Many baseball articles start from the assumption that the future isn’t predetermined. What happens now will influence and alter what is to come. That makes sense because it’s true. If you hit yourself in the face with a hammer you’re unlikely to do well at pick-up basketball later that evening down at the gym. Or, maybe more germanely, if Xander Bogaerts learns to stop swinging at sliders low and out of the zone he’ll hit better. But let’s throw all that out. Instead let’s start with the end already known and work backwards to learn how it happened. You read the title so you already know what the something is: the Red Sox have just won the World Series. How did they do it?
Answer: Three different answers.
- Answer 1: The Bullpen Stepped Up
No matter which stat you pick, the Red Sox bullpen has been one of the best in baseball this season. They’re second in ERA, fifth in strikeout percentage, sixth in walk percentage, fourth in FIP, and tied for fourth in xFIP. They’re quite good. So in that sense they don’t have that far to go to be the best. The Red Sox saw last year what a smartly deployed bullpen can do in the post-season when former Red Sox manager and national treasure Terry Francona used Cleveland’s bullpen to help author a series sweep, and they can author their own version of it.
As good as the pen was during the regular season, the good news for the Red Sox is it can get even better during the postseason. Adding David Price and likely Eduardo Rodriguez (or possibly Rick Porcello) to the bullpen can provide the Red Sox multiple quality innings when necessary. Alternatively, a pitcher like Price could represent a real one inning weapon out of the pen, freeing up Addison Reed to be used to put out fires earlier in the game. That’s all before we get to the main strength of Boston’s pen in Craig Kimbrel. We saw Kimbrel throw extended outings during the regular season and once the postseason rolls around those type of outings will likely become the norm. Imagine games where the Red Sox get seven innings out of Chris Sale, then face either Reed or Price, and then Kimbrel. Where’s the opening for an opposing offense in that?
Boston may not score a lot of runs so most of the games are likely to be close, but the Red Sox can win because their starting rotation successfully gets through the lineup twice and their bullpen eliminates any scoring after that.
[cue duck boats]
- Answer 2: Starting Pitching Started Strong
In the postseason, the best players are often magnified. Think Madison Bumgarner for the Giants or, last season, Andrew Miller for the Indians. The Red Sox best player this season is Chris Sale so the burden of greatness naturally falls upon him. Sale represents the chance to win multiple games with minimal help during each round of the playoffs. He could even emerge from the bullpen on multiple occasions in between starts as well. Beyond Sale, the Red Sox can get effective innings from Drew Pomeranz, Doug Fister, and either Porcello or Rodriguez. When starters go deep into games, that means the bullpen is rested and that means the manager has the ability to use only his best relievers for a higher percentage of relief innings.
- Answer 3: Someone in the lineup turned into David Ortiz
Most of you probably remember the 2013 World Series and at least one of its salient details, such as the Red Sox winning. What you might not remember is the offense was putrid. The Red Sox could not hit during much of that postseason and especially so once in the World Series. Through six games, the team as a whole hit .169/.225/.309. How is it possible to win a seven game series – ANY seven game series! – at all, let alone in six games, while hitting (yes I’m going to write it again so please remove all impressionable children and adults with heart conditions from the room) .169/.225/.309?
Well, the Red Sox didn’t actually hit quite that badly. I left one player out. That slash line is how the Red Sox hit without David Ortiz. With Ortiz the Red Sox hit .211/.291/.330. That’s still bad, but it’s a significant jump from the previous slash line. You get a big jump like that when someone hits .688/.760/1.188. Yes, Ortiz was getting on base 76 percent of the time and averaging over a full base per at-bat during the World Series. Insane. Look at Ortiz’s slash line again. That’s what carrying a team looks like when you express it numerically.
For the Red Sox to win, they need someone to do something huge, like that, to start and finish rallies virtually every time up. David Ortiz isn’t around anymore so we need a new guy to carry the team. I nominate Mookie Betts. Betts has had a rough couple months at the plate, but every once in a while he shows flashes of the tremendous talent we all know is still in there. Like Tuesday when Betts went 3-for-5 with two homers and a triple. Unfortunately he followed that day up with an 0-for-3 (with one walk) the next night. Carrying a team is tough work. There’s a reason David Ortiz is David Ortiz.
As a matter of record, the other guy who might just turn it on all at once is Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez has put together stretches like Ortiz’s before in his career even if they haven’t been in the postseason or even this season.
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The good thing for this year’s Red Sox is there are few if any prerequisites for winning the World Series. You needn’t be the best team in baseball (2006 Cardinals) or even in your division (2004 Red Sox) to win it all. Teams have won championships primarily through the power of their starting pitching (2014 San Francisco Giants), they’ve won with an unhittable bullpen (2015 Kansas City Royals), or they’ve been crazy clutch (2011 St. Louis Cardinals). We’ve seen teams win with defense, smart managing, timely hitting, and on and on. It doesn’t hurt to be the best team in baseball, to have the best hitter, pitcher, manager, or whatever, but it sure isn’t required. The Red Sox aren’t the best team in baseball in 2017, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t walk away with the trophy. Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, Mookie Betts, and rest of the team will have their chance to see to that soon enough.
Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports