It seems like when the Red Sox' record gets brought up these days, it inevitably comes with an asterisk:
*Only ___ games back.
After yesterday's game, that number is seven, at least in the wild card race. It's a significant gap, to be sure, but not quite into that territory where most are comfortable declaring the 2014 Red Sox season to be over.
Unfortunately, I'm here to convince you that there's more to it than just that. That "seven games back" doesn't tell the whole story, and that the reality of the situation suggests that, yes, the 2014 Red Sox are just too far gone.
There are two ways to recover from a deficit in the standings. On the one hand, a team can play excellent baseball. On the other hand, a team can collapse. A 25-25 team gains as many games on a 15-35 team as a 35-15 team gains on them. Typically, a major shakeup in the standings from June to September will involve some of both.
If the Red Sox were chasing just the Seattle Mariners, that might be construed as good news. The Red Sox don't need to be overwhelmingly good if the Mariners are relatively mediocre--not that outrageous a scenario given their offense (yes, the one that has utterly annihilated the Red Sox these past two games).
But they're not chasing just the Seattle Mariners. The Red Sox don't just need to be seven games better than Seattle. They need to be seven games better than Seattle. And six games better than Baltimore and Kansas City. And five games better than New York, 3 games better than Cleveland and Minnesota, and two games better than the White Sox and Rangers.
Maybe you think some of these eight scenarios are quite likely. Maybe you give the Red Sox a 90% chance of beating out the White Sox, Indians, Rangers, and Twins if they really push for the playoffs. Hell, let's say, just as a thought experiment, that the Red Sox are 90% favorites to gain all the ground they need to against each team between them and the playoffs individually.
A 90% chance to overtake any given team still leaves the Red Sox unlikely to make the playoffs. It wouldn't make them big underdogs, but it's nearly 3:2 against.
Now let's start talking more realistic numbers. How likely is it that the Red Sox gain seven games on Seattle? I'd put my confidence well below 90% on that. Ditto Kansas City, Baltimore, and New York. You change one of those 90% odds to 50% and you're down to 3:1 against to make the playoffs. One more and we're talking more like 9:1 (there's been some rounding going on). And honestly, saying the Red Sox are 50-50 to make up that ground against any one of these teams is hilariously generous.
If the Red Sox were chasing just one or two teams, "seven games back" might actually mean something. Even in that situation, they'd need quite a bit to go their way to catch up, but it wouldn't be impossible, exactly.
That's not the case, however. Instead they're chasing eight. Even in the AL East, they're chasing three. The Red Sox can't even just play great baseball at this point. If they go 55-29 to close out the season with 90 wins which, let's be honest, seems entirely unlikely as is, they still have to fade Seattle, Baltimore, Kansas City, and New York going on a far-more-reasonable run of their own. They have to be the only team that performs well. And if we start talking about less ridiculous streaks from the Red Sox--even playing at the levels of the 2013 team and rattling off 50 wins in 84 games--then even just playing as well as they have so far this season would be enough for Seattle and Baltimore. Even slight improvements from Kansas City and New York gets the job done.
If it costs fans and the team nothing to keep believing, then there would be no reason to face facts and give up on 2014. But that's not the case. A team that's given up can trade away resources to improve for the future. They can dole out playing time to players who need experience and, in the process, evaluate who can and cannot be expected to contribute in years to come. And they can avoid expending resources on trades that will only be any help to 2014 rather than 2015 and beyond.
If it's time to give up, Red Sox fans, that's not such a bad thing. No team wins every year, and while it's jarring to go from the World Series to non-contenders, it's a rare privilege to have such success so fresh in our memories during difficult times like these. For now, rather than chasing desperately after an outcome which passes by improbable to border on impossible, let's start thinking about how we can get back to those heights as soon as possible.