The playoffs are kind of a crap-shoot. there. While you will often see one of the top teams in the league win the Fall Classic (the 103 win Cubs in 2017, 97 win Red Sox in 2013, or 103 win Yankees in 2009 are the first to come to mind), a team that barely squeaks in always has a chance (*cough* 2006 Cardinals *cough).
As loathe as I am to talk about the San Francisco Giants, their win in 2014 is the best story we can tell to explain why the Sox have a chance in October. The Giants, if you’ll recall, limped into the postseason, having to play a wild card play-in game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Pittsburgh.
Behind the excellent pitching of Madison Bumgarner, the Giants found themselves in the NLDS against the top-seeded Washington Nationals. The Giants hit exactly one home run in four games against the Nationals, and their team ERA was higher, but the Giants eked out a series win thanks to great bullpen pitching. The Giants also won an 18-inning marathon game that I can still recall vividly (fun fact - my favorite team in the NL is the Nationals, and my second least favorite is the Giants, so I had a heavy rooting interest). The ‘pen is a strength of the Red Sox. Of note, the Giants got six innings of work out of Yusmeiro Petit, where he gave up only one hit and three walks. The Sox closest comparison to that may be David Price, who almost certainly will not be starting in October. That’s a box checked.
In the NLCS, they took on the Good Luck St. Louis Cardinals (so named for their ability to always win in the most impossible ways and just be annoying). Again, their pitching was simply greater than that of the Cardinals, and again, it points back to the bullpen. The Giants pen gave up 3 earned runs in 16 innings, a 1.69 ERA. They hit slightly more this series, but they still couldn’t be called a good offensive club, winning in spite of their offense, rather than thanks to it.
They then fought in an insane World Series with the similarly styled Kansas City Royals. The Royals, for what it is worth, were a wild card team from the other league. The only difference is that the Royals got to play at home in their play-in game, whereas the Giants were on the road. In the World Series, the Giants bats came alive. They didn’t hit for power, but they did hit to all fields and played a good contact game. They did this by being a bit more aggressive. They ended up striking out as much in the World Series as they did in the NLDS and NLCS combined, two fewer games. The bullpen was good, albeit not as good as it was in the prior two series, as the Giants gave up 8 ER in 27.1 IP (2.63 ERA). Instead, it was Bumgarner again who carried the load. He only allowed 1 ER in 21 IP, and was part of the bullpen for a game. He pitched the last 5 innings of Game 7 of the World Series, allowing a grand total of 2 hits. He won the World Series MVP, and the rest is history.
So what can the Red Sox take from this story? The Red Sox aren’t a wild card team, but there are some similarities between the two teams. Chiefly, the strength of the 2014 Giants and 2017 Red Sox are similar. The Red Sox bullpen is outstanding, being second in bullpen ERA behind only the Indians. Additionally, the Sox recently got David Price back, who has been lights out in relief, since coming back. While his post-season woes are well-known, this is his best chance to shake that monkey off his back, and fulfill the team’s “Yusmeiro Petit” role.
The Red Sox also are not a big home run team. They ranked 27th in team Home Runs, and while the boost of Rafael Devers has helped raise things a tad, he’s a 20 year old rookie about to get his first taste of the playoffs. In short, we cannot rely on the Red Sox to hit home runs. While their station to station game has worked well enough to help the Sox get into the postseason, it is a legitimate question as to whether it will work once we get there.
If the Sox can be a bit more aggressive at the plate at times when the envelope is pushed, there’s a chance that they can outscore their current pace (currently 10th in MLB in runs). It may mean more strikeouts, but it can give the team the boost it needs, as one can see with the 2014 Giants in the World Series.
The Sox will play the Houston Astros in the first round, and as already seen, the Astros are not a joke. The Astros will not lay down, and since acquiring Justin Verlander, the team has been that much more deadly. In the playoffs, the Astros will be utilizing a rotation of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Brad Peacock, and possibly Charlie Morton or Collin McHugh. However, the Astros bullpen is very middle of the field. Their bullpen ERA ranks seventh out of the ten playoff teams, ahead of only the Rockies, Twins, and Nationals.
With that said, it seems pretty clear where the Sox best chance of beating the Astros lies. The Astros have a superior offense, and their rotation is possibly better than that of the Sox. The Sox will throw out Chris Sale (who had a 3.72 ERA in September), Drew Pomeranz (who was visibly dropping in velocity early into Saturday’s game), Eduardo Rodriguez (Had a 1.78 ERA in September before the series against Houston, where he was visibly uncomfortable, and was removed early - hopefully not a sign of things to come), and possibly Rick Porcello or Doug Fister (either of which, if not both, could also be long men out of the pen, along with Price).
If the Red Sox can keep the score close, and play their brand of baseball (which is essentially tiring the opposing starter out, and forcing the opposing team to use their bullpen), then the game shifts to the Sox strength, the bullpen. Once the game gets into the pen, the Sox deep arsenal, which includes Price, Addison Reed, Carson Smith, Craig Kimbrel, and surprisingly decent hidden weapons beyond them, can more than contend with Houston’s offerings. The Sox own the later innings, and if the Sox are to win the ALDS against the Astros, walk-offs and extra innings are probably the most likely way to do it.
By this same token, the only team that can contend with Boston’s bullpen is Cleveland’s. But while the Indians bullpen is better on paper, they do not have the extra inning depth that Boston has. Once into extras, the Indians will be forced to use up their excellent pitchers (Miller/Allen/et al), and then rely on long relievers with mid 4s/low 5s ERAs, such as Trevor Bauer or Josh Tomlin. From there, it’s a battle of attrition, one the Sox are prepared to fight, with all the long men on their roster.
Should the Sox manage to blow by the Astros and the Indians, awaiting them in the World Series is the NL Champ, whoever it may be. And no matter who it is, if the Sox manage to get there, I believe they will have the advantage, as no team in the NL can contend with the Sox bullpen.
Lost in all of this is a potential x-factor that has never been battle tested in the playoffs, despite an excellent career: Chris Sale. Will he rise to the occasion, put up Madison Bumgarner numbers, and destroy everything in his path? He seems to rise to competition, so even if he’s a bit tired there might be enough adrenaline in the tank to power through October for the first time. Even if Chris Sale isn’t a beast in the playoffs, he represents an option that can go deep and save the bullpen for games where starters can’t go deep (Pomeranz, for all of his success this year, feels like a guy who might only go 5-6 innings per start, given his recent velocity dip, and desire to keep him healthy for 2018).
I wouldn’t say it’s likely the Sox win the World Series. I don’t even think it’s particularly likely the Sox beat the Astros in the ALDS. I might give the Sox a 40% chance of winning that series, and less than a 5% chance of winning it all, and that might even be a generous estimate. But I do think there’s reason to be excited, and believe there’s a chance for glory.
Because after all, the playoffs are a crapshoot.