July 20 was a milestone day for the 2016 Red Sox. Their 11-7 win over the Giants capped a two-game sweep of the NL West leaders, gave them their eighth win in 10 games and put them ahead of the Orioles for first place in the AL East. After a long swoon in June, the Red Sox were back. And with the lowly Twins coming to town for four games, it appeared the Sox would keep on rolling toward a postseason berth.
The good times were short-lived. The Red Sox fell out of first after splitting the series with the Twins. They then got swept by the Tigers and went 5-6 on their 11-game west coast trip. Wednesday’s loss to the Mariners, exactly two weeks after reclaiming the division lead, left them out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 25.
Now the Red Sox are in the midst of a Wild Card race that’s set to come down to the finish. The Blue Jays and Orioles are tight in the race for the East, while the Tigers and Indians could go back and forth in the Central over the next two months. Meanwhile, there are the Red Sox, who sit a half game behind the Tigers for the second Wild Card spot. The Mariners (3.5 games) and Astros (four games) aren’t too far behind either.
The Red Sox are in a wild chase (no pun intended) for their first postseason berth since 2013. But just how well do they stack up with the teams they’re competing with over the final eight weeks of the season? Let’s look at the good, bad and what lies ahead for some of those teams (sorry, Houston and Seattle).
Red Sox (60-50)
The good: This is obvious for those of us who have followed the team all season. The offense is among the best in the majors, scoring the most runs in baseball and owning the sixth-best TAv (second in the AL). The bulk of their lineup sits in the positive BWARP category, while Mookie Betts (5.0 BWARP) is in the AL MVP discussion. Although the Red Sox’s pitching has been its downfall (more on that below), Rick Porcello (3.33 DRA, 3.74 FIP) continues to be a steady force while David Price finally looks like the pitcher the Sox thought they were getting when they signed him in the offseason. Meanwhile, Craig Kimbrel’s return gives Boston the late-game stability it was lacking early on in this rut.
The bad: The Red Sox still haven’t gotten the consistent pitching they need in order to make a legitimate postseason run. They rank 15th in DRA, 12th in cFIP and 16th in ERA. Price’s resurgence has improved that ranking while Eduardo Rodriguez has been better recently, but Steven Wright has proven unpredictable of late and Drew Pomeranz’s Red Sox tenure has been underwhelming at best. Meanwhile, the bullpen has handed the Red Sox frustrating losses in the past two and a half weeks, as the likes of Brad Ziegler — who, in all fairness, has been good overall — Fernando Abad and Robbie Ross can attest to. That probably contributes to their 13-14 record in one-run games. And just how long can the Bryce Brentz/Andrew Benintendi combination work in left field?
What lies ahead: It doesn’t get any easier. The Red Sox have another 11-game road trip after this week’s short homestand. That’s part of a string of 29 of the Sox’s final 52 games coming away from Fenway. Fifteen of those final 52 games come against the Orioles and Blue Jays. That’s good and bad. The good news is that means ample opportunity to gain ground in the playoff race. But that also means some tough tests to close out the season.
Orioles (63-47, lead AL East)
The good: Offensively, the O’s are just as dangerous as the Red Sox. They lead the majors in home runs (163), with four players at the 20-homer mark, and are third in ISO (.184). They have baseball’s home run leader in Mark Trumbo and a possible MVP candidate in Manny Machado (4.45 BWARP). Although win-loss records mean next to nothing for pitchers, the O’s have consistently won with their ace, Chris Tillman, on the mound, which the Sox have yet to prove they can do. They also have the third-best bullpen ERA in baseball thanks to the likes of Zach Britton (1.85 FIP) and Brad Brach (2.46).
The bad: Baltimore actually has a worse starter’s ERA than the Red Sox at 4.91. That’s because the O’s lack depth behind Tillman. Kevin Gausman has a decent 3.79 DRA and 4.35 FIP, but the dropoff from there is significant. It’s bad enough to the point that the O’s traded for Wade Miley at the deadline. Key positional players Hyun-Soo Kim and Matt Wieters have also battled injuries. As Matt Kory pointed out last week, Baltimore’s run differential (+30) is more than half of both the Red Sox and Blue Jays. In theory, if those margins more accurately reflect themselves in the standings, that could mean trouble for the O’s going forward.
What lies ahead: The Orioles have been as streaky as any team in the majors as of late, and how that manifests itself over the final eight weeks could drastically change the postseason picture. Their remaining schedule and more evenly split between home and road, although there are a pair of long road trips mixed in there, and plenty of matchups with the Blue Jays and Red Sox.
Blue Jays (63-49)
The good: Toronto has the fourth-best run differential in the majors and the second-best in the American League to the Red Sox. That’s a testament to having two of the best power hitters in the game in Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion and arguably the best starting rotation in the AL East. Donaldson and Encarnacion’s combined 57 homers place the Blue Jays second in the majors in both home runs (159) and ISO (.185). They also have the best starter’s ERA in the American League. Aaron Sanchez has had a breakout year with a 2.85 ERA, 3.37 DRA and 3.28 FIP, while Marco Estrada (3.78 FIP) and J.A. Happ (3.80) are having their best seasons in years.
