The Red Sox Were the Best, Despite Their Best

We talk all the time about whether or not the playoffs crown the best team in baseball. Is it more important to be the best team for six months, or is it more important to be the best team for one month? What are we even celebrating, anyway? When you look at the playoffs too hard, and when the playoffs tell a different story than the regular season, it can be difficult to know what to think. You can start to think about these things more than they were ever intended to be thought about. It’s deeply unfulfilling. I can speak from experience.

This year, we get a break. We get a break from having to overthink the tournament, and having to compare it against everything we saw before. The Red Sox won the World Series in five games over the Dodgers. The Red Sox had led all of baseball with 108 wins. In the first two playoff rounds, they eliminated the two other teams that reached triple digits. My favorite standings fact: For true talent, I prefer to look at run differential, or BaseRuns. The four best teams in the regular season were the Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Yankees. The Red Sox knocked out the Yankees, the Astros, and the Dodgers, in order. They lost only one game in each round. Their playoff record was 11-3. Only three champions in the wild-card era have lost fewer games. The Red Sox did that against incredible competition.

All things considered, the Red Sox were the best team of 2018. They presented a lot of the evidence from March through September, and then in October, they made a convincing closing argument. It was what happened in October that turned this from a great team into maybe the greatest Red Sox team in history. By winning the championship, the Red Sox accomplished as much as they possibly could. And there’s something about the title run that’s striking to me. In terms of execution, the playoff Red Sox played almost flawless baseball. Yet they were largely carried by their supporting cast.

If we can just quickly address the elephant in the room: The Red Sox ran baseball’s highest team payroll. Yes, that means the Red Sox had an advantage. Yes, that means the Red Sox were never a real underdog. No, that doesn’t mean the Red Sox were guaranteed anything. Time and time again it’s been shown you can’t just spend your way to a title. Money was just one of the factors powering the Red Sox along. They could spend, but then they had to play, and it’s not like Boston’s opponents are about to go bankrupt.

Look now at who the Red Sox are, and how they were built. Without question, the best player on the team is Mookie Betts. He’s one of the two or three best players in the world. He just led the team in WAR by almost four wins. A team in contention can’t just go out and trade for a Mookie Betts. You have to develop a Mookie Betts, to somewhat luck your way into a Mookie Betts. A team is blessed to have a Mookie Betts season. In the playoffs, Betts had an OPS of .623.

Without question, the best pitcher on the team is Chris Sale. When he’s healthy, when he’s really going right, he’s one of the two or three best starting pitchers in the world. He just led the staff in WAR by almost four wins. The Red Sox made an aggressive trade for Sale, and they’ve gotten what they expected. Sale is a less-durable, modern-day Randy Johnson. Sale is about as close to unhittable as a starter can get. In the playoffs, Sale had an ERA over 4, and in his three starts he lasted a combined 13.1 innings.

Without question, the best reliever on the team is Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel is just 30 years old, but he’s already built a resume as one of the all-time greatest closers. Even in a down season — by Kimbrel’s standards — he just struck out 39% of his opponents. More than a third of all swing attempts against Kimbrel pitches come up empty. When these playoffs began, if you remember, Kimbrel was the one rock in a bullpen that otherwise looked like a liability. In the playoffs, Kimbrel had an ERA of almost 6, and he had the worst numbers of anyone not named Brandon Workman.

You can go beyond Betts, Sale, and Kimbrel. The best infielder on the Red Sox is Xander Bogaerts. In the playoffs, he had an OPS of .613. One of the other best position players on the Red Sox is Andrew Benintendi. In the playoffs, he had an OPS of .667 (which doesn’t, in fairness, consider the catch). Which isn’t to say that these players didn’t have their moments. And, of course, J.D. Martinez is another great Red Sox player, and his numbers were tremendous. The stars on the roster weren’t good for a collective zero. But if you look at championship win probability added, as posted over at The Baseball Gauge, the biggest positive championship contributor was Steve Pearce. The second-biggest was Rafael Devers. The third-biggest was Jackie Bradley Jr. Nathan Eovaldi did more than Sale. Brock Holt did the same as Martinez. Joe Kelly did more than Holt. Matt Barnes did more than Kelly.

There’s another way you can break this down if you want to. For all three rounds, I looked for the Red Sox’s biggest play, by championship win probability added. In the ALDS, somewhat unsurprisingly, the biggest play was the final play, a brilliant defensive play by Eduardo Nunez of all people.

The stretch at first was by Steve Pearce. Pearce, who wouldn’t have even played so often were it not for a Mitch Moreland playoff injury.

In the ALCS, the biggest play was a lead-changing Bradley home run in Game 4.

And in the World Series, the biggest play was a go-ahead, pinch-hit Devers single in Game 4.

By and large, the Red Sox didn’t win this thing because of all of the obvious reasons. Their best players led them to 108 wins, their best players led them to home-field advantage, but once October began, it behaved like a much less top-heavy roster. Again, just about everybody had a moment, and Sale was right there on the mound to get the last whiff. It was a team of 25 players. Including Drew Pomeranz, who was basically a delivery guy at a party. Maybe World Series MVP Pearce best symbolizes how the Red Sox pulled it together. Or maybe it’s best symbolized by Kelly, a frequently-wild reliever who breezed through the playoffs with zero walks and 13 strikeouts. When the best players couldn’t do it, someone else could. The Red Sox had a lot of someones else.

There are different ways to interpret all this. On the side of everything being under control, you can call it a testament to the Red Sox’s depth. You can credit the coaching staff for keeping everyone involved, and pressing all the right buttons. It’s a 25-man active roster, right? Who cares who’s doing the helping on any given day, so long as someone’s there to pick up the slack? You can say the Red Sox didn’t have a stars-and-scrubs clubhouse. Maybe the stars got too much of the attention. Maybe not enough thought was given to the others. Well, everybody knows better now. The Red Sox were built as a dangerous team, not as a dangerous handful of superstars. The better team won the trophy.

On the side of everything being chaos, it could alternatively be that everything is chaos. Why should Eovaldi be able to pitch seemingly every day? Why should Kelly blossom into a shutdown fireman all of a sudden? Why should Kimbrel allow seven runs with no blown saves, while Kenley Jansen allows two with two? Why should the Dodgers’ 2.78 bullpen ERA feel so much worse than the Red Sox’s 2.71 bullpen ERA? Why should playoff Brock Holt out-hit playoff Manny Machado, and why should playoff Christian Vazquez out-hit playoff Cody Bellinger? Why should playoff Sandy Leon out-hit playoff Yasmani Grandal? Why should Game 4 Alex Cora get almost everything right, while Game 4 Dave Roberts gets almost everything wrong? Where is the signal, and where is the randomness? Or is it just all randomness? We want to believe in the signal. I think we’re wired to believe in the signal. But it would be easy to look at all this and throw up your hands. I don’t know how a Dodgers fan would process what just happened to them. They were beaten by a better team, but not necessarily by the better team’s better players.

One way or another, this World Series was going to yield a similar victor. Two big-money teams. Two deep and threatening lineups. Two strong rotations, with starters with famously spotty postseason track records. Two apparently thin bullpens, with household-name closers. Bullpens that weren’t meaningfully addressed in the middle of the year. Where the Red Sox picked up Steve Pearce, the Dodgers picked up David Freese. Where the Red Sox picked up Ian Kinsler, the Dodgers picked up Brian Dozier. Where the Red Sox picked up Nathan Eovaldi, the Dodgers picked up Manny Machado. You can say now that, in getting Pearce and Eovaldi, the Red Sox helped set up their title. Two of the best trades of the year, in retrospect. Could’ve been the Dodgers getting Machado. Could’ve been the Dodgers getting Dylan Floro. Wasn’t to be. For all the various parallels between the Red Sox and the Dodgers, only one club could win the last game. In that way, they couldn’t be less alike.

When it’s over, for one team, it seems like everything just fell into place. You wouldn’t want to change a thing along the way, because the outcome was perfect. What’s challenging, if not impossible to understand, is whether there’s a difference between what did happen, and what could have happened. From the Dodgers’ perspective, they have to figure out whether they assembled a championship ballclub. Was that a team that could’ve done enough, given another opportunity? Or was that a team with some fatal flaw? They’re going to be replaying events and decisions over and over and over again, perhaps never reaching a clear resolution. Meanwhile, from the Red Sox’s perspective, it’s irrelevant. There’s nothing for them to figure out. They just won the World Series, with their 119th victory since the start of the year. Baseball’s ultimate freedom is that you don’t overthink it when you win.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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johnforthegiants
4 years ago

What I find interesting is that no one is suggesting that this Red Sox team is one of the greatest teams of all time (not just Red Sox teams, any teams). Even though it kind of looks like they might be. As opposed to, say, the 2016 Cubs, who certainly didn’t seem to be nearly as impressive.

