This is the tenth installment of the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry. Today, we are going to take a look at the top three arms in each respective rotation. The Yankee pitching depth has been a story all off-season long while the Red Sox have been touted as one of the most complete rotations in the game. Both rotations feature southpaw aces, young, right-handed studs, and two erratic power arms who hope to bounce back after disappointing 2010 campaigns. Without further ado, tighten up those batting gloves and get ready for some mid-90s heat.

'I hope there's a damn lunch menu in this folder I'm carrying'

Aces

Red Sox: Jon Lester (2010: 19-9, 3.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 225 Ks, 208 innings)
Yankees: CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 197 Ks, 238 innings)

The 26-year-old Lester is only beginning to tap into his vast potential. Lester set a career high in wins (19), hits allowed (167), WHIP (1.20), and made his first All-Star team last season. The southpaw struck out 225 hitters for the second consecutive season while posting an impressive K/9 of 9.7. Pitching in a rotation full of injury risks, Lester has given the Red Sox at least 32 starts over the last three seasons. Lester finished fourth in Cy Young voting and is one the front runners to land the award in 2011.

Two of the more impressive stats that I dug out? Lester recorded 54% of his outs via the ground ball while posting a career best 0.61 HR/9. Lester’s fastball averaged 93.4 MPH while his nasty curve averaged 77.6 MPH. Bottom line, Lester is one of the best arms in the game and will only improve in 2011.

Bill James’ Projection: 14-9, 3.53 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 193 Ks, 204 innings*

*(Personally, I feel like James’ low balled Lester)

Without question, CC Sabathia’s left arm is the key to any Yankee championship aspirations. Big C has given the Yankees at least 230 innings and 19 wins over his first two seasons with the Bombers. Add in his back-to-back 197 strikeout seasons and Sabathia is the horse that 90% of other teams wished they had.

CC has reported to camp 25 pounds thinner and has told reporters that he feels ‘stronger’ entering this season. Given his extensive workload over the last few seasons (962 innings since 2007), this weight loss should only help the big man. I called into the Mike Francesa show a few weeks back and debated this issue with Mike. ‘The Godfather of Sportstalk‘ told me (the little inept Mongol that I am) not to worry about CC, so I’ll take his word for it.

A few points of concern with CC: his K/9 has steadily decreased over the last three seasons. In 2008, Sabathia was posting an impressive 8.9 K/9. Last season, he was posting 7.5 K/9. Strikeouts aren’t exactly the end-all, be-all, but as long as CC stays healthy and around 200 strikeouts, I doubt anyone will be that unhappy. Sabathia unintentionally walked 74 hitters, his highest mark since 2002, so hopefully the weight loss will give him a little more leverage on his pitches. Despite these slight deviations in numbers, Sabathia finished third in AL Cy Young voting.

Bill James’ Projection: 18-8, 3.32 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 202 Ks, 236 innings

Verdict

Edge: Yankees

The Yankees need Sabathia more than the Sox need Lester. Sabathia is the key cog to the Yankee rotation and World Series hopes. If Sabathia were to miss anytime….well, let’s not go into that. CC is going to be CC this season and hopefully bring home his second Cy Young Award.

#2 Starter

Red Sox: Clay Buchholz (2010: 17-7, 2.33 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 120 Ks, 173 innings)
Yankees: Phil Hughes (18-8, 4.19 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 146 Ks, 176 innings)

Clay Buchholz had his breakthrough season in 2010. In terms of American League starters, his 2.33 ERA ranked second behind only Felix Hernandez (2.27). Buchholz pitches to contact while featuring three plus pitches (fastball, slider, and change-up). Buchholz threw 80 more innings in 2010 than he did in 2009, so we’ll see how the extended workload effects him going into 2011.

Alike Lester, the 26-year-old made his first All-Star team and finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting. Buchholz will need to limit his walk total (3.9 BB/9) but the sky’s the limit for this blossoming Boston righty

Bill James’ Projection: 13-9, 3.54 ERA, 1.28 ERA, 168 Ks, 193 innings*

*James is really lowballing the Red Sox starters

Last year at this time, we were debating whether Hughes or Joba Chamberlain would assume the fifth starter role. I was a big-time advocate of Joba (and I still am), but I’m glad that I don’t make the decisions. Hughes took the ball as a starter and ran with it last year. Hughes’ 18 wins were the fourth most in the American League. His 7.5 K/9 matched Sabathia while his 1.25 WHIP was the second lowest on the Yankees.

