Is This Boston Red Sox Team For Real?

The Boston Red Sox are having a historic season. They are on pace for around 112 wins, they have a .693 winning percentage, and they lead the league in a million different offensive categories. They also have arguably the best starting pitcher in baseball, the best closer, and two of the best hitters in the league.

The Red Sox have simply been pounding the competition all season long. And yet, a majority of Red Sox fans and Boston Sports media members are pessimistic about this team. Here is a summary of the reasoning behind the pessimism often expressed on the popular Boston sports radio show Felger and Mazz:

Although the Red Sox are winning at an insane rate, there are specific flaws that will hurt them when they play better teams in the playoffs. In addition, the Red Sox are beating mediocre teams but are not playing as well against the playoff contending teams. Therefore, although this is a very good Red Sox team, they are going to have a hard time winning the World Series.

Let’s break this argument down into a logical form to see if it is valid:

  1. The Red Sox are playing worse against playoff contenders than the other potential American League playoff teams
  2. The Red Sox have specific flaws that will hurt them in the postseason
  3. If 1 & 2, then there is a reason to be pessimistic about the Red Sox winning the World Series
  4. Therefore, there is a reason to be pessimistic about the Red Sox winning the World Series

Let’s break down each premise to see if the statements are accurate. If the statements are accurate, then you must accept the conclusion.

The Red Sox are playing worse against playoff contenders than the other potential playoff opponents

The five best teams in the league are the Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, and Seattle Mariners. The only other potential playoff team is the Oakland Athletics, but the A’s are three games out of the playoffs and are currently in third place in the AL West so we will keep them out of the conversation for the time being.

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Let’s see how each current American League postseason team has performed against the others so far this season:

Yankees: 18-8 (.692)
Red Sox: 10-10 (.500)
Astros: 8-9 (.470)
Mariners: 10-13 (.434)
Indians: 7-14 (.333)

The Red Sox have the second-best record against potential American league playoff teams. As you can see, the Yankees have by far performed the best against top AL competition. Although the Red Sox are worse than the Yankees against top-tier competition, they are not playing worse than the other potential playoff opponents.

Here is the revised first premise to make it accurate:

The Red Sox are playing worse against playoff contenders than the Yankees. That’s much more fair of a concern.

The Red Sox have specific flaws that will hurt them in the postseason

The offense is not the problem for the Red Sox. Some people may argue that you can’t trust the bats in the postseason, but I trust the offense wholeheartedly. Boston ranks first in the majors in total bases (1,610), average (.270), hits (951), doubles (218), and runs (540), and they are tied for first with the Yankees in OPS (.795). They are also second to the Yankees in slugging percentage (.458), and they are third in the league in OBP (.331) and home runs (135), according to ESPN stats.

I trust Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez with the season on the line, as everyone should. What I don’t trust, however, is the pitching. This is the argument for the specific flaw of the team: the pitching. More specifically, people argue that the Red Sox don’t have any reliable starters besides Chris Sale or any reliable relief pitching besides Craig Kimbrel.

In one way, I agree with this argument. I don’t trust David Price, Rick Porcello, or anyone else in the starting rotation besides Sale in October. I partly trust Eduardo Rodriguez, but who knows how effective he will pitch when he comes back healthy.

God knows I don’t trust Joe Kelly or Heath Hembree with the game on the line. However, I am starting to trust Matt Barnes more and more (he is probably going to the be the 8th inning guy in the postseason if I had to guess).

But you cannot argue against the fact that the bullpen and starting pitching outside of Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel is a concern. Now, the question is, is it a fatal flaw?

Statistically, the Red Sox are actually one of the better pitching teams in baseball. They have a 3.53 ERA (third in the league, Yankees fourth), are second in the league in strikeouts (Houston is first), and are fifth in opponents’ batting average against.

However, stats do not mean much when we are talking about the concerns with the starters and the bullpen. This is the undeniable fact: besides Sale and Kimbrel, there are not many guys you can count on to pitch in a big moment with the game on the line.

I don’t care how positive the team’s overall pitching stats are in relation to the rest of the league. Nobody wants to see Joe Kelly come into the game with a one-run lead in Yankee Stadium. But again, is the lack of bullpen and starting depth a fatal flaw for this Red Sox team?

Let’s take a look at the last three Red Sox World Series championship rosters to examine the team’s starting pitching and bullpen outside of its ace and closer.