On the other side, it’s difficult to believe that the Dodgers didn’t learn from their 2017 bullpen debacle that they need more relieving. When you lose game 5 of the World Series in spite of scoring 12 runs behind Kershaw, and then the following year in game 4 of the World Series, six consecutive relievers give up at least a run each in just 2.2 innings when the game and the Series are on the line, it does seem as though someone in management isn’t connecting the dots.

Dominikk85member
4 years ago

It was a great team but it also had some flaws. They have fantastic stars but are also a bit top heavy and their pen and back of rotation wasn’t great (despite their playoff showing).

Also they had some Pythagorean luck (108 wins vs 103 pyth. Wins) albeit in a strong Division which is great but not quite all time great.

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

The 2016 Cubs also had flaws (especially the bullpen, Chapman was the only reliever who could be trusted), they had huge luck with their pitchers in terms of BABIP (.255) and their starters not getting injured (152 starts for their top 5). They were also very top-heavy on offense–only Bryant, Rizzo, Fowler, Zobrist, and Contreras had Off ratings of more than 4.0 (there were 136 players in the league with an Off rating of more than 4.0), and Contreras was only 7.7 so their offense was pretty much a 4-man show (and Fowler had a BABIP of .350 so that was pretty much luck). And their division was clearly worse than the AL East this year. I’m not seeing how they were better than the 2018 Red Sox.

Planet Dustmember
4 years ago

Do people talk about the 2016 Cubs as an all-time great team?

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  Planet Dust

They sure were talking about it here in 2016. Here’s one example, but this was a frequent topic during that year: https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/how-the-cubs-stack-up-within-baseball-history/

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  Planet Dust

In case the comment I made with the link doesn’t get posted, do a search for ‘How the Cubs stack up within baseball history’ (by Jeff) from October 2016, for example. You can also check out ‘This is how dynasties begin’, by Dave Anderson, right after the Cubs won the World Series.

WellIDoubtThat
4 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

Which of the great all-time teams was flawless?

tramps like us
4 years ago
Reply to  WellIDoubtThat

Off the top of my head, the 1961 era Yankees, and the 1969-71 Orioles, were about as close as can be. No weak spots.

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  tramps like us

Haven’t checked but my recollection of those orioles is they had serious problems against right-handed pitchers. It became particularly apparent in the 1971 series when the pirates stopped them with a mob of relatively mediocre righties.

johnforthegiants
4 years ago

I checked and the 1971 Pirates pitching staff was even more mediocre than I remembered. 14th out of 24 teams in pitchers’ WAR and the highest starter was Dock Ellis at #33. But Ellis, Blass, Moose, Briles, Kison, Johnson, Giusti, and Grant were all righties–the only lefty who pitched even 50 innings for them was Luke Walker (and Walker only pitched 0.2 innings in the World Series). In the last 5 games of the Series, the Orioles only scored 8 runs, and 3 of these were in Walker’s 0.2 innings, and this wasn’t even against elite pitching. Murtaugh apparently figured out that the Orioles just couldn’t hit righties’ breaking balls. My recollection of looking at those last games was thinking, Wow, this supposedly great team which has dominated baseball for 3 years can’t hit righties who throw a lot of breaking stuff.

John Autin
4 years ago

Define “no one.” I heard that exact description at least once during every WS broadcast.

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Oops, should have been ‘no one here’ (at Fangraphs).

bosoxforlifemember
4 years ago

At least one regular here at Fangraphs believes that the 2018 Boston Red Sox are one of the greatest teams of all-time. I think that the very knowledgeable people here, both the fabulous writers and the very, very interesting bloggers never quite saw what a man who watched almost every inning this season saw. These experts, and I believe the bloggers fit that description as well, were unable to look past the Astros, who, on paper looked like a collection of superstars, and it was assumed that when it was on the line, the Astros were better than the Red Sox. I admit to being a little apprehensive before the ALCS (and a lot more so after Game1) but, and I think most open-minded people will agree that the playoffs, in which the Red Sox dominated three outstanding teams, clearly is more than enough to place this year’s club very high up on the pedestal of great teams.

