They hadn't made up 8½ games in 24 days because they had been hot while the Yankees were playing .500, they did it because they were better -- "and it's not even all that close", in the words of a Sox fan reader and fellow blogger.

The Red Sox have a better Pythagorean Record than the Yankees this year, a much, much better record. Going into this past weekend, the Red Sox's Pythagorean Record was 9½ games better than New York's. Head to head, the Red Sox were 8-5 against the Yankees coming into the weekend.

So they're clearly better than the Yankees, right?

No, not clearly. For one, the head-to-head record between the Yankees and Red Sox is misleading, as the Sox caught the Yankees in April when they were hot and the Yankees were cold, and won 6 of 7. Since then, the Yankees are 6-3 against the Red Sox. There have been several close games in the season series which could have gone either way, and anything more than a quick glance at the overall series would tell one that these teams are very evenly matched.

They're so evenly matched, in fact, that their best starters haven't been enough to win games for them. For the Yankees, in games started by Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown or Javier Vazquez, they're 2-5, while the Red Sox are 2-3 in games started by Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. Even odder, the Yankees are 3-0 in Jon Lieber's starts, the Red Sox are 4-0 in Bronson Arroyo's starts. What I'd draw from all that is that both of these teams can win any time they go out there against any pitcher thrown out there. They're evenly matched.

But Boston still has the Pythagorean advangtage, a run differential 61 runs greater than the Yankees, an expected record 6½ games better. But Pythagorean Record is a tool, and a blunt one at that. Pythagorean Record correlates exceptionally well with winning, but that doesn't mean it's a better indication of a team's quality than their actual winning percentage. A team that's overperformed or underperformed their Pythagorean Record may be lucky, but they aren't necessarily lucky, becuase there are other reasons that could explain that result.

The number of runs a team scores and allows reflects the participation of their entire roster, including players who are no longer with the team, or who no longer play a meaningful role with them. The runs given up by your mop-up pitcher count every bit as much as the runs given up by your starting pitcher, the runs given up by your fifth starter count as much as runs given up by the first starter. But you don't measure the quality of a team by their mop-up relievers or fifth starters.

It's been pointed out that the Yankees have two bullpens, the one that pitches in close, winnable games, and the one that pitches in games that are out of reach one way or the other. The bullpen that comes in when the game is out of reach sometimes puts it even more out of reach, giving up meaningless runs that count just as much as the meaningful ones. When they come in with a big lead, they sometimes make that lead much smaller, and the good bullpen comes in and shuts down the rally. It leads to wins, but close wins.

Thus the Yankees' 44-21 record in games decided by 2 or fewer runs. You usually expect teams to play around .500 in games like that, like Boston has, but the Yankees have had some blowout games turn into close ones because of their bad pen, and some close losses turn into blowouts because of it. And QuanGorMo has helped the Yankees do better in normal close games.

All this doesn't necessarily add up to the Yankees being better than the Red Sox. The Red Sox may well be better, and they certainly aren't really that .500 team, but after getting crushed in back-to-back games, one thing is for sure -- it's close.

* * *

Mike Mussina's September ERA is 1.20, Orlando Hernandez's is 1.88, Jon Lieber's is 2.96. They gave up a combined 5 runs to the Red Sox this weekend.

Next person to complain about the Yankees' rotation gets a punch in the face.