Breaking down Yankees-Red Sox by position

October 5th, 2021

Way back on the morning of Oct. 2, 1978, in a position-by-position preview of the Yankees-Red Sox American League East tiebreaker game, we published the following analysis:

Shortstop: Rick Burleson was an All-Star for the second straight season and serves an important role as Boston’s leadoff man. But Bucky Dent, despite an uninspiring .317 slugging percentage, is the player most likely to hit a game-changing three-run home run over the Green Monster. Advantage: Yankees

Yes, for more than 40 years, this website has been the leader in postseason positional analysis. You can look it up. (Note: Please don’t look it up.)

And here we are again, breaking down a winner-take-all tilt between baseball’s most bitter rivals.

We have scoured the rosters of the Red Sox and Yankees in advance of Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Game at Fenway Park and couldn’t find Bucky “Bleeping” Dent anywhere. So we’ll have to put on our thinking caps to assess how these two 92-win clubs stack up at each spot. Obviously, the game -- especially being just one game -- is dynamic and unpredictable. But the goal is to inspire fun debate and discussion and, hopefully, come out as correctly as we did in ’78 (again, please, please don’t look it up).


Gerrit Cole’s go-to batterymate is Kyle Higashioka, and the catcher's defense as well as the comfort factor between the pitcher and catcher are important. Higgy’s .181/.246/.389 slash (including a .502 OPS in the final month) is not heartening, but he has been worth plus-5 defensive runs saved, ranking 13th in the Majors among those with at least 500 innings caught.

Boston will also likely prioritize the pitcher-catcher relationship by using backup Kevin Plawecki, who works well with Nathan Eovaldi. The veteran Plawecki had a solid .349 on-base percentage in a limited role this year, but he was worth minus-3 defensive runs saved. Because neither of these players is an offensive superstar, we’ll put added weight on defense here.

Slight advantage: Yankees

First base

With J.D. Martinez unable to play because of an ankle injury, it will be Kyle Schwarber or Bobby Dalbec here for Boston, as Schwarber could potentially replace Martinez at DH. Both Schwarber and Dalbec boosted Boston offensively in the second half -- Dalbec with a .270/.345/.615 slash, Schwarber with a .291/.435/.522 slash.

But in Anthony Rizzo, the Yankees have an October-tested veteran known to put up tough at-bats. He was by no means an overpowering offensive addition for the Yanks (.247/.337/.429), but the separator here is his trustworthiness on the defensive end, which could really come into play in a game like this. Rizzo’s 6 outs above average tied for second in MLB among qualified first basemen, whereas Dalbec’s minus-6 mark ranked last and Schwarber’s minus-4 was also near the bottom. (And for what it’s worth, Rizzo is 5-for-9 with three doubles in his career against Eovaldi.)

Advantage: Yankees

Second base

The Red Sox are in the weird spot of not being able to play one of their biggest late-season catalysts -- José Iglesias -- in the postseason because they acquired him too late for him to qualify. Manager Alex Cora said he’s leaning toward Christian Arroyo here. Arroyo has had a solid season but it has consistently been interrupted by injury and by his stint on the COVID-19 list. He’s had just five at-bats in the last five weeks.

Gleyber Torres’ struggles have been well-documented. But he did begin to turn things around just prior to a shift from shortstop to second base. He had an .841 OPS in the season’s last three weeks. Because of the Arroyo rust factor, we’ll side with the embattled Torres here.

Slight advantage: Yankees


In a perfect world, the Yankees would have been able to leave Gio Urshela alone at third base instead of shifting him to short, but Torres’ struggles necessitated a revised infield. Urshela had a down offensive year, with an OPS+ (97) just shy of league average.

Xander Bogaerts’ 5-for-32 funk amidst the final playoff push generated headlines, but the bottom line is that he’s on the short list of the best shortstops in the sport, with a typically terrific .295/.370/.493 slash line and 23 home runs this season.

Advantage: Red Sox

Third base

DJ LeMahieu’s difficult 2021 regular season ended with a hernia injury, and that further alters the left-hand side of the Yankees’ infield. Rougned Odor could start here, or Urshela could shift back over with Andrew Velazquez at short. Tyler Wade’s also in the mix. In any event, it’s a sub-optimal situation for the Yankees.

