The Red Sox are a good baseball team. The Red Sox are also a flawed baseball team. These are two characteristics that seem to contradict each other but can exist in the same universe, and in fact would probably describe just about every team in the league. Well, except for maybe the good part. But every team has its flaws, and the season is about who can best mask those flaws and keep their effects on the sidelines long enough to put wins into the bank for the final standings. The Red Sox have done a tremendous job at putting their flaws, which may outweigh those belonging to some other teams in the same range in the standings, to the side.
I’m still not really sure where I put this Red Sox team in the grand scheme of this year in the scope of the whole league. They are certainly one of the better teams and easily a playoff contender, if not a favorite for one of the five American League spots, but where they rank among those top teams is more unclear. It seems the various power rankings around the interwebs (an imperfect science that is generally not worth getting worked up over in either direction) peg them somewhere in the back half of the top 10. That sounds right, and also indicates there is still some work to be done.
But I want to talk about the work that has already been done to get them just to this position, which is already ahead of where most expected them to be this season. A lot of the success is due to tangible characteristics and strong performances from players and coaches who deserve all the praise in the world. The core of the lineup has been elite and carried the group when needed. The pitching staff has surprised everyone, with credit going to both the players for doing the job and the coaches for clearly coming into the season with a plan and executing said plan almost flawlessly.
But there’s something else this team has as well that can’t be accounted for. There’s a scene in Breaking Bad where Walt and his former lab partner Gretchen are trying to account for the complete chemical composition of the human body. They are left with an infinitesimal chunk missing, a gap to which they credit the human soul. It’s intangible, but still there. For the Red Sox, most of the composition can be broken down into tangible contributions from players, coaches, front office members, et cetera. But as with the human body, there’s a small percentage left unaccounted for. I would argue that gap can be found in the form of resilience, and it’s been the key characteristic for this team.
There’s been a saying in baseball, and really all sports, for years that suggests good teams just find ways to win. They’re talking about the sort of games where it seems like everything is going wrong, and yet by the time the final out is recorded it’s the Red Sox who are out on the field handing out high-fives, celebrating another victory. It’s one of those things that pretty much everyone agrees upon, but no one can really put a finger on what it is. I’m not going to try and put my finger on it right now either, but I think the Red Sox have it. At least they have so far this year.
Boston has simply gotten wins when they’ve needed them, and has done so in every form. They are winning games they’re not supposed to, and coming back from deficits left and right. There are tangible reasons for this as well — the bullpen has been terrific for most of the year and the core of the lineup is always a threat to put up a handful of runs in whichever inning they may come up — but when it happens enough you almost have to assign some sort of intangible quality. It, or resilience.
Just looking at what the Red Sox have done 67 games into the season, with 41 percent of the schedule in the books, and they’ve done everything they’ve had to. They’ve had the aforementioned come-from-behind wins. They’ve beaten good teams at a good clip, coming into today with a 22-15 record against teams with winning records, the fourth-best record in the game. They’ve also excelled in the nailbiters, with a 12-6 record in one-run games that is only bested by the Angels.
They’ve gotten wins when their backs have seemed to be up against the wall, going right back to the second series of the year when they were coming off a sweep at the hands of the Orioles, on the verge of falling back into the 2020 spiral. Instead, they swept the now-MLB-best Rays, and won nine straight games in total. They bounced back from a disappointing series in Texas against the Rangers to win five of their next six. They lost three in a row to Baltimore and Oakland, and then won seven of their next nine. They had that horrible series in Houston, then answered back with a sweep in the Bronx. They’ve had some high highs, but more importantly they’ve avoided the lowest of lows, even when those lows appeared inevitable.
And it’s not just on a game-by-game basis either. They do the little things you need to do when you're back is up against the wall. They have a tremendous amount of success at the plate with two outs, scoring the second-most runs in baseball in that situation with the fifth-highest OBP and the sixth-highest OPS. Similarly, they’ve been good with two strikes, sitting in the top 10 in terms of OPS in those situations and in the top five in two-strike homers.
And while the stars have been getting all of the credit on offense, and deservedly so, the non-stars are coming through when needed. Baseball-Reference has a stat called tOPS+ that compares a player’s stat line in a certain split to their overall performance for the season. A number above 100 indicates they’ve been better in whatever situation for which you’re searching than they have been overall. In high leverage situations, only Xander Bogaerts and Kevin Plawecki have been worse than his overall numbers on the Red Sox this year, which speaks to the lack of quit and that it factor that is so hard to put a finger on.
The Red Sox are still going to need a little bit of help to push them over the top later this summer, whether it be in the form of players already in the organization joining the roster or coming in from the outside. But the DNA of this team, led by Alex Cora who deserves a ton of credit for this characteristic, is right on the money. They win when they need to, and even when they really don’t deserve it. They get hits when they need them, and perform when their backs are against the wall. The talent is there to be sure, and we shouldn’t discount the actual performances on the field. But at the same time, it’s been more than that. Call it resilience, call it the it factor, call it whatever you want. But it’s putting the Red Sox right where they need to be.