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

I can’t disagree with any of that but for some reason the writers here, and the readers too, aren’t oohing and aahing over the Red Sox as much as would seem reasonable under the circumstances. As far as I’ve seen none of the writers here have suggested at any time this season that the 2018 Red Sox are ‘very high up on the pedestal of great teams’, and Jeff doesn’t do that here–the whole emphasis in this article is that the 2018 Red Sox and the 2018 Dodgers were about equal quality teams and the Red Sox just happened to win, which didn’t at all seem to be the case to me. The Red Sox just looked much better. I’m not sure what the reason is. Maybe after 2 years of calling first the Cubs, then the Dodgers, and then the Astros ‘unstoppable juggernauts’ or something like that, maybe people felt like it would be too much if they did the same thing with the Red Sox, this year–after all, you can’t have four unstoppable juggernauts at the same time (although it isn’t clear why three of them seemed to be okay).

treyash9member
4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Red Sox were in better form than anyone, which is a concept that maybe should be discussed more in baseball. On the whole, they performed at or near their peak, despite some of their superstars being just OK at the plate. Another way to say the same thing is that they didn’t have a few or bunch of guys under-performing/slumping badly or at bad times. The things that impressed me most about the Sox this year were: 1) defense was nearly flawless and made many difficult plays and 2) two strike/two out hitting mentality where they changed tactic and try to hit a quality ball in play / aim to not make an out instead of going for homer (executed this well and often).

Generally the same could be said of the Astros last year. In contrast, the Astros this year had a fair chunk of regulars off their game during the playoffs. The Red Sox were overall clearly better at baseball than anyone.

rounders
4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

I too watched every Sox game. They are not a collection of the best or near best players in the game other than RF, DH, and Sale, none of which were a factor in the WS. Cora and his pick of coaches and philosophies steered that team over it’s general level of talent. Dombrowski had his best year because he had better advice from Cora’s boys and the analytic department, and took it. I predicted the Sox would add eight wins just from firing Farrell, which they did, but Cora has his own WAR.
At the drafting and building levels these two teams are going in different directions and only the Dodgers are here to stay.

ScottyBmember
4 years ago

I’ve seen a fair number of headlines and articles stating this Red Sox teams is one of the greatest single-season teams of all time. (The Ringer’s lead article, most of NBC’s and Fox’s coverage for example)

Tom Jitterbug
4 years ago

Who is even saying that about the 2016 Cubs? There was an article early in the year when they were red hot showing they _could_ have one of the all-time great seasons, what with their record-pacing run differential, but that all died down when they hit their mid-summer slump in July.

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  Tom Jitterbug

Okay, here’s one from October 2016, for example (also by Jeff) : https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/how-the-cubs-stack-up-within-baseball-history/

johnforthegiants
4 years ago
Reply to  Tom Jitterbug

They aren’t letting me post the link. Do a search for ‘How the Cubs stack up within baseball history’ for an article about this from October 2016 (also by Jeff), for example. You can also check out ‘This is how dynasties begin’, by Dave Anderson, right after the Cubs won the World Series. I’m not seeing anything like that here about the 2018 Red Sox.

Ro
4 years ago

They are not, The second tier players surprised us all. That’s just baseball.

jhalpin23
4 years ago

How are you still talking about the 2016 Cubs johnforthegiants? It’s been two years man, let it go. But if you really want to bring them up:
-The 2016 Cubs had a better run differential than the 2018 Red Sox and that’s with the Red Sox having the best “clutch” rating in baseball this year where the Cubs were 24th.
-You constantly state the Cubs had some luck with pitching BABIP but they also had the best defense in the league and some of the best pitchers at inducing weak contact.
-You also called that Cubs offense top heavy, they had 5 guys with wRC+ higher than 120 (same as the Red Sox) and another 5 over 100 (Red Sox had 2). (Which doesn’t include Schwarber who missed the entire season.)