You hear it around the league: The Red Sox play the game the right way.
They hit and run, steal bases, play defense, and pitch. Sounds like what’s the big deal, who doesn’t do that? Well, maybe some teams do it, but not as consistently as the Red Sox.
“They are one of the toughest teams to game-plan against,” said Toronto bench coach DeMarlo Hale. “That’s because they have several ways they can beat you. They’re a disruptive team with their running game because they time their game so well. They create some problems for pitching staffs because they have such a high success rate with their steals. Just very sound all around.”
Red Sox vice president — and Hall of Fame manager — Tony La Russa also commented on this in his first year observing the team. His clubs always were fundamentally sound, and even in this era of advanced analytics, in his mind the Red Sox haven’t forgotten old-fashioned baseball.
You rarely see the Red Sox make a mental mistake. You might see physical errors from time to time, but few of any magnitude that caused games to be lost.
The Red Sox really have become that near-perfect hybrid, combining analytics with old-school scouting. Yes, they shift on defense, but their shifts have been effective.
“It’s humbling to hear that,” manager Alex Cora said. “I think we come to the park every day trying to play the game right, because if you don’t beat yourself, that’s half the battle. If you do things right, it kind of snowballs.
“You repeat success, you’ll have success. I really believe that. So we try to play the game the right way every game. You can’t be perfect all the time, but we just don’t want to make a lot of mistakes.”
David Price summed up the Red Sox this way: “We don’t show anyone up. We come to play every day. We go first to third, we steal bases at a high percentage. We play defense. We run out every ball. We’re kind of old school, but new school at the same time. We have a quiet kind of confidence before every game we play.
“I think our guys prepare as well as any team I’ve ever been on. There’s a reason for everything we do, and when it’s presented to us and there’s proof to back up why we’re doing something, it makes us all buy into it.”
Blake Swihart said, “We love playing together. I think that’s what sticks out for me. Everybody’s got each other’s back. We pick each other up. If someone is struggling, then the next guy is trying to do something to pick that guy up. We genuinely care about one another. It’s a family. It really feels that way.”
The Red Sox were first in stolen base percentage at 80.1 (125 for 156) and third in overall steals. A lot goes into that. First base coach Tom Goodwin is in charge of the running game. The Sox have been precise in timing pitchers and their time to the plate. They seem to hit it right. While they don’t have speed burners, they do have fast runners.
Pitcher Rick Porcello might be the fastest guy on the 25-man roster, but among positional players, Mookie Betts is the fastest. Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. all have above-average speed.
Statcast keeps a Sprint Speed category measured in feet per second. The average is 27 feet per second. A poor mark is 23 and an elite runner is 30.
Betts leads the Sox at 28.1 feet per second. Others: Bogaerts 27.9, Bradley 27.8, Benintendi 27.7, Eduardo Nunez 27.5, Rafael Devers 27.4, and Swihart 27.2. The Red Sox have many above-average runners, and it shows not only in stolen bases but going from first to third and second to home.
And the Red Sox are smart. Last season they ran into a lot of outs, and that was happening again for the early part of 2018. But runners got smarter. They didn’t take as many needless chances trying to force situations, and yet they remained aggressive.
“It’s important to put pressure on the defense,” Cora said. “I would never get upset about a player who did their best to take the extra base. As long as it made sense. And we’re not perfect. There are times we take unnecessary chances, and when that happens, we have conversations about it.”
There really has been only one problem area on defense throughout the season and that’s Devers at third base. His throwing has been erratic, which can happen with young third basemen. Yankees rookie Miguel Andujar had similar problems.
The Red Sox were able to solidify their second base defense once they acquired Ian Kinsler. He’s worked seamlessly with Bogaerts, who has become an above-average defensive shortstop. Cora doesn’t pay attention to those who say otherwise about Bogaerts.
“We have our own defensive metrics and the way we measure our defense,” Cora said. “Xander has done a tremendous job for us at his position. We’re very happy with him. He makes all of the plays and he’s been so sure-handed out there with everything he does.
“I know these defensive metrics measure things the way they measure them, but it’s different than what we do internally.”
In Baseball Reference’s wins above average defensive measurements, the Red Sox rank second to the Houston Astros with 21.2, combining each position. Sox starting pitchers are fourth with 11.2, and their relievers are second at 3.8. The Sox rank first in right field, where their 8.2 is almost 5 points higher than the second-place Yankees.
Surprisingly, the Red Sox rank eighth in center field with 1.3, but they rank second in left field with 2.2. They rank No. 1 in overall outfield defense with 11.7.
The Red Sox rank last at third base with -2.6, 15th at first base with -0.6, 12th at shortstop with 1.6, last in catching with -3.4, and 29th at second base at -2.2.
The Red Sox clearly have the best defensive outfield in baseball. Your eyes tell you Betts has been the best right fielder and Bradley has been the best center fielder. The numbers tell you Benintendi has been the second-best left fielder.
The Red Sox used the third-fewest number of pitchers this season — 23, behind Colorado (21) and Houston (22), usually a good sign. They allowed 3.99 runs per game, tied for fifth fewest in baseball. They were eighth with a 3.75 team ERA and were fourth in strikeouts with 1,558.
They allowed 176 homers, ranking them 11th, and 512 walks, about middle of the pack.
The Red Sox have above-average pitching. It wasn’t the best in baseball, but it was good enough to win 108 games. The prevailing theory has been that if you have above-average pitching, a great offense, and decent defense, your team will go far, and the Red Sox meet that criteria.
The Red Sox probably will have the American League MVP and runner up — Betts and J.D. Martinez — in a lineup that produced a major-league high 876 runs, 25 more than the Yankees. They hit 355 doubles, more than any other team in baseball, and 208 home runs (tied for eighth). They had 829 RBIs (tops in baseball), 1,253 strikeouts (fifth fewest), and a .268 team average (9 points better than the second-best team, the Indians). They led the majors in on-base percentage (.339), slugging percentage (.453), and OPS (.792).
Interestingly, they had only seven sacrifice bunts all season.
This was the best offense in baseball. The first thing Cora did was flip the philosophy from the grind-it-out approach to the aggressive approach, which is what he had experienced in Houston the year before. The results were staggering.
Of course, adding Martinez was the biggest reason for the uptick from 2017. He had a great season and affected every player in the lineup because he acted as an extra hitting coach. The Red Sox truly missed David Ortiz, and when they didn’t replace him in 2017, it showed. The 2017 Sox produced 785 runs, which was 10th overall. The difference of 91 runs proved immense.