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How They Got Here: The 2018 Boston Red Sox

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

How They Got Here: The Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have clinched the 2018 American League East division with a franchise record win total and a feeling that this team is special. As the playoffs approach there are concerns about Chris Sale’s health, why Andrew Benintendi isn’t hitting, and most notably, can the bullpen survive the gauntlet of offenses they will have to navigate to win a World Series.

That’s looking ahead. I want to look back at how the Red Sox got here to begin with.

In 2017, their first season after David Ortiz’s retirement and a year before the free agent addition of J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox ranked 22nd in OPS (736), 10th in runs scored (785), and 27th of 30 teams in home runs (168). The only teams that hit fewer home runs than the Red Sox in 2017 were the 72-90 Atlanta Braves, the 75-87 Pittsburgh Pirates and the 64-98 San Francisco Giants and none of those teams have the designated hitter or benefit from the Green Monster.

In 2018, the Red Sox rank 1st overall in OPS (.787) and runs scored (833), while moving all the way up to ninth in home runs (199). With five games remaining they have hit 31 more home runs and scored 48 more runs. The uptick in offensive production doesn’t entirely explain how they have 106 wins in 157 games in 2018 as opposed to a 93-69 record in 2017, but it helps.

The pitching staff has been more or less the same in 2018 as it was in 2017. Their 2017 team ERA (3.70), WHIP (1.25), innings pitched (1482.1), and strikeouts (1580) are all comparable to their 2018 totals in ERA (3.67), WHIP (1.24), innings pitched (1413.2) and strikeouts (1499) with five games remaining. The bullpen is the place the Boston media has focused their fears and in some ways it is warranted.

In 2017, their bullpen allowed 186 earned runs - 198 overall. They ranked second with an ERA of 3.15, a WHIP of 1.17 and they struck out 579 batters in 531 innings pitched. In 2018, they have allowed 220 earned runs - 226 overall. They rank fifth in ERA (3.54), 11th in WHIP (1.28) and they have struck out 591 batters in 559 innings pitched.

The 2018 bullpen has been worse than it was in 2017, but the concerns from the media outweighs the reality of the statistics. The ratios are worse and the statistics are all higher in 2018 than they were in 2017, but they have also pitched more innings this season. With five games remaining, the bullpen has given 41 more free passes, allowed 40 more base hits and 41 more earned runs in 28 more innings pitched. They have actually allowed one fewer home run and struck out 12 more batters.

Statistically, the bullpen hasn’t been exponentially worse under Alex Cora than they were when John Farrell was “mismanaging” this bullpen.

The chemistry and the way this team has consistently proven night after night and series after series that they are playing a superior form of baseball than a lot of their opponents is noteworthy and the facts on the ground help support the anecdotal evidence.

In 2017, the Baltimore Orioles finished last in the division with a record of 75-87, while the Toronto Blue Jays were 76-86. In 2018, the Orioles are currently 45-111 and the Blue Jays are 71-86. In 2018, the Red Sox were 14-2 against the Orioles and 12-4 against the Blue Jays. In 2017, they were 9-10 against the Orioles and 13-6 against the Blue Jays.

That’s four more wins against the bottom two teams in the division from one year to the next.

The Red Sox also improved their road record from 45-36 to 51-30 - six more wins - and their home record from 48-33 to 55-21 with five remaining contests. They have had the same record in interleague play (16-4) in back-to-back seasons, while the remaining victories can be chalked up to better win/loss records against non-division opponents in a year when the separation between the haves and the have nots in the American League is growing.

An argument can be made that its due to lesser competition, but a Red Sox team that has scored more runs and appears to be better this season than last should win more this year than last too. The “lesser competition” argument isn’t a compelling one even though it is an easy target.

In 2018, Xander Bogaerts has had something closer to the impressive kind of offensive season that he has shown signs that he had in him, but the biggest difference is J.D. Martinez as an MVP candidate and Mookie Betts having a bounce back season after a 2017, that for him, was a disappointment.

Chris Sale is Chris Sale, but David Price has been a David Price that Red Sox fans have never seen in their uniform. He had been a dominant foe in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform, but as a Red Sox he had been an overpaid disappointment, until the second half of 2018. To win the World Series a team needs two aces and Price’s 2.00 ERA, .90 WHIP, 62 strikeouts in 63 innings pitched post All Star break performance has looked like the second ace this staff needs to be a favorite to be World Champions.

The 2017 Red Sox were a team that was able to fight off a surging Yankees roster filled with players that exceeded all reasonable expectations. Luis Severino pitched like an ace (230 strikeouts, 2.98 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 193.1 innings pitched) after never throwing more than 75 innings in a major league season, never struck out more than a batter per inning and coming on the back of a 2016 season when he had an ERA of 5.83 and a WHIP of 1.45. Aaron Judge hit 52 home runs in one of the best rookie seasons we have ever season and Gary Sanchez had an offensive season rarely seen from catchers, when he hit 33 home runs with an .876 OPS while playing 122 games. Even Aaron Hicks hit 15 home runs in only 88 games, also a career high.

Entering the 2017 playoffs, the feel from Fenway was more cautious hope than eager enthusiasm. The Yankees surprising season and the lack of a thumper in the Red Sox lineup played a part in that narrative.

Expectations weren’t very high and while losing to the best team in baseball and eventual World Series champion Houston Astros is nothing to be overly enraged about, the fact that the Red Sox didn’t look like they belonged on the same field in the playoffs resulted in a lot of disappointment and probably contributed to John Farrell’s firing and Alex Cora’s hiring.

The expectations are much higher after a 100+ win season that most feel has been magical and that has led to laser focused outrage about the lack of a shut down bullpen. As we approach the 2018 playoffs there are a few narratives flowing through the microphones and on the Boston Web Sites. The fears about the bullpen and the feeling that the Yankees aren’t the formidable opponent that they appeared to be in 2017 or what they looked like they would be in July or even August of 2018, are two of the bigger ones.

Red Sox fans are probably hoping that the Oakland A’s can upset the big, bad Evil Empire in the Wild Card play-in game, but they may want to be careful what they wish for because they might just get it.

The A’s are a league best 40-20 since the All Star break and they rank first in runs scored and third in team ERA (3.39) over those 60 games. And, the Red Sox are 9-7 against the Yankees while they are 2-4 versus the underdog A’s this season. The A’s are this seasons surging 2017 Yankees. The West Coast can be a fun trip for fans and beach goers, but it may not be for a Red Sox team that has to win the World Series or risk ruining a special season for their fans. Making things worse.

The moment the 2018 season is over it will be impossible to ignore how quickly the window for winning another World Series is closing. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez, and Craig Kimbrel could all be gone beginning in 2019 and prior to the start of the 2020 or 2021 seasons.

Now is fun, later comes quick in sports and in Boston, it can come brutally.

Chris Mitchell

Twitter: @CJMitch73