The Sox-Yanks missile gap

Even without Helton, Sox hold surprising offense edges
01/30/2007 10:16 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to
When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he made a "Missile Gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union a central part of his appeal. Kennedy suggested that the Dwight Eisenhower-Richard Nixon administration had let the Soviets overtake the US in the seemingly important category of total nuclear missiles. The only problem with this point was (as Kennedy well knew), that it was wholly fictional. As historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote in his recently-published The Cold War: A New History, "The U-2 photographs quickly confirmed the limited size and inferior capabilities of the Soviet long-range bomber force. Determining Soviet missile capabilities took longer, however, because the missiles themselves — in the quantities that Khrushchev had claimed — did not exist. By the end of 1959 his engineers had only six long-range missile launch sites operational."

The missile gap captured the popular imagination because, in Cold War logic, if you could blow up the other guy 11 times over but he could blow you up 12 times, he might be tempted to launch a first strike and could strong-arm you diplomatically. These things tended to upset people. Existentially. Similarly, the Red Sox-Rockies talks on Todd Helton, now apparently dead (Larry Lucchino has that affect on people), had Yankees fans worrying about the Boston-New York missile gap. The irony is that in this case the doomsayers are right. While winter worries have focused on New York's lack of frontline pitching, its offense is almost certainly not the best in the AL East.

One way we can look at this is to use the 2007 Pecota projections now available from Baseball Prospectus. Rather than quote the whole prediction for each player, we'll just borrow one aspect, MLVr, or Marginal Lineup Value per game. Marginal Lineup Value estimates the additional number of runs a player will contribute to a lineup that consists of average offensive performers. For example, last year, Robinson Cano's MLVr was .252, so in a lineup of average players he would have chipped in an "extra" quarter of a run per game.

These fractions can numb the eye, so the key thing to focus on is that we're looking at a projected rate of offense at each position, and the precise meaning of the number is less important than which team has the player with the higher rate.

Jorge Posada
Jason Varitek
Doug Mientkiewicz
Kevin Youkilis
Robinson Cano
Dustin Pedroia
Alex Rodriguez
Mike Lowell
Derek Jeter
Julio Lugo
Hideki Matsui
Manny Ramirez
Johnny Damon
Coco Crisp
Bobby Abreu
J.D. Drew
Jason Giambi
David Ortiz

Melky Cabrera
Wily Mo Pena
Miguel Cairo
Alex Cora
Raul Chavez
Doug Mirabelli

Again, these are projections, and while PECOTA is usually good at what it does, there are reasons to question its prediction that Varitek will be more productive than Posada or that Abreu's season is going to be more reflective of his Philadelphia 2006 than his Yankees 2006. PECOTA also thinks that Coco Crisp will pick up where he left off before last year's injuries, and it is very optimistic about Pedroia. All predictions can only be proved with the passage of time, but these seem more vulnerable to being disproved by events than some of the others.

Still, many aspects of the projection are almost certain to be true. The Red Sox won't have a great bench, but the Yankees bench will be worse. Raul Chavez is a poor hitter of historic magnitude, and Wil Nieves, should he win the reserve catcher's job in spring training, won't be significantly better. Barring injuries, the Red Sox will out-hit the Yankees at DH and left field. The Yankees will out-hit the Red Sox at second, third, and shortstop. Center field and catcher should be competitive, regardless of which team's player is actually more productive. First base will almost certainly be an unmitigated disaster for the Yankees.

None of this is to say that the Yankees will have a bad offense. Their starting lineup, if healthy, should stack up with that of almost any team. It should also, in a global sense, keep up with the Red Sox; with the exception of first base, the Yankees aren't significantly far behind the Red Sox at any position, and will dominate them at second, short, and third.

The Helton deal was probably not in Boston's best interest. While it would have allowed them to be rid of Lowell and the depressing Julian Tavarez, both would have been coming off the books after the 2007 season, whereas peace will reign in the Middle East before Helton's contract is over. Boston might have a better offensive team if it tried Wily Mo Pena at first and shifted Youkilis to third when a fly-ball pitcher is on the mound. In the meantime, the relief pitchers that the Rockies coveted would be best kept handy until (a) the major league pen shows it won't need them, or (b) a long-term first or third base solution presents itself, one that doesn't carry the financial baggage of Helton.

As for the Yankees, they would actually reap more of a benefit from adding Helton, though the contract is still a major deterrent. It's not really Helton the Yankees need to add, it's anyone. As the predictions above suggest, their attack isn't so dominant that they can afford to give away offense at any position. Given one or more significant injuries, and the shortfall at first base will not only hamper them, it will stop the offense cold.

One of the fascinating aspects of the season to come is that Alex Rodriguez is very likely to hit his 500th career home run sometime late in the second half. With 464 career home runs entering the season and a career average of 43 home runs per 162 games played, he probably won't have to wait until 2008. Rodriguez would become the third player in history, and the first since Mickey Mantle, to hit his 500th home run in a Yankees uniform. Just three members of the 20-member 500 home run club have played for the Yankees-Mantle, Babe Ruth, and Reggie Jackson. Reggie hit his 500th round-tripper as a member of the Angels.

With the days of Yankee Stadium dwindling, Rodriguez's 500th may be one of the last historic events to take place there. You wonder what the Yankees will plan for him, and how much enthusiasm the fans will show. Here's a prediction: No. 500 will come at Yankee Stadium on August 30. It's a day game against the Red Sox. The fan reaction, it is safe to say, will be strongly positive. comments