2018 Red Sox:

Starters outside of Chris Sale: David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez (if healthy)
Bullpen outside of Craig Kimbrel: Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly

2013 Red Sox:

Starters outside of Jon Lester: John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy
Bullpen outside of Koji Uehara: Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman

2007 Red Sox:

Starters outside of Josh Beckett: Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling
Bullpen outside of Jonathan Papelbon: Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez

2004 Red Sox:

Starters outside of Pedro Martinez: Curt Schilling, Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe
Bullpen outside of Keith Foulke: Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, Mike Myers

It is hard to compare the 2018 team to the 2013 team because the 2013 team looked like a fluke. Who knows, maybe this team has that same magic.

Both the 2004 and the 2007 team probably had a deeper rotation and more guys to rely on in the bullpen. The 2004 and 2007 team both had a couple of aces in the rotation, which the 2018 Red Sox do not have (unless David Price finally finds his form).

There are typically question marks in any bullpen or starting rotation, even with very good baseball teams. However, even if the team may have flaws, they can still win a World Series because they have the mental makeup to handle high-pressure situations. Look at the championship teams in the past. Derek Lowe wanted the ball. Schilling wanted the ball. Mike Timlin and Alan Embree were mature veterans who could handle the moment.

How about this Red Sox team?

David Price is a mental mess. Joe Kelly seems to have no confidence. Porcello is a gamer but can get shelled and has a bad history in the postseason. Schilling and Pedro and Lowe all had a champions mental makeup which the 2018 Red Sox pitchers may not have.

By just comparing the players, I don’t think the 2018 Red Sox are drastically worse than other teams. They may not be as deep or as talented in the bullpen and the rotation, but it is not a huge margin of difference in my opinion.

Now back to the original question: is this issue a fatal flaw? Maybe. Maybe not. The bullpen and starting pitching is definitely a concern and a weakness. We will have to see in October.

The Argument

Let me rephrase the argument with the new corrected premises:

  • The Red Sox are playing worse against playoff contenders than the Yankees
  • The Red Sox have some flaws in the bullpen and starting pitching that may be a potential problem in the postseason
  • If 1 & 2, then there is a reason to be pessimistic about the Red Sox winning the World Series.

I agree with the first two revised premises. But how about the third premise? Does it follow that we should be pessimistic about this team going all the way?

If 1 & 2, then there is a reason to be pessimistic about the Red Sox winning the World Series

The fact that the Yankees have excelled against the best teams in the AL is concerning. It shows that the Yankees are for real. The Red Sox are .500 against top American league competition. While this is not a bad record, it shows that the Red Sox’ unbelievable record is a bit skewed. However, does it even matter how well you perform against the playoff teams in the regular season? Let’s examine this further:

The five best teams in the AL last season were the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Astros, and the Twins.

Let’s see how each team performed against the other three teams last year in the regular season:

Red Sox (lost AL Divisional Series): 21-21
Yankees (Lost AL Championship Series): 19-20
Indians (Lost ALDS): 25-17
Astros (World Series champion): 15-11
Twins (lost Wild Card game): 12-26

The Astros won the World Series but did not dominate the American League like the Indians did last year, who lost in the ALDS. Just because the Yankees are killing the best teams in the AL this season, does not mean they are the best team in the league. It is definitely not a negative but it is also not a given you will dominate in the postseason.

162 games is a long season and a huge sample size. Simply looking at how the team performs in 20-25 percent of its season against specific teams is not enough to make a conclusion about the team overall. However, it may create some concern about how that team can play in the playoffs.

Second, the potential pitching flaws and issues in the postseason is a problem. However, the Yankees and other American league teams have bullpen and starting pitching issues as well. The point is: no team is perfect. Are certain teams better in this area than areas? Definitely. The Indians bullpen improved after recently adding Brad Hand, and Houston’s starting pitching is really strong. It is hard to argue against people who do not believe in the Red Sox starting pitching and bullpen because quite frankly, I don’t either.

Conclusion

Overall, I disagree with the assertion that you should be pessimistic about the Red Sox winning the World Series. They have as much of a chance as anyone.

I am not saying you should be optimistic either. How about cautiously hopeful?

Many things can happen before the playoffs start. I do not yet 100 percent believe in this Red Sox team, even with this historic regular season run. But they are playing at an unreal pace and something does feel special about this group.

I like the overall team chemistry and attitude of this ball club. This Red Sox team feels like it has a winning culture. I love Alex Cora’s mentality and demeanor. Obviously, it is easy to notice and appreciate these things when the team is playing almost .700 baseball.

But whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about this team in the playoffs, take a moment to enjoy the way the Sox are playing right now because we may never see it again.

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