The Red Sox are for real, and they’re spectacular. There is nothing ersatz about the Sox’ success this season. They’ve steamrolled their way to baseball’s best record and the most wins ever recorded by the All-Star break (68-30). We have enough of a sample size to know this Sox team is the genuine article — in the regular season.
That’s the catch — the Dwight Evans in the 1975 World Series catch — for the Red Sox. They’ve displayed dominance and established eminence to put themselves on pace for a franchise-record 112 wins. Their .694 winning percentage is the highest for a team at the break since the 2001 Seattle Mariners posted a .724 winning percentage (63-24). But are the Sox the 2001 Mariners, who won a major league-record-tying 116 games, or the 1998 New York Yankees, who won 114 games and the World Series? Those teams are remembered very differently.
The Red Sox, after bowing out in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two years and winning a total of one playoff game, need to be authenticated in October. Even Ichiro’s ’01 Mariners won one playoff round.
I harbor a theory that baseball teams built to prevail in the postseason are like matryoshka dolls. You have to carefully and expertly craft a team within a team. There is one obvious team built to win and withstand the rigors of a grueling 162-game season. Nesting within that club there needs to be another one formatted and fitted to flourish on baseball’s biggest stage, the postseason, when the competition is better and the pressure is greater than bludgeoning the sad-sack Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers. The Sox have the former team. The jury is still out on whether they have the latter, tucked neatly inside just waiting to pop out.
This isn’t designed to discredit the Red Sox’ success. But the Sox were already an established and accomplished regular-season group. The core of this club has captured back-to-back American League East titles. The pressure is on everyone in the Red Sox organization to produce a playoff payoff. They’re in optimal position with their roster before free agency creates decisions and possible defections.
The animating force for Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski between now and the non-waiver trade deadline of July 31 (and the Aug. 31 deadline for traded players to be eligible for postseason rosters) must be making sure he has constructed the playoff-ready version of the Sox. With baseball’s highest payroll, he should have that team. However, postseason track records for Sox players suggest some roster augmentation is wise.
If this team has what former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein termed a “fatal flaw,” it’s in the bullpen. The Sox have been outscored, 49-36, in the eighth inning. A reliable eighth-inning guy/alternate closer such as Baltimore’s Zach Britton is essential for the Sox to thrive in the postseason. It preserves Craig Kimbrel — who has registered two more appearances and tossed 41 more pitches through 98 games this season than at the same point in the 2017 season, when he logged the second-most innings and pitches of his career — for October and promises him save opportunities there.
On paper, the Red Sox shouldn’t need to shop for a starter. Boston has two Cy Young Award winners, Rick Porcello and David Price, in its rotation. Ace Chris Sale is the best pitcher in baseball without a Cy Young to his name. The Sox cruised into the break with four starters with double-digit wins, including tantalizing lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez, who is 11-3. Yet, the Sox look a little thin in the rotation.
Pursuing a starting pitcher with some postseason pedigree such as Texas’s Cole Hamels. It’s insurance for E-Rod, who injured his ankle Saturday and will be in a walking boot for at least two weeks, and a rotation without a postseason victory as a starter to its name.
We’ve become, um, numb to Price’s postseason plight. He is winless as a starter in nine attempts, 2-8 overall. He is not alone in postseason futility. Porcello has appeared in 11 postseason games, four starts. He is 0-3 with a 5.47 earned run average. Sale got his first taste of playoff baseball last fall. He made two appearances against the Houston Astros and went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA. Pitching in relief, it was Sale who surrendered the game-tying home run to Alex Bregman in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, as the Astros rallied to take the game, 5-4, and the series in four.
Some of Boston’s best position players still have to prove they won’t go missing in action in the playoffs.
Xander Bogaerts, who delivered a thrilling victory over the Blue Jays Saturday with a 10th-inning grand slam, hit .059 last year against Houston. That’s not a typo. His lone hit was his first postseason home run. In 19 postseason games, Bogaerts has a .214 average, a .297 on-base percentage, and a .654 OPS.
Mookie Betts is the best player in baseball right now (you heard me, Mike Trout WAR worshipers). But Betts is still without a postseason RBI or home run.
The Sox can carry Jackie Bradley Jr.’s bat during the regular season and still boast the best offense in baseball, but Bradley has struck out in half of his 26 postseason plate appearances. He’s a career .160 batter in the postseason with a .192 on-base percentage and a .472 OPS. Ugh.
J.D. Martinez hardly has the playoff track record to anoint him Big Papi redux, but he has flashed postseason power. Martinez has three home runs and a career .915 OPS in seven postseason games. Last year, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Martinez hit .364 in the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Perhaps J.D., the hitting Ph.D, will be the difference this time.
No matter how many regular-season games they win, if the Sox fail to win a playoff round for the third straight year, it’s impossible to argue that their roster is right for October baseball.
What made the Yankee teams of Derek Jeter dynastic was that New York was a nesting doll club with their best players revealed and reveling in the autumn spotlight. A career .310 hitter, Jeter hit .308 in the postseason and his 200 hits are the most in postseason history. Bernie Williams ranks first all-time in postseason runs batted in with 80 and second in home runs (22), trailing only Manny Ramirez (29). Mariano Rivera has the lowest ERA in postseason history, 0.70. Andy Pettitte is the career postseason leader in wins, going 19-11 with a 3.81 ERA in 44 postseason starts.
Those Yankee clubs were teams built for all seasons, especially the postseason. That’s how and why they’re remembered. How do the 2018 Red Sox want to be remembered?