How They Got Here II: Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox have two potential MVP candidates (Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez), possibly the best defensive center fielder in the game (Jackie Bradley Jr.), a top five Cy Young Award candidate (Chris Sale), one of the five best closers in baseball (Craig Kimbrel) and If the Red Sox hadn’t been so successful in recent years Alex Cora could have been Manager of the Year.
After a season in which they led baseball in runs scored and OPS, they were the underdogs while having home field advantage in both the Divisional and Championship series.
The Yankees were a powerhouse offense that broke records for the most home runs in a single season and they had one of the most dominant bullpens we have seen since the 1990 Cincinnati Reds “Nasty Boys.”
On paper, the bullpens were where the most glaring differences were. The Red Sox were a more sound, all around ball club and they were just as good if not better in most of the statistical metrics as well. The bullpen was a Yankee strength and a Red Sox weakness. It was a pronounced difference between two 100-win teams. The playoffs are a sprint that can be won in the bullpen and the Yankees had a clear advantage. The Milwaukee Brewers did their best to do it in the NLCS and it wasn’t outlandish to think the Yankees could do it in the ALDS.
The Red Sox offense started games strong and their bullpen finished much better than most expected. The series had its drama, but it wasn’t all that close. The Red Sox won and they won convincingly. The Red Sox bullpen was every bit as good and that was with a Craig Kimbrel implosion to make things dicey.
The ALCS Pre-Series Narratives
The Houston Astros won 100 games in the regular season and then beat a formidable Cleveland Indians team in convincing fashion in the Divisional series. Alex Bregman was unstoppable, the starting rotation was stellar and the ALCS stage was set.
The Red Sox street cred should have been legitimized with their win over the Yankees. They won 108 games in the regular season and they beat their hated rival in five games, closing it out in the Bronx on hallowed Yankee ground in a series that had its moments, but was won convincingly by Boston.
The Boston Red Sox had their league best 2018 season, two potential MVP’s and Chris Sale - hobbled and ill - but in line to start Game 1. The Houston Astros had a previous MVP (Jose Altuve), a potential MVP (Alex Bregman) and possibly the best starting pitching staff since the Atlanta Braves of the mid-90’s that had Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine… or maybe the 2013 Detroit Tigers? That Tigers staff was fronted by Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. That was the narrative entering the ALCS.
The American League Championship Series
Craig Kimbrel had shaken them with his struggles in the Bronx and fans still hadn’t come around to the belief that the bullpen could shutdown a powerful Astros offense even though it had against an equally powerful Yankees one. Chris Sale didn’t look right after his shoulder issues in September and there wasn’t a fan anywhere near Fenway that wanted David Price toeing the rubber in Fenway against another powerhouse right handed lineup.
The Red Sox bullpen had been criticized for being a major problem even though they tied for eighth in ERA with the Los Angeles Dodgers (3.72) and allowed fewer home runs (67 vs. 64) while blowing only two more saves (18 vs. 20) than the Yankees.
In the ALDS Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, and even Chris Sale and Rick Porcello combined to pitch 11.1 innings without allowing an earned run. Fans and the media alike weren’t buying it.
When doing predictions, most analysts look at the starting pitching matchups and whoever wins those, wins. The Astros had Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton with Lance McCullers next up if they wanted or needed him. The Red Sox had two starters make 30 starts or more (Rick Porcello and David Price) and two of their five starters made 27 (Chris Sale) and 23 starts (Eduardo Rodriguez) in 2018. They didn’t have a single starter pitch 200 innings or more while the Astros had three.
David Price was knocked around by the Yankees and with a similar Astros lineup coming to Fenway for Game two, it looked like the same would happen. Chris Sale was the only Red Sox starter to strike out at least 200 batters this season, while the Astros had three (Verlander - Cole and Morton), and he entered the series after a stint on the disabled list in September and reduced velocity upon his return. And, he didn’t look right in his starts against the Yankees leading up to the ALCS either.
It isn’t a surprise that the Red Sox season was discounted and the Astros were favored. The Astros solidified their biggest weakness by acquiring Ryan Pressly to help Roberto Osuna late in games, while the Red Sox didn’t. They added Nate Eovaldi instead of, rather than as well as, a reliever. They were criticised for not making an impact move like the Indians did by acquiring Brad Hand and Adam Cimber or even the Yankees, who added Zach Britton to a bullpen that was already one of the best in baseball.
On top of that, the Astros rotation led the league with a 3.11 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 1,687 strikeouts. The Red Sox ranked eighth in team ERA (3.75) and innings pitched (1,458.2 IP) and ninth in team WHIP (1.25).
The Red Sox entered the series with a slightly better offense while they looked overwhelmingly overmatched in the starting rotation while the bullpens were more or less a wash. There was a feeling that the Astros rotation would limit their bullpens exposure that would result in an edge for the Astros as well.
The American League Championship Series
The Red Sox scored six earned runs in 12 Justin Verlander pitched innings, four earned runs in six Gerrit Cole innings pitched and they chased Charlie Morton after only two and a third after plating three earned. They also scored four earned off young up and coming prospect Josh James in a relief appearance and 12 earned runs in 18.2 innings pitched against their bullpen overall.
Craig Kimbrel, once again, had his struggles while Brandon Workman had a meltdown, allowing four earned in the lone Red Sox loss of the series. The rest of the bullpen held down the Astros bats and were the key to the series.
Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly all pitched three innings or more,12 in total, and allowed two earned runs and one home run. If you eliminate Kimbrel and Workman’s six earned runs, the bullpen, which included 2.1 innings from starters Rick Porcello and Nate Eovaldi, allowed two earned and struck out 18 Astros in 16 innings pitched.
A heavily right handed relief core was able to dominate an overly right handed Astros lineup. That’s where the series was won. The Red Sox hit their share, but it was the right-on-right matchup in the late innings that made the difference.
The World Series
This is what will be interesting about the World Series.
The matchups are different. The Yankees and the Astros were almost carbon copies of each other.
The Dodgers are a different animal. They are more balanced, though less talented. They have more left handed bats as well as more left handed arms, both in the rotation and the bullpen. It’s counterintuitive with batters like Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Steven Pearce and Xander Bogaerts, but it’s a 2018 statistical reality - the Red Sox are better against right handed pitching.
What’s also an oddity and a new playoff reality; so are the Dodgers. It will be a great series. Kershaw and Sale are in position to cement their place in baseball’s history books beginning with Game one if they can dominate on the biggest stage.
We’ll see who steps up. I expect it to be the Boston Red Sox in Six.