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Don’t let the Astros fool you: The Red Sox are still very close

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They’re simply too good, and the playoffs are too random, for anyone to panic. Even if they will anyway.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It seems inconceivable as of, today, Friday, November 3rd, 2017, that this year’s Red Sox were fighting over the same World Series trophy that’s being paraded around Houston, perhaps literally right now, as you’re reading this. After seven dinger-laden Astros games against the Yankees and seven more against the Dodgers, there was enough time between the Sox’s final loss and the end of the baseball season that you could be forgiven for writing off Boston’s whole ALDS exit as a fait accompli. After watching Houston do that to Los Angeles, how, on Earth, could you think the Red Sox could have done the same, or could do so next year?

I don’t have an easy answer for you. I, too, feel helpless and a little impotent on their behalf. It’s hard to watch the Astros and Dodgers hit 2,000 home runs over seven electric games and think that the rubbery Sox, who hit 16 all season, would have been able to keep up. It’s magical thinking, the provenance of pie-eyed contrarians who insist, still, that on Boston’s best days, the Sox still truly are as good as anyone. It seems like a view of someone you really don’t want to sit next to on the bus or train or at Thanksgiving. It’s exhausting.

More than that, it’s annoying and, right now, irrelevant: The Sox have been aced in the ALDS two years running, so it’s forever attempting to prove a negative. It suggests that more or less running it back with this year’s slappy lineup could yield real results. It doesn’t pass the smell test. The obstacles are real: The Yankees didn’t win 100 games, but their third-order winning percentage suggests that they easily could have. They’re good now, and they’re ready to spend. It’s not the best situation for Boston.

It’s also not the worst. The most annoying part about those hopeless optimists is that they’re right. You can crunch all the numbers in the world, but in the end playoff baseball is contested among good-as-hell teams who can and will regularly beat each other, at best, 60 percent of the time. No one wants to hear it, not leastwise because they’d rather be at a Duck Boat parade right now, but the Sox were a good enough team to win the World Series this year.

I know. It seems insane, but it’s true.

Last year the Red Sox got swept by the team that later lost the World Series in seven games. This year the Sox won one game against the team that eventually won the World Series in seven games. So, progress?

Maybe not. If it is, it’s as superficial as progress gets, because it feels like the Sox took a step backward this year, not forward. The cold reality of the season is that they merely stayed in place in a league with three 100-win teams.

It was easy to watch the World Series and think to myself that the Sox had no shot against either of them, because they were so overbearingly, obviously good. We have a sample size of several games against the Astros suggesting their ALDS win was no joke, but they were two innings away from forcing a do-or-die Game 5 with Chris Sale on the mound when everything went to shit for the Sox and Houston ended up celebrating at Fenway Park.

For the Astros, it was merely the first step in a storybook run. For Boston, It was the definition of “close, but no cigar.” The Astros had the cigars, lighting up the Hub in celebration even if they had merely advanced to face the Yankees. Baseball is funny that way. Literally any excuse to extend your season and it’s time for a bacchanal. It’s as conspicuous as a network TV orgy ought to be. It also distorts how we see the postseason, and works to widen the perception of a huge ostensible gulf between great and near-great teams.

It’s simply much smaller than it feels right now. In the midst of our (my) self-loathing, it’s easy forget the math (presented here after John Farrell’s ouster):

If the playoffs are not a total coin flip — the best teams always have a better chance of advancing, because they are the best teams — the margins with which they’re working scarcely exist over the course of a week, especially against other very good baseball teams. Based on order of finish in the American League, this randomness is how the Yankees beat the Indians and almost beat the Astros, and why the Sox have a shot every time they make the playoffs. They have buckets of talent. They just need to find pinches of luck.

In shorthand, one might call this the “Moneyball method” of building a team: Make the playoffs and worry about the rest later. Given that the A’s didn’t win a title during the Moneyball stretch, the “Moneyball method” sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it’s really just an axiom a la the lottery’s irrepressible “You gotta be it to win it” pitchline. You can’t win under in October if you’re not playing in October. The World Series distorts how far the start of the playoffs is from the end of them, but the chasm between the winners and losers is hardly as wide as it suggests. If you feel flaccid on Boston’s behalf after watching that World Series, you’re not alone. The Sox still have the tools to win, and it’ll be hard, but it can be done.