When the Yankees come to Fenway Park after the All-Star break, two men will take turns occupying rightfield.
One stands 5 foot-9, weighs 180 pounds and challenged for the Most Valuable Player Award in 2016.
The other stands 6-7, weighs 275 pounds and appears to be running away with the MVP Award in 2017.
Mookie Betts is a perfect spokesman for this year’s Red Sox, who return to playing David to Aaron Judge and the Yankees’ Goliath.
Ironically, it was the departure of a Goliath-sized David, one Mr. Ortiz, that led to this role reversal.
Last year, Papi was Boston’s biggest player, both in size and offensive firepower, leading the Red Sox to an MLB-best 878 runs and a division title, while the Yankees (680 runs) flailed with the bats, stuck between a youth movement and waiting out several aging stars on their last legs. Without Ortiz, Boston is in the bottom half of the American League in scoring in 2017, while the gargantuan Yankees trail only the Houston Astros.
Betts and Judge are not the only players who fit the David vs. Goliath metaphor. Boston’s postseason hopes ride on the win-dance-repeat outfield of Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. Bradley and Benintendi each stand 5-10, on par with catcher Sandy Leon and taller than Dustin Pedroia, Christian Vazquez and recent call-up Tzu-Wei Lin, each of whom is listed at 5-9. No Boston position player is taller than 6-2. Meanwhile, Judge suits up in pinstripes with a 6-3 shortstop, a 6-4 designated hitter and three monstrous pitchers: 6-8 Dellin Betances, 6-7 Michael Pineda and 6-6, 300-pound CC Sabathia.
For nearly a century, the Yankees dwarfed the Red Sox the way New York towers over Boston, holding heavy advantages in financial resources, front-office acumen, star power and wins. Early in the 21st century, the John Henry group purchased the Red Sox and vowed to step out of the Yankees’ shadow, competing for high-priced free agents and trade acquisitions, stacking the front office with the best minds in the game, and finally breaking through with a championship in 2004, toppling a Yankee team loaded with all-time greats along the way.
That launched a period of parity between the two teams, with Boston picking up two more titles over the next decade to New York’s one, while every team in the division managed at least one division title. While the Red Sox have mixed success with frustration in the 2010s, the Yankees are currently enduring their longest division title drought of the Wild Card era, perhaps reaching a nadir in 2016, when Big Papi and Boston coasted to the division title and New York finished fourth.
The Red Sox entered 2017 as heavy favorites even without Ortiz, adding Chris Sale to a rotation with two Cy Young Award winners, boasting a dominant closer and young-but-proven offensive and defensive talent around the diamond. The Yankees came into the season in the depths of a rebuilding project, loaded with rookies and affordable filler players to offset the $68 million tied up in Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, and Jacoby Ellsbury.
In April and May, things did not go according to plan. Judge emerged as a colossal superstar, while teammates Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Jordan Montgomery exceeded expectations to drive New York to a 21-9 start. Meanwhile, the Red Sox offensive performed like a bunch of mosquitoes hovering around a bug-sprayed gorilla.
Since then, while Judge has continued to crush opposing pitchers like that gorilla swatting at bugs, his teammates, particularly those behemoths in the bullpen, haven’t kept up. The Red Sox have surged into first place on the backs of the starting and relief pitchers, with just enough hitting from the Lilliputian heroes to keep winning games.
What isn’t clear about the Red-Sox-as-David dynamic is whether it’s the product of a scouting philosophy or a massive coincidence. Betts, Bradley, Benintendi and Pedroia were all drafted and developed by the Red Sox. It may be that the Red Sox are looking at size as a market efficiency, drafting players with tools and results who are overlooked by other teams because of their size. Or it may be that the handful of Red Sox draftees who have emerged as stars just happen to be the smaller players. Regardless of intent, Boston’s miniatures are bucking the league-wide trend of trading strikeouts for home runs, as they rank last in the American League in homers, but only the Astros strike out less.
After the All-Star break, the Red Sox will continue to employ this post-Ortiz approach: pitching, defense and manufacturing runs with pebbles and a slingshot, hoping it’s enough to topple the home run onslaught happening in the Bronx. Mookie Betts is just one of many reasons to believe they can.
Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. He’s Yankee-sized, but roots for the little guy. Follow him on Twitter @replevel.