The bad: The fact that Toronto has succeeded this much with two of their stars underperforming is impressive. However, the Blue Jays could use more from Jose Bautista and Marcus Stroman. Bautista’s .271 TAv is his lowest mark since 2009, while his 15 homers thus far is underwhelming. Stroman (3.86 DRA) is just as good for a seven-run clunker as he is for a quality start. Roberto Osuna (2.28 FIP) and Joseph Biagini (2.27) have been strong out of the bullpen, but the drop-off from there is significant as Toronto owns the 19th-ranked bullpen ERA in the majors. The Blue Jays are 13-19 in one-run games.
What lies ahead: Aside from a seven-game west coast swing against the Angels and Mariners, the Blue Jays have by far the friendliest schedule in the division to close out the season. They split the rest of their slate evenly between home and away, have a series with the Twins at the end of the month and have a combined six series between the Rays and Yankees. The addition of Francisco Liriano gives Toronto a six-man rotation going forward. Whether or not that proves effective is to be determined.
The good: The Tigers are arguably the hottest team on the list. Their eight-game win streak, which included a sweep of the Red Sox, propelled them into the final Wild Card spot before losing it the next night. But they still won nine of their last 10 entering Sunday. Detroit is led by a dangerous lineup that includes Miguel Cabrera (3.18 TAv), Ian Kinsler (.298), Victor Martinez (.293) and J.D. Martinez (3.16), while the rotation has been carried by the resurgence of Justin Verlander, who owns a 2.86 DRA for the season and a 1.85 ERA in his last seven starts, and the emergence of rookie Michael Fulmer, who has allowed three or more runs in just two of his starts since May 15.
The bad: The rest of the pitching staff has been less than stellar. Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez have been negative PWARP players, while Jordan Zimmerman has struggled to stay healthy. Detroit also has the worst bullpen ERA (4.15) of any team mentioned in this piece, as it’s been forced to rely on Justin Wilson (2.82 DRA), Alex Wilson (4.41) and closer Francisco Rodriguez (3.01) late in games. The Tigers’ +24 run differential is also the worst of any team on this list, which suggests that their current pace will be difficult to keep up.
What lies ahead: If Detroit is to remain hot and in the thick of the postseason race, it is going to need to overcome a two-week stretch that includes a west coast trip and a series against the Red Sox at home. Being in the AL Central has its perks, however. The Tigers have 10 more games against the Twins, nine more games against the stumbling Royals and a season-ending series against the Braves. That should be enough to make them favorites for a playoff spot.
Indians (62-47, lead AL Central)
The good: The Indians have by far the best pitching of any team in the race. They may just have the best pitching in the American League. Cleveland is second in the majors in DRA, second in cFIP and eighth in ERA. They have a trio of studs in their rotation in Corey Kluber (2.64 DRA), Danny Salazar (2.73) and Carlos Carrasco (2.76), while right-hander Josh Tomlin (11-4) is tied for the best win percentage of any starting pitcher on the team. The bullpen has been solid as well, with Cody Allen and Dan Otero bold holding ERAs under 3.00 and the addition of Andrew Miller giving the Indians a legitimate closer. Cleveland also has legitimate power with the seventh best ISO in baseball and the ninth most home runs. Francisco Lindor, meanwhile, has given Xander Bogaerts a run for his money as the best hitting shortstop in the American League.
The bad: As impressive as the likes of Lindor and Jason Kipnis have been at the plate, the Indians’ offensive production has been top heavy, leaving Cleveland 12th in the majors in TAv (.269). The Indians in general haven’t been very good lately. They lost three of four to Minnesota last week and were swept by the Orioles not long before that. Salazar (8.84 ERA in his last four starts) and Carrasco (10.24 ERA in his last two starts entering Sunday) have recently had some of their worst performances of the season.
What lies ahead: Cleveland doesn’t quite have the cupcake schedule the Tigers have the rest of the way. Despite the Indians being the better team, the strength of schedule could be enough to put Detroit atop the division and Cleveland fighting for a Wild Card spot before long. The Indians have eight series remaining against teams still in the playoff race, and that doesn’t include the makeup game against the Red Sox next week. Those matchups could make or break their chances at holding the AL Central lead.
The Wild Card race will seemingly come down to starting pitching. All contending teams can hit – at least in the American League – but what separates teams like the Blue Jays and Indians is they also have good pitching. That alone should make them the favorites in their respective divisions going forward. The Tigers may be the least talented of the listed teams fighting for the Wild Card, but they also have by far the softest schedule remaining.
That makes the Red Sox and Orioles – at least in my opinion – most likely to be the odd team out come October. The Sox have shown their offense can only carry them so far, but the recent play of Price, Porcello and Rodriguez provide hope that things can still turn around from a pitching standpoint. You can look at Baltimore’s run differential one of two ways. Either that it’s bound to catch up with it at the end of the season, or it’s a testament to the Orioles’ elite bullpen.
Regardless, the Red Sox are in the thick of a Wild Card race against teams with similar characteristics as them that is destined to come down to the final week of the season. Their strengths stand out above the rest, but so do their flaws. How they manage those flaws (and that juggernaut of a schedule) will determine where they are come October.
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