Rafael Devers, on the other hand, built on his budding reputation as one of the game’s young stars. He came up clutch with the go-ahead homer in the ninth inning Sunday to seal this Wild Card date, punctuating a season in which his .890 OPS was third in the Majors among qualified third basemen.

Advantage: Red Sox

Left field

Alex Verdugo has been basically a league-average bat in his second season in Boston, but his .317/.389/.497 slash line against right-handers is an important attribute in this particular matchup. He has three extra-base hits in 14 career at-bats against Cole. A benefit of starting Arroyo at second and Kiké Hernández in center is it allows Verdugo to play in left, where his defensive profile is better than it is in center.

Joey Gallo can absolutely batter baseballs, and therefore is always one swing away from breaking a game open. But that comes with a lot of swing and miss, as the Yanks have seen since acquiring him midseason. He’s hit .161 with the Yanks.

Advantage: Red Sox

Center field

Hernández is an excellent and versatile defender. His seven outs above average are tied for eighth among center fielders. He’s had a solid season at the plate (.250/.338/.451) and has a long and mostly productive track record in October.

At 38 years old, Brett Gardner has seen his offensive production diminish, though he did have a respectable .266/.357/.449 slash line in the season’s last two months. He graded out as average in center field this season.

Advantage: Red Sox

Right field

Hunter Renfroe gave the Red Sox a very nice return on their modest one-year investment, with an .816 OPS, 31 home runs and 33 doubles. And here’s our semi-regular reminder that, from the neck up, he weirdly resembles Mike Trout.

But of course, he’s no Aaron Judge. Though he won’t be taking home AL MVP honors, Judge was in the next tier with a .287/.373/.544 slash line, 39 homers and 98 RBIs. He can obviously hit the ball a long, long way, yet it was his clutch infield single in Sunday’s walk-off win that punched the Yankees’ ticket.

Advantage: Yankees

Designated hitter

That Giancarlo Stanton was healthy enough to accrue 579 plate appearances this season is probably his most important stat of all. We saw what that booming bat is capable of, and at times -- especially down the stretch -- it was breathtaking. Stanton’s .273/.354/.516 slash line and 35 homers helped the Yanks overcome some unexpected concerns elsewhere in the order.

Martinez had another excellent season, slashing .286/.349/.518 with 28 homers. Concern arose on the final day of the season, when he sprained his left ankle stumbling over second base on his way to the outfield. With him sidelined, expect to see Schwarber at DH. But Stanton’s .300/.355/.614 slash, 19 homers and eight doubles over the last two months win us over here.

Advantage: Yankees

Starting pitcher

You pay Gerrit Cole an average of $36 million annually to make a start like this. He vied for the AL Cy Young Award, as one would expect, in 2021, with a 3.23 ERA, 133 ERA+ and an AL-best 5.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 starts. But the conversation coming into this game will likely revolve around the 15 earned runs he allowed in his last 17 2/3 innings. Will Cole lock in for the one-and-done game?

Eovaldi sure locked in when the Red Sox needed him most in the 2018 World Series. And he’s had a terrific 2021, with a 3.75 ERA, 126 ERA+ and AL-best marks in FIP (2.79) and walks per nine innings (1.7). If you were to give the edge to Eovaldi in a home park where he had a 3.47 ERA in 19 starts, it’s not a crazy take at all. But forgive us for going chalk here with Cole.

Advantage: Yankees


In his late-season return from injury, Luis Severino has given the Yankees’ bullpen a much different look, giving Boone a multi-inning option to serve alongside Chad Green, Clay Holmes and the recently returned Jonathan Loáisiga as the bridge to Aroldis Chapman. Thus, the Yankees’ bullpen is in a far better spot now than it was just a few weeks ago.

Boston’s bullpen has more question marks right now. Though the Red Sox did get an important ‘pen piece back on Sunday with the return of Garrett Whitlock, the prolonged absence of primary lefty Josh Taylor has been a hurdle. The closer role is currently unclear because of Matt Barnes’ 6.48 ERA in the second half. Starter Nick Pivetta closed out Game 162.

Advantage: Yankees


About the only thing we can predict with certainty is that we’ll be seeing that Bucky Dent highlight ad nauseum. But in a much-less-certain attempt to envision the outcome, we’ll take our chances with Cole and what looks to be the better bullpen. Then again, who knows what random member of the Yankees or Red Sox will earn an expletive for a middle name after this one?