The Red Sox Were the Best, Despite Their Best by Jeff Sullivan October 29, 2018 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.