Just imagine if they were hitting.
The Red Sox have accelerated their winning pace since the All-Star break. With a four-game sweep of the Yankees, they went into Tuesday’s game in Toronto 11-4 (.733) since resuming their season, pulling away in a fashion that has forced New York to be more mindful of its increasingly insecure place in the wild-card standings than a divisional race that seems just short of a foregone conclusion.
Yet even as the Red Sox have padded their advantage, they’ve done so in a way entirely counter to the fashion in which they forged their strong first-half start. They have scored just 4.7 runs per game in the second half, ninth in the American League. They’re in the middle of the big league pack in batting average (.250, 16th of 30 teams), on-base percentage (.323, 14th), and slugging (.426, 16th).
Though the Red Sox have been held to four runs or fewer in nine of 15 games since the break, they were 6-3 in those contests. How? A dominant run of starting pitching has a lot to do with it.
While the bats have been dormant at times, the rotation has been electric. The Red Sox had a 1.74 rotation ERA in that time; no other team had a mark under 2.96, while the Yankees were more than three runs worse (4.78).
The Red Sox were averaging just under 6⅓ innings a start, meaning that a standard start reaches the seventh inning. While doing so, they were striking out 25 percent of opposing hitters (fourth-best in the AL), walking just 5.7 percent of batters (second-best in the AL), holding hitters to a .193 average (lowest in the majors), and they’ve done a better job of keeping the ball in the park (0.7 homers per nine innings) than any other team in baseball.
The run started just before the All-Star break. Over the last 17 games, the team’s starters had a 1.74 ERA. According to Elias, that is the lowest ERA for a Red Sox rotation over a 17-game span in almost exactly 100 years — since Carl Mays, Babe Ruth, Joe Bush, and Sad Sam Jones (one would hope his outlook improved during the run) forged a 1.64 mark in the final regular-season days of what proved a championship season.
This year’s Red Sox recognize how much the consistent work of the rotation has meant to the team’s sustained success.
“They’ve given us a chance to win on a nightly basis,” said manager Alex Cora. “It seems like they’re always ahead in the count, they’re putting the opposition in the corner 0-and-1, 0-and-2, 1-and-2, and at this level you know the numbers. The average goes way down when you’re in those counts, so they’re doing an outstanding job working ahead. They’ve been very efficient.”
The Red Sox are doing all this at a time when Eduardo Rodriguez (moving closer to game action) and Steven Wright have been absent, and with Chris Sale (12 scoreless innings since the All-Star break) sidelined to give his shoulder time to return to full strength.
Nathan Eovaldi (15 scoreless innings since joining the Red Sox) has looked like a potentially significant contributor into October in his first two outings thanks to the 92- to 94-mile-per-hour cutter that complements his high-90s fastball, splitter, and slider. David Price has a 1.33 ERA in three second-half starts, his adjustments to attack both sides of the plate while altering his pitch sequencing yielding considerable dividends. Rick Porcello is 3-0 with a 2.18 ERA, 20 strikeouts, and two walks in 20⅔ innings. And depth starter Brian Johnson has a 2.30 ERA with 21 strikeouts and five walks in 15⅔ innings.
There will come a correction at some point — the Red Sox have gotten somewhat lucky with some of the hardest contact they’ve yielded finding gloves — but their steady attack on the strike zone with a mix of pitches gives them a far stronger look than they had in their July series in the Bronx. Then, it looked as if Boston’s lefty-heavy rotation might be a liability in the playoffs.
Against the Yankees this time, Porcello, Eovaldi, and Price carved the plate with full pitch mixes, creating unpredictability. Eovaldi and Johnson have given the Red Sox depth to withstand the absence of a couple of top starters.
“With adding Nathan, just the way he’s throwing the baseball, it’s been a big plus for us,” said Price. “I don’t think anybody’s thrown the ball better than us since the All-Star break.”
The Yankees, meanwhile, spent most of the weekend scrambling. CC Sabathia got knocked out after three innings. New acquisition J.A. Happ was unavailable because of hand, foot, and mouth disease.
Luis Severino got ambushed for three early runs in his loss. Only Masahiro Tanaka executed with postseason-caliber precision.
Otherwise, there are limits to what even the deep, high-octane Yankees bullpen can withstand. Eventually, especially in a short series, repeated exposure of relievers can whittle their advantage.
Avoiding that overexposure comes from getting additional innings and outs from the starters. Right now, the Red Sox starters are providing that.
The result has been an entirely different formula for success than the one the Red Sox employed leading up to the All-Star break.
They are showing different formulae for victories — dominant starting at times, an overpowering lineup at times, an opportunistic one at others (with the team’s low strikeout rate permitting rallies such as the four runs in the final two innings Sunday without benefit of an extra-base hit, and base-stealing and base-running making a difference in other games).
The fact that they are not reliant on a single style of play to win attests to why they’ve been able to sustain a pace that requires the sweep of history to provide adequate context.