On paper, the Red Sox had no business winning 93 games this season. After all, that total had been achieved a year ago by a team that looked like a juggernaut, a drastic contrast to this year’s duct-taped roster.
The 2017 Red Sox did not have David Ortiz. Their reigning Cy Young winner saw his ERA jump by 1.50 runs per game. Their 2016 Opening Day starter made 24 fewer starts than he made last season. Tyler Thornburg, their anticipated eighth-inning reliever, never pitched. Nearly every member of the lineup underperformed his 2016 production.
“While everyone refers to a blueprint,” said manager John Farrell, “we’ve had to turn the page on the blueprint a number of times and still have been able to maintain the results.”
So how on earth did they do it? And why would it be a mistake right now to dismiss their chances of postseason success?
Put simply, the Red Sox delivered one of the most dominant pitching seasons in team history. The team ERA was 3.70, roughly two-thirds of a run better than the American League average of 4.37. That 0.67 difference marked the second-greatest margin by which the Red Sox have ever beaten their league, topped only by a carried-by-Pedro 1999 team that was 0.71 runs better (4.00 vs. 4.71).
The Red Sox outperformed the league by 15.3 percent — their biggest margin since Babe Ruth was a member of the rotation in 1918.
|Season||Red Sox Team ERA||League ERA||Difference||Percent|
* - Won World Series
While Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel were the headliners in that effort, the contributions extended far beyond that duo. The Red Sox had 10 pitchers with an ERA+ (ERA compared to league average, with 100 being average and 110 being 10 percent above average) of 130 or higher (minimum 15 innings), tied for the most in AL history. They had 12 with an ERA+ of 120 and 13 with a mark of 110 or better.
Top to bottom, this staff ran deeper in above-average contributions than any in team history — and, for that matter, any team’s history. There was no soft underbelly, no weak link, particularly once the addition of Addison Reed solidified the bullpen structure.
“I’ve never seen this kind of depth as far as, from starter to closer, the depth that in this day and age is necessary,” said first base coach Ruben Amaro, who as Philadelphia’s general manager assembled a number of standout staffs there. “To have the middle relievers and setup relievers and those guys pitch as well as they have, that kind of depth I’ve never seen.”
Given the pitchers the Red Sox lost — Thornburg for the entire campaign, plus starters Price and Steven Wright and reliever Carson Smith for most of the year, and Eduardo Rodriguez for a sizable chunk — the overall performance is astounding, particularly given the concerns that hovered at the start of the year.
“The pitching depth, if you remember early in the spring, everyone was criticizing it,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.
“Some of our guys really stepped up.
“We lost Steven Wright, who made the All-Star team [in 2016]. David Price made 11 starts, one of the best pitchers in baseball, yet our starting staff has done a really good job. We thought [the bullpen] had a chance to be good but the way it’s performed is really exceptional in some ways.”
In many ways, the second game of the season represented the tone-setter. Though Sale was dominant over seven shutout innings in his Red Sox debut, the lineup couldn’t offer him any backing. Yet Sale’s shutout effort was extended by Matt Barnes, Craig Kimbrel, Heath Hembree, Robby Scott, and finally Joe Kelly, allowing the Sox to claim a 3-0 win in 12 innings.
From that point forward, did it seem like . . .
“Yes,” interrupted Farrell. “Before you finish the question, yes. Every night has been a grind. Every night has been extremely rewarding because of the way guys have been performing in key spots. You can’t say it’s been only Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale.”
Farrell went on to list a litany of performances from the bullpen that proved difference-making, efforts by Reed, Barnes, Hembree, Scott, Kelly, Fernando Abad, Brandon Workman, Blaine Boyer, Austin Maddox, Ben Taylor, and most recently Smith and Price.
The Sox bullpen navigated a season-long tightrope in shockingly successful fashion. Its depth was an enormous separator, in many ways responsible for the Sox’ second straight AL East title.
Fangraphs measures “Win Probability Added,” a statistic that reflects the increased or diminished likelihood of a victory with every batter outcome. A bases-empty, two-out walkoff homer in a tie game, for instance, would represent a decrease in win probability from about 50 percent to exactly 0 percent; the pitcher who gave up the walkoff thus would be credited with (roughly) a -0.5 Win Probability Added.
The Red Sox bullpen, for the year, received credit for a 10.63 WPA — the highest in team history, nearly 30 percent better than any other team in the majors, and the eighth-highest mark by any team since the statistic has been tracked (starting in 1974). The pitching staff permitted the Red Sox to fashion late-inning wins in a way unmatched in the majors this year — the most stunning example being the team’s 15-3 record in extras.
“The difference in our season is how our bullpen has handled extra-inning games,” said Farrell. “That’s a direct reflection of where we stand in this division. That means high-stress, high-leverage innings — maybe more than any other team in the league has been faced with. We’ve excelled in those spots.”
Strength in numbers
But now, can the strength of the overall staff depth manifest itself as the foundation for a run against elite competition in October?
Farrell noted how bullpen pecking orders change even during the playoffs, how the 2013 Red Sox’ World Series run required an adjustment when setup man Craig Breslow — dominant through two rounds of the playoffs — hit a wall in the World Series. Then, the presence of Felix Doubront as a bridge to the late innings and the emergence of Brandon Workman allowed the team to adapt.
Farrell believes this club, by virtue of the quantity of arms it has had throughout the year, has the potential to manage October’s workload.
“I think back to the guys who missed [time], they’re going to play a more important role because they might be a little more fresh,” said Farrell. “Every October, there’s going to be one or two guys that do something you don’t anticipate. Felix Doubront in 2013, could that be David Price? Possibly.
“We know there’s going to be change. We have to be open-minded to that. I love the fact that we’re equipped.”
The tale of the tape unquestionably will favor Red Sox postseason opponents in certain respects, whether in comparison with Houston’s lineup or Cleveland’s rotation. But ultimately, the Sox believe that the way they spent the regular season hugging hairpin turns along a cliff can serve as the basis for an unlikely winding road through October.
“Pitching rules,” said Amaro. “In almost every case, quality pitching can beat up on quality offensive players or offensive teams if pitches are being executed properly.
“A lot of things have to fall right to have success in a playoff scenario, but I’ll take our chances with our guys because of the quality of depth we have, the 13, 14, 15 quality guys we can run out there.
“If you have that kind of depth pitching-wise, you’ve got a chance.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.