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What the Red Sox’ struggles in close games tell us

Why can’t the Red Sox win as many games as it seems they should?

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Red Sox outscored the Blue Jays 26-14. Thankfully, this time, that at least translated to a 2-1 series win, but that has not always been the case for these Sox. In fact, perhaps no team in the league has done quite so impressive a job of turning incredible run differentials into mediocre results.

That has never been so clear as these past few weeks, when the Red Sox made quite the habit of losing one-run games. Since August 23rd, when they knocked off the Rays 2-1, the Red Sox have lost their last six straight one-run decisions. Heading into Sunday’s game against the Jays, they were 8-8 over their last 16 despite a +39 run differential over that period.

For context, here are some other noteworthy run differentials on the entire season:

Orioles: +35

Tigers: +9

Rangers: +19

Astros: +38

Mets: +28

And this isn’t even bothering to mention a few teams that are well over .500 despite having surrendered more runs than they’ve scored.

I imagine the concept really doesn’t much need to be explained, but simply put, when a team scores a lot more runs than it allows, it should be winning games. When that number is +39, sitting at .500 over any stretch is pretty crazy, much less over one as short as 16 games.

But this isn’t a new development for the Red Sox. At +163 the only American League team that’s even in the same universe as them in terms of run differential is Cleveland. And yet, the Red Sox are in third when looking at the overall American League standings.

So, simply put, what gives?

Some of this is certainly on the bullpen. If there’s one area of clear weakness for Boston, it’s that they’re not really sure who to turn to in relief outside of Craig Kimbrel and Brad Ziegler. If the Red Sox weren’t the sort of team that can get to their bullpen with a lead, this actually would produce the opposite effect, as close losses became blowouts. But as it happens between the lineup and the (second-half) rotation, when the Sox do lose it’s often because they headed into the seventh up two and finished the ninth down one.

That’s really not always the case, though. Just look at Saturday’s one-run loss to J.A. Happ, the 1-2 loss to Edwin Jackson, and the 1-2 loss to Jake Odorizzi and the Rays. Three one-run losses in that 8-8 span. Three of the six one-run losses during the 8-8 stretch saw 6.2 scoreless innings from the bullpen, and there’s plenty more close games over the course of the season that have nothing to do with the relief corps.

Another explanation is that the Sox just can’t hit great pitching, but I don’t think anyone would level that accusation against them. If anything, they play down to poor competition more often than they fail to play up against great arms. The top five starters in the American League (by ERA) have allowed 26 runs to the Red Sox in just over 50 innings of work. They’re not particularly prone to famine, either. Compared to the next-best offensive team in the AL in the Indians, they’ve been shut out the same number of times, and scored three-or-less a lot less often than Cleveland. That extends to four-or less, five-or-less, etc. The Red Sox have scored a lot more runs than the Indians, and that’s not just because they’ve put up 14+ a few times.

What, then, are we to make of all this? Honestly, you could easily take it as a positive. Not, obviously, that the Red Sox are winning fewer games than you’d expect based on run differential. But look at it this way: would you rather have an 80-win team (through 142 games) that’s good at winning close games, or an 80-win team that’s bad at winning close games (as the Red Sox are right now)?

I think most people would initially say they’d prefer the team that’s good at winning close games. In a vacuum, you take the positive over the negative. But the reality is that displaying the ability to win close games says less about the true talent level of the team than their ability to win big or lose big. Once we’ve established that both teams are 80-62, what really matters is how they’re likely to play from that point on.

The team that’s good at winning close games? Some of that might be the bullpen, but the reality is that some of it is also going to be luck. Small swings of fortune can change a 3-4 lead into a 3-4 loss—things the players can’t control like hitting a line drive just a foot closer to an outfielder, or having his fly ball come at just the right time to catch that gust of wind to carry out of the park.

On the other hand, you certainly can’t explain away many 8-2 wins on the basis of luck. Teams don’t get blown out based on weird bounces or perfectly-placed swinging bunts. And while clearly the team that averages 5.6 runs scored and 4.4 allowed can see that distributed such that they come out behind or even with the team that averages 5 scored and 4.8 allowed, the reality is they usually won’t, and if both teams continue to score and surrender runs at those rates over their last 20 games, the team with the better run differential is very likely to win more games. In many ways “good at” or “bad at winning close games” is just another way of saying “overperforming” or “underperforming their true talent level” respectively.

Yes, some of it is the bullpen. You can even ascribe some of it to some form of clutch if you really want to (though, given the players on this team, that seems questionable). Realistically, though, the Red Sox’ poor record in close games doesn’t expose any intangible weakness that we weren’t previously aware of. It’s simply a sign that they’re better than their record shows. That’s unfortunate for their current position in the AL East (enviable though it may be), but good news for their chances going forward.