The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox earned the two American League Wild Card spots after they both finished the regular season 92-70. Even though they have the same record, the Yankees traveled to Boston as a result of the Red Sox winning the regular season series (10-9 vs Yankees). With the first pitch rapidly approaching, here are three storylines you need to look out for.
Can Nathan Eovaldi go toe to toe with Gerrit Cole?
Gerrit Cole is one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, and you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. If you haven’t been following MLB closely this year, it might surprise you that Nathan Eovaldi has arguably been a top-five pitcher in the American League this season. Across 182.1 innings pitched (about 5.2 innings per start), Eovaldi had a 3.75 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 3.48 xFIP, 3.60 SIERA, 20.9 K-BB%, 29.8 CSW%, and 5.6 fWAR. These numbers are great, and the Red Sox will NEED this version of Eovaldi to show up tonight. On September 24th pitching at home against the Yankees, Eovaldi had his worst performance of the season by Defense Independent Game Score (DIGS). In this start, Eovaldi gave up 7 hits, 7 earned runs, walked two, and struck out none in only 2.2 innings pitched. If Eovaldi isn’t able to give the Red Sox a quality start, they might be in trouble. Although Gerrit Cole has struggled against Boston this season, he has been a great Postseason pitcher. Across 84.0 innings pitched in the Postseason in his career, Cole has a 2.68 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 3.16 xFIP, and 2.64 SIERA. Despite his struggles against the Red Sox this season, I have no doubt Cole will pitch well tonight. Once (or if) Eovaldi and Cole are pulled, it will be a battle of the bullpens. If this game does come down to a battle of the bullpens, the Yankees have a clear advantage. In one less inning pitched on the season than the Red Sox bullpen, the Yankees bullpen has a significant advantage in ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, K-BB%, and fWAR. Additionally, the Yankees bullpen has more dependable arms, including some that should have no problem pitching two or more innings. If Gerrit Cole can hand the Yankee bullpen a lead or tie through six innings, I think it is very unlikely that the bullpen chokes. However, if Nathan Eovaldi can out-pitch Gerrit Cole and go as deep into the game as he possibly can to avoid the Red Sox turning to the bullpen early, it will be a much closer game.
What impact will defense have on this game?
By Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric, the Yankees had the fifth-worst defense while the Red Sox had the worst defense in all of MLB this season. While both teams lineup nicely defensively in the outfield tonight, there are many infielders to keep an eye on. Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts were one of, if not the worst defensive left sides in MLB this season. In addition to currently battling some soreness after making a spectacular catch on Sunday, Gio Urshela has -4 DRS and -4 OAA as a third baseman this season. The Yankee infielder who has struggled the most this season has been Gleyber Torres. After playing much of the season at shortstop, where he was horrible defensively, Aaron Boone made the decision a few weeks ago to move Torres to second base. While Torres hasn’t been great defensively at second base, he’s been much better than he was as a shortstop. Although he’s a very good defensive player, it is important to note that Joey Gallo had trouble with a fly ball in left field in the last meeting between the Yankees and Red Sox.
While it is unlikely Gallo misses another pop-up like this tonight, it’s something to keep an eye on. If either team makes a mistake or multiple mistakes defensively in the field, expect the other team to make the best of their added opportunities.
Who will rise to the occasion at the plate?
Both the Yankees and Red Sox are missing key pieces of their lineups. The Yankees are without second/third basemen DJ LeMahieu who is dealing with a sports hernia injury and the Red Sox are without designated hitter J.D. Martinez who has a sprained ankle. In order to clinch Wild Card berths on the final day of the regular season, the Yankees Win Probability Added (WPA) leader Aaron Judge had a walk-off hit while Red Sox WPA leader Rafael Devers hit a go-ahead two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning.
Will red-hot Giancarlo Stanton give the Yankees another big swing tonight? Can Xander Bogaerts break out of his slump and provide an offensive boost to the Red Sox? Will 2016 World Series champions Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber make big swings for their new clubs? Or will unlikely heroes like Bronx native Andrew Velazquez and mostly career backup backstop Kevin Plawecki put their team over the top? We’ll find out shortly.