Outside of his lofty win total, my projection for Hughes’ last season was pretty accurate. However, his home/road splits were basically unable to project. His 4.66 ERA in the Bronx, where he surrendered 20 of his 25 home runs, is definitely a cause for concern. However, Hughes handled the big stage in the playoffs. Hughes threw seven shutout innings in the ALDS, proving he can handle a big start. The Yankees will continue to monitor his workload while he keeps developing his change-up. Development of his change-up (which he has been working on this off-season) will give Hughesy another weapon in his arsenal. Remember, Hughes is only 24-years-old and made his first All-Star team last year so the sky’s the limit for him.

Bill James’ Projection: 12-7, 3.56 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 166 Ks, 177 innings*

*I would like to see more wins, but I’d be more than happy with everything else.

Verdict

Edge: Red Sox

I like Buchholz a little bit more than Hughesy this season. Hughes has more strikeout potential, but Buchholz has demonstrated better command so far. Plus, Hughes really wore down in the second half. Both players will need to prove that they can handle the larger work loads in their second seasons, but I’ll give slight edge to the computer kid.

Third Starter

Red Sox: Josh Beckett (2010: 6-6, 5.78 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 116 Ks, 127 innings)
YankeesAJ Burnett (10-15, 5.26 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 145 Ks, 186 innings)

Three words sum up Beckett’s dismal 2010 season: Lower Back Stiffness. Beckett hit the disabled list in mid-May with lower back stiffness and spent 65 days sitting on the pine. After he came back from the injury, he wasn’t the Josh Beckett that Yankee fans have envied, going 5-5 with a 4.94 ERA in 13 starts. Prior to 2010, the Red Sox locked the 30-year-old up with a four-year, $68 deal, so they will live and die with his back issues for the next few years.

The Yankees clearly saw blood in the water and feasted on Beckett last season. In five starts against the Bombers, Beckett went 1-2 with a 10.04 ERA. Beckett yielded an unsightly 31 runs in 26 innings. It’s fair to say that the Yankees won’t be putting up numbers like that against Beckett again.

Reports in Red Sox camp have stated that Beckett is once again 100% healthy and ready to make amends after a disastrous 2010. Beckett has the raw ability to be one of the best arms in the game and I fully expect to see the Beckett of old in 2011.

Bill James’ Projection: 10-9, 3.86 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 155 Ks, 160 innings*

*James has given only 37 wins to the top three Red Sox starters. We all know that injuries happen, but this number is way too low for a team expected to win 95+ games.

AJ Burnett was historically bad last season. How bad? His 5.26 ERA was the highest ERA posted by a Yankee starter since the 1980s. But when we even start to talk about AJ, we have to deal with his two alter egos, Good AJ and Bad AJ. Through his first eleven starts last year, Burnett threw 72 innings and posted an 3.28 ERA. Ex-pitching coach Dave Eiland then took a leave of absence and his ERA shot up to 5.28. Even when Eiland returned, Bad AJ kept rearing his ugly head.

Has his workload been too large? He has thrown 614 innings over the last three years and he isn’t exactly Sabathia-sized. After losing out on Cliff Lee and watching Andy ride off into the sunset, the Yankees NEED Good AJ more than ever in 2011.

Burnett has watched his K/9 steadily fall over the last three seasons. Burnett has went from 9.4 to 8.5 to 7.0. One thing that really stood out to me was Burnett’s pitch selection last season. Let’s look at his three breakdown to help illustrate that point:

Year Fastball Curveball Change
2008 64.7% (94.3) 29.2% (81.2) 5.0% (86.8)
2009 65.9% (94.4) 31.0% (82.0) 3.1% (87.8)
2010 69.1% (93.3) 27.3% (82.2) 3.5% (88.4)
*Velocity in Parenthesis

The chart clearly shows that AJ has to feature his off-speed pitches on a more consistent basis. To do that, he needs to get ahead early in the count, set hitters up, and throw that tight curve ball.

Alike his ex Florida Marlins team mate, Burnett really struggled against his main competition. In three starts against the Red Sox last season, Burnett went 0-1 with a 7.63 ERA. The Yankees clearly need Good AJ to show up on a consistent basis during the 2011 season. We’ll get our first look at AJ and his new mechanics this afternoon.

Bill James’ Projection: 12-9, 4.01 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 191 innings, 177 Ks

Verdict

Edge: Red Sox

Both pitchers are aiming to rebound after such disappointing 2010 seasons. Beckett can pin his disappointment on a nagging injury while Burnett can pin his on pure suckiness. It’s hard to find many pitchers who possess the raw ability that these two pitchers have, but I’m taking Beckett as we enter the 2011 season.

Score to Date:

Yankees 7
Red Sox 6

Check back tomorrow as we look at the fourth and fifth starters for the Sawks and Yanks.