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Thursday, May 12, 2011
Updated: May 13, 3:10 PM ET
Three questions on Red Sox-Yankees

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

The Boston Red Sox head to the Bronx on Friday for a three-game series against the New York Yankees.

Bartolo Colon meets Clay Buchholz on Friday, while Freddy Garcia gets the nod on "Sunday Night Baseball" against Jon Lester. No one expected those probables to compare favorably to one another, yet statistically they do.

Nor did anyone foresee Boston's struggles, which leave the team three games under .500 entering the series.

Going into the series, the young season hasn't unfolded as expected. Let's see what seven weeks of numbers reveal about three burning questions.

1. What are the biggest offensive concerns?

RED SOX -- The catching tandem: As debate looms over if a change in personnel is needed, the Red Sox have received little offensive production at catcher. Jason Varitek (.154) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.200) are hitting a combined .183 this season.

That would be the worst in the majors were it not for the Joe Mauer-less Minnesota Twins, who have a .137 batting average from the catcher position. Mauer's replacements are a combined 9-for-90 (.100).

The Twins might get Mauer back by the end of the month. The Red Sox have no such light at the end of the tunnel, and there's little reason to expect significantly better production.

Over the past 35 years, only nine teams have had their catchers combine to under .200. The Red Sox already account for two of those teams. In 1987, the Red Sox shuffled through four catchers, including John Marzano and Marc Sullivan, who combined to hit .196. A 23-year-old Mike Greenwell even snuck behind the plate for an inning. Six years later, Bob Melvin and Tony Pena were the primary catchers who accounted for a .192 average.

The Red Sox are currently hovering below the low mark from the past 35 years, a .185 batting average put up by the 1989 Atlanta Braves' backstops. Jody Davis (.169), John Russell (.194) and Bruce Benedict (.195) handled the bulk of the load for that Braves team.

YANKEES -- Jorge Posada: If the Red Sox don't find improvement in offense at catcher, they can take solace in Varitek's game management or Saltalamacchia's development. But when your 39-year-old designated hitter has a .162 batting average one-fifth of the way through the season, little optimism can be found.

Posada ranks last among 194 hitters qualifying for the batting title.

Even after a two-hit performance Wednesday, the Yankees have only three more hits from the DH spot (20) than the Houston Astros have from their pitchers (17).

Last season, the Mariners set the standard for DH batting average futility with a collective .194 batting average. With top prospect Jesus Montero hitting .330 in the minors, just how much patience will the Yankees have with Posada?

He's currently zero for the season (0-for-24, to be exact) against left-handed pitchers this season. That's the most at-bats against lefties without a hit this season (two more than Adam Dunn). Posada also doesn't have a hit on a curveball (0-for-12) this season.

2. Can these players keep it up?

RED SOX -- Josh Beckett: Following an injury-plagued 2010 season with a 5.78 ERA, Beckett was an unlikely candidate to have a sub-2.00 ERA in the middle of May.

With a 1.99 ERA and .174 opponent batting average, Beckett is off to the best seven-game start of his career. That's despite a rough season opener against Cleveland. Since that start, Beckett has a 1.56 ERA.

Is the 20-game winner from 2007 back?

Beckett has been nearly unhittable at home this season. In four starts, he has a 0.34 ERA and opponents are hitting .140. His road numbers are more pedestrian: 4.26 ERA, .217 Opp BA.

Saturday's start in New York, one day before his 31st birthday, will be an interesting litmus test. Beckett posted an 8.44 ERA in 16 innings at Yankee Stadium in 2010.

Of course, Beckett's success goes far beyond which mound he's standing on.

First-pitch strikes have been instrumental to Beckett's success. After a 0-1 count, opponents are hitting just .099, lowest in the AL.

Getting ahead in the count has led to more effective off-speed pitches. Opponents are a combined 5-for-50 (.100) with 20 strikeouts on at-bats ending in a curve or changeup.

Another key has been keeping the ball in the park. Despite an increased fly ball percentage, Beckett has allowed three home runs. Only 6.5 percent of his flies have gone out of the park, compared to 14.2 percent in 2010.

That rate may revert to the league average (about 9.5 percent), meaning his current ERA could be unsustainable. However, it's clear a healthy Beckett is different than the pitcher who struggled through 2010.

YANKEES -- Curtis Granderson: The Yankees have several players performing well above expectations. Colon tops that list, but having not pitched in 2010 projections for the rest of the season would be rather arbitrary.

Though he may be the most unexpected, Granderson is the most intriguing case.

Since Sept. 15 of last season, Granderson has hit 19 home runs in 50 games (entering Thursday). That's tied with Jose Bautista for most in the majors in that stretch.

With 12 home runs in 2011, he currently leads the majors. Can a player with a career high of 30 home runs maintain this pace?

Granderson's power stretch began following some tweaks from hitting coach Kevin Long in August. Since then, Granderson has been a far different hitter against lefties.

He's hit eight home runs in 90 at-bats against southpaws since those adjustments, compared to one home run in 102 at-bats beforehand. With five home runs off lefties in 2011, Granderson has already matched his single-season high. If he can continue matching his power against southpaws, Granderson could be on his way to a prolific power season.

3. What do the current records mean?

RED SOX: In 2010, the Red Sox reached .500 for good in their 40th game, a win at Yankee Stadium. They'd need a sweep this weekend to get to .500 for the first time all season.

Boston is 15-10 after a 2-10 start, so progress toward .500 is certainly being made. However, it's still nearly uncharted territory for the Red Sox. You have to go back to 1996 to find the last time the Red Sox had failed to reach .500 this far into a season. It took 128 games that season. Before that (in a season in which they ultimately reached .500), it was 1945, when it took 38 games.

In fact, this is just the fifth time that a Red Sox team has played 37 games without reaching .500 (the other two: 1905 and 1913) in a season in which they ultimately got there. In three of the previous four seasons, Boston finished over .500. But none led to a postseason appearance.

Only twice in Red Sox history have they been under .500 this late into a season and made the postseason. In 1967, the Red Sox reached .500 for good in their 40th game. The "Impossible Dream" of the postseason was ultimately realized, thanks to 32 wins in the final 49 games. In 1988, Boston didn't even its record for good until the 64th game of the season, but "Morgan Magic" led to the playoffs.

YANKEES: Through 34 games, the Yankees have hit 55 home runs and boast a 3.61 team ERA. Combine that with Boston's unexpectedly poor start, and the Yankees must be running away with the AL East, right?

That's clearly not the case. The Yankees entered Thursday tied atop the division and just 4.5 games ahead of the other three teams. While the second-best record in the AL is nothing to be ashamed of, it's hard not to think the Yankees haven't reached their potential. Despite gaudy numbers, they've yet to go on a hot streak.

Consider that New York still hasn't put together a four-game win streak this season, one of only five such AL teams.

Part of reason for that is blown leads. The Yankees are 17-4 when leading going into the eighth inning. Last season, they finished 80-7.

Though perhaps counterintuitive, another factor is an overreliance on the home run. The Yankees' 55 home runs are 11 more than any other team, but they've otherwise struggled to score consistently with a .236 BA with runners in scoring position.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 95 of the Yankees' 176 runs have come via the home run. That's 54.0 percent of their runs. At 41.0 percent, the Orioles are the team with next-highest percentage.

Of course, that's great when you're hitting home runs at the Yankees' current pace. But the Yankees are just 8-9 when hitting one or fewer home runs in a game. Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.