This hasn’t been the smoothest season in Red Sox history. There have been injuries, under-performance, and off-the-field drama all of which has contributed to making the season bumpier than we’d like. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, all of that stuff felt worse in the moment compared to how it impacted the Red Sox success on the field. Most every bit of what these Red Sox have been through is common to most every baseball team most every season.
Players get hurt, players have bad runs, and teams hit patches where it seems every single player can’t do something for a month or more. The crazy thing about baseball is that that stuff happens and it doesn’t mean the team isn’t any good. There was a period of time where, over an 82 game span, the 2004 Red Sox went 41-41. That’s more than half a season of the greatest, most important Red Sox team of all time playing like an utterly forgettable also-ran. In a more specific and urgent sense, none of the stuff that has happened to the 2017 Red Sox is disqualifying for overall success, and indeed it isn’t difficult to see how this team could end up being really good. So let’s look at that!
How could the 2017 Red Sox be really good? To me, this all starts with Chris Sale. Sale isn’t peak Pedro, but he’s as close as Boston has come since the greatest of all time left town. By FanGraphs WAR, the top two seasons ever by a Red Sox starting pitcher are Pedro’s 1999 and 2000 in that order. The next four are by Roger Clemens and the four after that are all by Cy Young. Pedro’s best begins at 11.6 WAR and Young’s worst of his best is 7.7 WAR. Sale is at 6.5 now, and on pace for roughly two more wins between now and the end of the season. That would put him in fourth place all time, ahead of all of Young’s seasons and ahead of three of the Rocket’s four. That’s the kind of amazing season Chris Sale is having: better than any season Cy Young ever had in Boston and better than almost every season from maybe the greatest pitcher ever in Clemens. Now, imagine that guy (Sale) pitching twice in a best-of-five series, or three times in a best-of-seven series. There is a very real opportunity for Sale to have the kind of post-season impact previously reserved for Madison Bumgarner.
After Sale, imagine a healthy David Price! Yes, Drew Pomeranz has been fantastic this season, as good as anyone could’ve hoped, and he’d be fine starting game two, but he’s no healthy David Price, and neither is Rick Porcello or Eduardo Rodriguez. I said at the beginning of the season that David Price’s regular season almost didn’t matter. What mattered is how he pitches when the playoffs come around. His latest arm ailment throws that into question but if Price can get healthy enough to be the Red Sox number two starter, Boston can get three Sale/Price starts in a five game series and five in a seven game series. In other words, the only way the Red Sox lose a playoff round is if someone beats either Sale or Price. While you’re thinking how beatable Price is, remember we’re talking about a pitcher who put up a 2.52 ERA in July while striking out 25 percent of hitters and walking just 6.5 percent. That’s a heck of a number two. Cleveland’s starting staff can’t compete with that and neither can Houston’s, and that’s before we’ve even discussed what Eduardo Rodriguez or Drew Pomeranz can do.
The main competition for the Red Sox in the AL this season comes from the Indians, Astros, and Yankees. You could argue that the Red Sox advantage in starting pitching isn’t so big because the Indians have Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco (and they do), while the Astros have Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers (and they do). Except neither first starter is in the same league as Chris Sale (though Kluber isn’t far off), and neither second starter is nearly as good as a healthy David Price. If Price comes back healthy, he represents a huge advantage for the Red Sox in the post-season.
The same could also be said of Craig Kimbrel. We’ve all seen the impact relievers can have in the post-season, and with Kimbrel authoring one of the best reliever seasons we’ve seen in Boston in a long time, the opportunity for him to have an out-sized impact on the Red Sox’s postseason fortunes exists. The fact that manager John Farrell has occasionally been willing to use Kimbrel for longer outings and earlier in games when the leverage is higher during the regular season, and that bodes well for the same strong usage patterns in the playoffs. The fact that the Red Sox bullpen has been so good this season doesn’t hurt either, as they are equipped to cover for Kimbrel in the ninth should he be needed earlier in the game.
Finally we get to the offense which, there’s really no other way to put it, has underwhelmed this season. Coming off a July that saw Boston collectively hit a profoundly mediocre .248/.315/.367 (and honestly I’m shocked it’s that high), the mood surrounding the offense was understandably pessimistic. However, in the seven games since July ended (with six of those admittedly coming against the garbage White Sox), Boston has hit .288/.357/.559. They’re not that good they’re absolutely able to get that hot for periods of time, such as, oh I don’t know, five or seven game stretches.
Individually, we’ve seen odd seasons from Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts featuring less power than we know is there. The same could be said, in fact, of Jackie Bradley, Dustin Pedroia, Mitch Moreland, and even though maybe unfairly, Andrew Benintendi. That’s quite a group of players for whom a collective small bump towards career average could mean a substantial uptick in team offensive production.
Put it all together and you’ve got a team with a potentially dominating top of the rotation, a fantastic bullpen (and imagine, if Price does get healthy, how adding Pomeranz to the pen would look), and offense that’s over due for a break out. The ’04 team’s comeback against the Yankees, the ’07 team’s comeback against the Indians, and pretty much every damn thing about the 2013 team teach us that in the baseball playoffs you never know what can happen. But it’s not all luck, despite Billy Beane’s famous statement. Having Madison Bumgarner can help. Having Keith Foulke doesn’t hurt. The Red Sox have reasonable facsimiles of those guys, and a lineup with the capability to get moving at a more productive clip. It’s not hard to squint into the sun and see this Red Sox team doing something we haven’t seen since the august October of 2013. So when it happens, if it happens, you can be shocked, you can be surprised, you can be euphoric, but don’t say nobody ever saw it coming.
Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports