Whether they like it or not, if the Red Sox make the playoffs this year (a prospect that looks less certain than it did prior to this past weekend’s nightmare series against the Yankees and last night’s loss to the Orioles), they will have to play in the wildcard game, a one-night affair where the winner gets the chance to keep playing and the loser gets a nice participation trophy.
It’s an interesting wrinkle for a sport that is built so thoroughly on longevity and depth. Baseball teams play multi-game series all season and the bulk of the playoffs is determined by best-of-five and best-of-seven-game series. It’s very rare for a single game to decide an entire team’s destiny without the preamble of at least a few preceding contests. You could even look at the wildcard game as the culmination of a 162-game series, with the game itself serving as the proverbial game seven (or game 163) of the regular season.
Regardless of how unique it is, the wildcard round is part of the playoff format and it will (hopefully) be part of the Red Sox’s October plans. Speaking of, the Red Sox will certainly want to play in those longer series of the later rounds of the playoffs as well, which got me thinking: Are the 2021 Red Sox better suited to play in and win a single-elimination playoff game or a seven-game series? Obviously they’ll need (and want) to do both to capture the ultimate prize, but let’s imagine they had to win just one game or one series. For which are they better set up?
To answer this question, let’s try to determine the necessary ingredients for a team that would excel in each type of scenario. Any good team likely has what it takes to do well in both, but there are a few certain elements that could make playing a single game more advantageous than playing a long series and vice versa for a specific team.
The primary place where we’ll find such a difference is the pitching staff. To me, a team better built for a one-game playoff is one with a legitimate ace or very good starting pitcher without a ton of depth behind him as well as a couple of solid (maybe even elite) arms in the bullpen but a weaker group overall. The reasoning here is you can throw out your top arm and then boost the bullpen by adding starters into the mix. For a longer series, having an ace at the top is certainly a plus, but if you have a deep rotation of good pitchers (think the Dodgers or the White Sox right now), you’re likely a team that can grind out a series.
The Red Sox definitely fall into the first group, as they have a pair of strong starters in Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi. However, after those two, the rotation begins to fade. Nick Pivetta has been solid this year (105 ERA+) and Eduardo Rodriguez has flashed strong stuff from time to time, but neither is someone you’d want to trust in a big playoff game (although the Red Sox will have to if they get past the wildcard round). Similarly, Tanner Houck has a ton of promise, but he hasn’t shown enough this year to be thrust into a playoff starting role.
At the same time, the Red Sox’s bullpen has shown a great deal of weakness during the back half of the season. Since August 1, Red Sox relievers are 19th in MLB in fWAR. For context, they are seventh overall for the entire season. When you add in the injury concerns with Garrett Whitlock and Josh Taylor, two of the team’s most reliable and utilized relievers, things look pretty bleak. That’s not something you want over the course of a series, but the Red Sox could potentially balance things out by adding Rodriguez, Pivetta, Houck and even Eovaldi as relievers for a one-game playoff. So, when it comes to the pitching side, I’d say the Red Sox are better suited for a one-game playoff than a seven-game series.
But pitching isn’t the only part of the equation, of course. What about the lineup? Although there is much less fluctuation on that side since there isn’t usually a completely new lineup out there like there is a new starter each day, some lineups may be better suited for a long run vs. a short one. For example, a team with tremendous depth like the Dodgers can mix and match to its heart’s content without sacrificing much in terms of production. Meanwhile, a top-heavy lineup with a weak bench might have a better shot in one game since all it takes is a couple big innings to win and advance.
The Red Sox’s lineup isn’t entirely lopsided toward the top and middle, but there’s an argument to be made that after the seventh spot or so in the order, they are relatively punchless, especially with how poorly Christian Vázquez has hit this season. The Red Sox do have some solid bench players in Kevin Plawecki, Travis Shaw and Christian Arroyo, but overall, the offense lives and dies by what it gets from its top hitters (especially Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Kyle Schwarber and J.D. Martinez). Although having some glaring weak spots in the lineup might make for easy strategizing from an opponent, the Red Sox are likely putting out the same lineup no matter if its one game or seven, meaning it probably doesn’t matter which type of series it plays from that perspective.
But that’s not all for the offensive side. I mentioned the Red Sox’s bench and that can play a big role, especially in a single game. Having a guy who can swipe a bag easily or someone who hits moon shots but isn’t much of a hitter beyond that can turn the tide easily. (We all remember Dave Roberts, right?) Unfortunately, the Red Sox don’t really have someone like that, although Shaw has flashed some big pop in big moments this season. However, the Red Sox’s bench is probably better suited for seven games when depth instead of a single skill set is more important.
There are also considerations for health in this conversation. As mentioned earlier, with Whitlock and Taylor nursing injuries, the Red Sox have less depth for the pitching staff and that’s something that could easily be exposed in seven games. In one game, the Red Sox can navigate themselves around such a shortcoming.
The last two elements to add to the mix are more intangible: experience and location effects. If the Red Sox and their coaching staff were largely new to the playoff scene, then a seven-game series could be a bit more daunting. However, with Alex Cora at the helm, the Red Sox know what winning in the playoffs looks like. Conversely, in a one-game playoff, the Red Sox could play at Fenway Park, where they are 49-32 this season (39-36 on the road). Right now, the Red Sox would not get to host the wildcard game, but if they did, it would be hard to argue that they are better suited to play any games away from home rather than one at Fenway.
All in all, there’s certainly an argument to be made for both sides of this discussion, but, mostly due to the pitching staff, the Red Sox probably have a better chance in a one-game playoff than in a seven-game series. Now they just have to get to that single game.