The MLB playoffs are underway and in the American League the Boston Red Sox have completed one of the most impressive regular-season turnarounds we've seen recently. The Olde Towne Team went from a 69–93 record and a last place finish in the AL East to a 97-65 record, tying the St Louis Cardinals for the best record in baseball. Now they aim to build on that turnaround and win what would be the team's third World Series title in nine years.
But will the Red Sox win the World Series?
This is a Red Sox team just two seasons removed from one of the all-time greatest collapses in sports history that saw the team loose 20 out of 27 games to end the season, blowing a seven-game division lead with a month left to play. The ensuing off-season was full of finger pointing and rollin' heads, with General Manager Theo Epstein and Manager Terry Francona leaving town. Francona's departure was particularly difficult, as he was smeared on the way out with accusations of abusing pain killers and condoning the fraternity lifestyle of the clubhouse epitomized by the "chicken and beer" fiasco.
The front office tried to turn the page on 2011's train wreck by bringing in manager Bobby Valentine. Despite a wealth of talent (it was basically the same team that was unbeatable for long stretches the previous year) the 2012 team never managed to "click," and in August the front office traded starts Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers, dumping their massive salaries. The Red Sox ended the season with a 69-93 record, Boston's first loosing season since 1997 and the worst season since 1965.
Following the trying season, and with several of their marquee players gone, the Fenway Faithful resigned themselves to another loosing season as the team "bridged" to a time when their talented minor leagues were major-league ready. Fans derided what was seen as the stop-gap signings of veterans Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino Stephen Drew, and Johnny Gomes. John Farrell, who served as pitching coach under Terry Francona from 2007 - 2011, was brought back, now as manager. What followed was one of the all-time turnarounds in sports.
Rather than a team built around superstars, this year's team was defined by selfless players who do what needs to be done to win the game. Players that can rightfully claim the "dirt dog" namesake previously given to players like Trot Nixon, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek. Dustin Pedroia carried on the proud dirt-dog tradition, but in 2013 he got some company. These are "gritty" players who take pitches, work the count and wait for the big inning to come to them. If sabermetrics' revolutionary idea was that getting on base is a hitter's most important job, this team passes with flying colors.
Red Sox Playoff Batting Outlook
Of course, an offensive philosophy means nothing without players who can execute it. While the 2013 team doesn't have a superstar like Miguel Cabrera, what it does have is a collection of players that allows Farrell to trot out a a lineup devoid of easy outs. Professional hitters that can work the count, the Red Sox lead the majors with 25,667 pitches seen this season, with an average of 4.02 per plate appearance, .01 less than the league-leading Twins. (Oakland is third with an average of 3.94, Tampa Bay at 3.97 and Detroit at 3.76). Mike Napoli leads the majors with 4.59 pitches seen per plate appearance.
But its not just taking pitches, its being able to handle good pitches when you get them. At 37 years old, David Ortiz continues to be one of MLB's most productive hitters with 30 home runs, 103 RBIs to go with a .309 batting average. Daniel Nava hit .303, Dustin Pedroia .301, Jacoby Ellsbury .298 and Shane Victorino .294. When five hitters on your team are hitting .300, you are going to be in good shape to win games.
The result of all this was a team that didn't have one player in particular who can be pointed to as the Red Sox MVP, rather it is a collection of players that relentlessly assault opposing pitchers until they yield runs, often in bunches. The 2013 Red Sox team was first in runs scored (853), runs batted in (819), on-base percentage (.349), slugging percentage (.446), on base + slugging (.795) and second to Detroit in team batting average (.283).
Red Sox Playoff Pitching Outlook
But of course hitters can only do so much, and most often its pitching that decides the winners and losers, especially in the playoffs. Again, the Red Sox don't have a superstar pitcher like Max Scherzer or the Ray's big three. But in a post-season rotation that looks to be comprised of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, and Jake Peavy, the Sox again have gutsy players that know how to win and get an out when they need to.
While no Sox pitcher is at the top of the major pitching statistics, they have been able to keep scoring low, not over-taxed the bullpen, and have made Farrell's job a whole lot easier. The Red Sox rotation doesn't strike fear into hearts like say Max Scherzer or David Price, but they have all come up big in the past. The post-season is a different animal, and while the pitching of the Rays and Tigers might have the edge on paper, the games are played on the field. The plate-discipline of the Red Sox will go a long way toward leveling out any pitching edges the opposition may (or may not) have.
Clay Buchholz was having his best season before missing three months with an neck strain. When healthy Buchholz was arguably the best pitcher in MLB, and was vital to the team's early success. Boston was 14-2 in games he started this season. He ended the year with a 1.74 ERA but with four starts since his return, it's tough to know exactly what Buchholz will do when he takes the mound.
