Last Updated: 2019-03-04
Dominance is subjective. Some people have a really high standard. Other people like to exaggerate. Personally, I’m not an exaggerator, so when I tell you that the 2018 Boston Red Sox were dominant, I mean it. The reigning World Series Champions went 108-54 in the regular season and then went 11-3 in the playoffs for good measure.
It was the third World Series title for the BoSox since the Curse of the Bambino ended in 2004. A case can be made that the 2018 Sawks were the best in franchise history. Not only did the season end with a World Series title, but the team’s +229 run differential in this homer-happy era of baseball was among the tops for the franchise.
There has been a lot of conjecture as to how much managers can actually impact a game or a season. Jonah Keri pondered the question and found that maybe it’s better left as a mystery. Neil Payne tackled the issue way back in 2014 for Five Thirty Eight. Eno Sarris did a deep data dive in 2016 when he was still at FanGraphs using work done by Tim Kniker, Rob Arthur, Rian Watt, Ben Lindbergh, and Dan Brooks of BrooksBaseball.
All in all, we don’t really know. Some estimate between 1-3 wins and others say it could be up to five wins. What I do know is that Alex Cora magnificently managed the Red Sox over the course of the season and pushed the right button just about every time in the playoffs. He leveraged his relievers beautifully, pulled his starters around the correct time, and masterfully managed David Price, whose playoff struggles were insanely well-documented going into the postseason. By trusting in Price and not pushing Chris Sale in the ALCS against the Astros, Cora was able to get more out of Sale in the World Series, when he was needed the most.
It doesn’t surprise me that AJ Hinch was the manager of the 2017 World Series champs and that his bench coach went on to win a ring in 2018. The Astros have been ahead of the curve for the better part of 10 years and not many organizations have an infrastructure that comes close. Sure, the Red Sox have a lot of money and have another inflated payroll in 2019, but it isn’t all about money in the age of analytics.
Cora had a good head start because the Red Sox have been on the cutting edge for most of the 21st century. After all, it was Theo Epstein who built the framework of the 2004 team that ended the second most notorious drought in baseball history, and we all know where he stands on analytics. It helps to have people in positions of power that embrace data, but it also helps to have players that are willing to embrace it as well and it’s just a known fact that putting on a Red Sox uniform means you have no choice.
Before I look ahead to 2019, I do have to make one last apology. I never believed fully in the Red Sox last season. I saw a flawed pitching staff with what I perceived to be a weak bullpen in front of Craig Kimbrel. I picked against them every step of the way in the playoffs. I was wrong every time. They were one of the league’s biggest overachievers in Pyth W-L and BaseRuns, as you’re about to see, but they were just that good. They were the best team in baseball. Will they repeat the feat in 2019? Let’s find out.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 108-54
Run Differential: +229
Pythagorean W/L: 103-59
BaseRuns Record: 99-63
BaseRuns Run Differential: +178 (5.28/4.18)
3rd Order Win% Record: 99.1-62.9
Record in One-Run Games: 25-14
Additions: Juan Centeno, Gorkys Hernandez, Bryce Brentz, Erasmo Ramirez, Ryan Weber, Colten Brewer, Zach Putnam, Domingo Tapia, Anyelo Gomez, Brian Ellington, Dan Runtzler, Jenrry Mejia
Losses: Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips, Drew Pomeranz, Joe Kelly, Craig Kimbrel, Esteban Quiroz, Robby Scott
It hasn’t been a headline-grabbing offseason for the Red Sox. Erasmo Ramirez was a solid addition for some bullpen/rotation depth and Zach Putnam is actually a really nice little move. Putnam only worked 8.2 innings in 2017, but was really strong in that small sample and was also good in 27.1 innings in 2016. He missed all of last season. If he’s pain-free, he’ll be a nice add to the pen. He’s got 162 K in 152 MLB relief innings.
Craig Kimbrel is the biggest loss, but don’t sneeze at the losses of Joe Kelly or Drew Pomeranz. Kimbrel’s walk rate has always been a point of contention, but his strikeout rate regularly ranks among the elite. Kelly had a 4.39 ERA, but posted a 3.57 FIP and deserved a better fate with his LOB% and likely his BB% as well. Pomeranz was quite good from 2015-17, but fell apart last season.
Surprisingly, the Red Sox haven’t done much to address the bullpen, but Tyler Thornburg will be like a free agent addition and a bunch of failed starters fill out the pen.
BA: .268 (1st)
OBP: .339 (1st)
SLG: .453 (1st)
wOBA: .340 (1st)
wRC+: 110 (3rd)
BABIP: .309 (3rd)
K%: 19.9% (3rd)
BB%: 9.0% (9th)
Mike Trout might actually have some company. Mookie Betts owns one of the 11 double-digit fWAR seasons as calculated by FanGraphs dating back to 1990 and actually surpassed any of the best years that Trout has had. Betts is the first player other than Trout to post a 10-fWAR season since Barry Bonds in 2004.
It is a good starting point for an offense and a season win total to be able to talk about probably the second-best player in baseball. Betts hit 32 homers, stole 30 bases, and slashed .346/.438/.640 with a .449 wOBA and a 185 wRC+. For good measure, he added to his value with 20 defensive runs saved and his best career season in UZR/150. He is truly an elite player.
He’s surrounded by a cast of good players. JD Martinez wound up being an excellent signing with a .330/.402/.629 slash, a .427 wOBA, and a 170 wRC+. The Red Sox and Rockies were the only teams to have two players in the top 10 in wOBA and, as we know, the Rockies play in Coors Field. Along with Martinez, Xander Bogaerts had a bounce back season and posted a .373 wOBA. Andrew Benintendi posted a .357 wOBA.
Even part-time guys like Brock Holt and Steve Pearce had a big impact on the season. The offense is basically back in tact and could be even better, as Dustin Pedroia returns from injury and Rafael Devers, who did go from a 110 wRC+ in 240 PA in 2017 to a 90 wRC+ in 490 PA in 2018, is heading into his age-23 season with a lot more experience than most guys his age.
It isn’t all unicorns and rainbows for this Red Sox offense. As I mentioned, I did pick against them in the playoffs. It wasn’t out of spite. It was because Boston was one of the biggest benefactors of cluster luck in all of baseball last season. With the bases empty, the Red Sox batted .258, which did lead the league, but had a .321 OBP and a .436 SLG. With men in scoring position, the Red Sox batted .289 with a .379 OBP and a .493 SLG. There will be more on this shortly, but the Red Sox “overachieved” per BaseRuns by 0.13 runs per game. They scored 5.41 and should have scored 5.28. That’s about 21 runs over the course of the season.
We have no way of knowing when those missed opportunities would have happened, but what BaseRuns does is create a run differential based on a context-neutral environment. The individual outcomes of 1B, 1B, HR, K, K, K are the same as HR, 1B, 1B, K, K, K. Sequencing determines how many runs are scored with those outcomes. The Red Sox fared extremely well in that department last season. That tends to balance out the following season.
ERA: 3.75 (8th)
FIP: 3.82 (6th)
xFIP: 3.92 (7th)
K%: 25.3% (5th)
BB%: 8.3% (13th)
LOB%: 75.8% (5th)
BaseRuns does the same thing for run scoring that it does for run suppression. The Red Sox allowed 3.99 runs per game, but BaseRuns had them down for 4.18 runs per game against. If we add together the runs scored and runs against accounting for sequencing, the Red Sox would have posted a +178 run differential compared to a +229. That is how we come up with a 99-63 BaseRuns record compared to a 108-54 actual record.
Is this an exact science? No. But, there is no correlation year-to-year when it comes to performance with runners in scoring position. It does imply that the Red Sox could see some regression this season by having less fortunate outcomes in those higher-leverage spots both offensively and defensively. Looking at it in the same context as the offense, the Red Sox allowed a .231/.306/.381 slash with the bases empty and a .302 BABIP. With men in scoring position, the Red Sox only went up to .225/.309/.402 with a .304 BABIP. Many teams had bigger gaps between the two splits.
All the gory math and hypothetical stuff aside, this is still a rotation anchored by Chris Sale, who just might be the best pitcher of this generation not to win a Cy Young Award. He was limited to 158 innings because of injuries last season and still posted a 2.11 ERA with a 1.98 FIP and a 2.31 xFIP. His 6.5 fWAR was actually the second-highest total of his career, even though he missed five starts. If he stays healthy, this is the year.
I do have some worries about the rest of the Red Sox rotation. Rick Porcello carried a career-best 23.5 percent K% with an 8.7 percent swinging strike rate, which was well below the league average for starters of 10.2 percent. I’m also not buying the .285 BABIP with his ground ball rate of 44.1 percent. Playoff hero David Price posted a 3.58 ERA with a 4.02 FIP thanks to a 77.3 percent LOB%. The Red Sox are a good defensive team, but that seems unsustainably high in 2019.
I’m a huge Eduardo Rodriguez fan, but he only worked 129.2 innings last season after working 137.1 the season before. He’ll be great as long as he’s out there, but we’ll have to wait and see if it’s the elbow or the knee this year. Maaaaaaaaybe Nate Eovaldi did figure it out last season and will manage to stay healthy, but, again, he worked 111 innings last season after missing all of 2017. He worked 124.2 innings in 2016 and hasn’t worked more than 150 since 2015. The depth worries me here with some injury risks and regression candidates.
That doesn’t even begin to address the bullpen, which is missing its centerpiece in Craig Kimbrel. Maybe Ryan Brasier can post another 2.83 FIP, but he’s not really the power back-end guy you want in that role. Matt Barnes is good for what he is and misses a lot of bats, but he’s also as erratic as Kimbrel without the ninth-inning pedigree. The Red Sox have to replace a lot of high-leverage appearances and innings with both Kimbrel and Kelly gone.
Positives & Negatives
This division, in some respects, is a real negative, as both the Yankees and Rays won 90 games last season. On the other hand, the Orioles are ticketed for 100 losses and the Jays will post another losing record.
The Red Sox are loaded with star power, but they also have tremendous depth in the lineup. The pitching staff looks a little bit thin on depth. Depth is a big consideration for me when it comes to these things and it is hard to overlook just how average this pitching staff looks if somebody like Sale goes down for an extended period of time, especially with how I expect Porcello to fall off and the injury concerns for Rodriguez and Eovaldi.
As I mentioned in the intro, I think Alex Cora is exceptional. He beautifully navigated the regular season and the playoffs and picked up a lot of on-the-job training over 162 plus the postseason. This is an organization with a lot of money to burn, but also an organization that grasps the analytics well. I’m always partial to those teams.
Pick: Over 95.5
This is still a very good team. It is an especially good offensive team. It is the pitching side of the ledger that I am worried about going into 2019. There can also be something of a World Series hangover for teams that play deep into the fall and lift that championship trophy. Those extra innings and plate appearances really do add up.
Ultimately, I have to make a pick on every team in these write-ups. Some will be stronger than others. This one isn’t all that strong, as the Red Sox surely have the talent to make another deep October run and secure the AL East title in the process. The fact that there are punching bags in the Blue Jays and Orioles to beat up on is a big help. Also, with Fenway Park’s dimensions and penchant for offense, there aren’t many teams that are going to go into Beantown and match up well.
Even with pitching regression, which I do believe is coming, the Red Sox are gifted enough offensive to out-hit those drop-offs. As you’ll see going forward, I generally don’t like to play around with the best of the best and the worst of the worst. The true value in betting win totals lies in playing the teams in the middle where there is a higher range of variance.
So, this is a pick for the sake of making a pick. Boston has the best offense in baseball, but everything else is hard to overlook. They’ll be good and I’d rather give them the credit I never gave them last season.
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