At one point Jon Lester was as dominating a pitcher as you could find, but he had some rough patches the past two seasons. He's had a fantastic bounce-back season, and was especially dominant in the second half. He's waited a long time for redemption after the chicken and beer episode and a dismal 2012, but then again, he won't be the only extra-motivated pitcher out there. Even though it wasn't reflected in the win column, John Lackey had a great year for the Sox, and his WHIP was the second lowest on the staff after Buchholz's. After the season he's had and his post-season pedigree, fans should have confidence when he takes the mound. Jake Peavy has lived up to all the expectations that came with his signing. Again he's been as good as it gets in his career, and this is the first time he's had a serious shot at the title. Y gotta think a player known for his competitiveness will live up to the demands of the post season. Even Ryan Dempster, who looks to come out of the bullpen during the playoffs, was in the top ten for strikeouts per nine innings (ok, he was also on the list for most home runs allowed and most walks, but still).
But as talented as the starting rotation is, there is little doubt that the most impressive, and important, pitcher on the roster has been closer Koji Uehara. He claimed the closer spot after injuries to Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan. Uehara went an entire month without allowing a single baserunner and over two and a half months pitched 33⅔ innings with 46 strikeouts, two walks, eight hits, zero earned runs, and his 0.57 WHIP is the best all time, as detailed by Grantland's Jonah Keri. Knowing Uehara is there to closeout the games gives Farrell a luxury many assumed was gone with the injuries to Bailey and Hanrahan. Farrell has said the Red Sox will carry 11 pitchers into the playoffs, and with a bullpen that has been among the league's best, the bridge to Uehara looks solid.
Will the Red Sox Win the 2013 World Series?
This remarkable team ended up tying for the best record in baseball. The team never lost more than three consecutive games, a tribute to the teams ability to stay focused on the present, take at bats one at a time, and come up big when it matters. Another testament to the teams diehardness (we're allowed to make up words these days right?) is its 11 walk of wins. MLB was nice enough to compile all 11 of those walks offs for us. (Pay attention to how many different players took their turn at being the hero of the day). There is no reason to think anything will change in the playoffs.
The Red Sox 11 walk of wins
A recap of the 11 games the Red Sox won via walk off in 2013. Source MLB.com
As most Red Sox fans know all too well, anything can happen in the post-season. Regular season stats are fine and all, but in the pressure-cooker that is the post-season, the unlikeliest of players can be the difference between winning and loosing (we're looking at you Aaron Boone). After a season of doing nothing but working the pitchers, wearing them out with incredible plate discipline, the Sox should be able to strain the oppositions pitching.
The Red Sox opponent in the American League Division Series is no pushover, as the Rays have had the Red Sox number in recent years (although not so much this regular season). The Rays have three great starting pitchers and a team philosophy that, like the Red Sox, emphasizes patience at the plate with an intense focus on run prevention (aka defense). With the Rays traveling from Toronto, to Texas, to Cleveland and now to Boston, there is reason to expect fatigue to be a factor. On the other hand, the Red Sox will have been idle for going on five days when the first pitch of the ALDS is thrown a little after 3p.m. on Friday. This series is going to be a real battle, and the Red Sox will likely need everyone playing their best.
Should they get past the Rays, they'll have to face either the Detroit Tigers or the Oakland A's in the American League Championship Series. Even though the A's have a better record, you likely won't find many people picking them to take down the defending AL Champs. The Tigers have the best hitter in years and defending triple crown winner in Miguel Cabrera, as well as two of the best pitchers in the league in Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. With pitching and hitting to match anyone, the Tigers are going to be tough to beat. The A's have a team that looks a lot like the Red Sox in that they have multiple players that work the count and do the small things needed to win. The Red Sox were among the first teams to adopt the Sabermetrics revolution Oakland's Billy Beane is credited with bringing to MLB, so it's not surprising both front offices constructed their teams in a similar manner. Either team would be a formidable opponent, although the Tigers have to be considered much more dangerous.
If they make it to the Fall Classic, the Red Sox would enjoy home field advantage, a huge plus considering the home team has won the past four World Series. There's no need to look at each possible matchup,suffice to say that if the Sox make it to the World Series, they can hang with the National League's best. One very intriguing scenario however would be if the Los Angeles Dodgers were to face the Red Sox. The Dodgers' roster of course features a heavy dose of ex-Red Sox, and it would be beyond interesting to see what their reception at Fenway would be.
Can the Sox win it all?
After being the best team in the AL this season, they of course have to be taken seriously. As Jackie MacMullan writes, this is a team built on redemption. They have a team that resembles he 2004 squad that was able to come back being down three games to none in the ALCS against the Yankees. Ortiz is the only player left from 2004, but there have been plenty of comparisons made between this year's team and the 2004 "idiots." Ortiz, Lester, Pedroia and Ellsbury are still left from the 2007 World Series winning team. In fact, the Red Sox are the Vegas favorites to win the World Series at 15/4 odds. But then again, Vegas has been known to be wrong from time to time (they had the Sox at 30-1 at the start of the season).
On paper, the Red Sox have as good a chance as anyone to win the World Series. If you look at the intangibles, including a roster that puts the team above everything, some dramatic wins including 11 walk offs, a 1 - 9 lineup that will make every pitcher earn his outs, and a closer who is having perhaps the best season of any closer ever, you have to like their chances.
Count me on the Boston bandwagon.
Sox over Dodgers in four.