Would a Series sweep make the Red Sox an all-time great team?
LOS ANGELES — Just how good are these Boston Red Sox? Are they, dare we say, great?
When a team wins 108 games and then underscores that by dominating the postseason, it’s fair to ask whether that team is among the all-time greatest. This is where Boston appears headed. The Red Sox have a title within their sights and that in itself is no small thing. But as the World Series shifts to L.A., is there something even greater at stake from the standpoint of history?
To be clear, as I write this, I am more posing questions than answering them. I haven’t abandoned my pre-Series feeling that the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are teams of roughly equal quality. Yet, I’ve watched the same games you have, and one team certainly seems to be functioning at a higher level than the other. If that extends into Game 3, this baby is over.
The most glaring differences between the clubs so far have been middle relief and situational hitting. There have been others — defensive execution, managerial decisions — that have been important. But those things may not be telling for what is going to happen from here on out because of their ephemeral nature. Still, if Boston simply has better middle relief than L.A. right now, and a superior situational approach, that’s enough to differentiate these two powerhouses (with the usual caveat that anything can happen in a short stretch of games between big league teams).
The middle relief gap is kind of surprising. Both clubs had their foibles during the season in getting the ball from its strong rotation to its elite closer. Both seemed to have solidified those units by the time the postseason hit, at least in terms of late-season results and the underlying metrics of how guys were throwing.
But with manager Alex Cora’s deft touch in supplementing his usual bullpen options with starting pitchers, Boston’s relievers have been airtight through two games. With the Red Sox nailing down and eventually adding to their early-game leads, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen may as well have stayed behind in Los Angeles. Given the chilly conditions at Fenway Park, he may have preferred it that way.
The situational hitting gap, however, is something we probably should have focused more on before the World Series began because it was a clear difference between the two offenses. The Dodgers’ reliance on three-true-outcomes offense (home run/strikeout/walk) led to inconsistency throughout the season, and it’s a topic that has been heavily covered by the sports media in L.A. Boston’s collective approach is more adaptable and we’ve seen that manifest itself all through October, when the Red Sox have scored more than half their runs with two outs.
During the season, Boston led the majors in two-out OPS, while the Dodgers ranked 23rd. With runners in scoring position, the Red Sox again led the majors, while the Dodgers were a middling 14th. These disparities have taken on larger life early in the World Series.
Which brings us back around to the question of greatness. Both of these teams are great to some degree, at least when considering one-season criteria. When you have a run differential of plus-200, give or take a few runs, you’re in elite territory. That’s where both of these teams reside. Boston’s regular-season run differential (plus-229) ranks 47th all time, while Los Angeles’ plus-194 ranks 107th. There have been 118 seasons during baseball’s modern era so, on average, we get less than one team per season at this level.
But Boston won 16 more regular-season games than the Dodgers, and so far in this World Series, we’ve seen glimpses why that was the case. The Red Sox’s two-out hitting and performance with runners in scoring position is a byproduct of their approach, which is to put the ball in play as much as possible. They take walks like the Dodgers, and they hit homers like the Dodgers. But they also do all the other stuff on offense that keeps the scoreboard turning.
That doesn’t mean the Dodgers can’t rebound. Yes, their offense tends to come in clusters, but those clusters can be awe-inspiring. Plus the defining trait of the 2018 Dodgers has been to skirt along the precipice time and again, only to end up getting to where they want to go as if there was never any danger in the first place. The Red Sox will have to push them over the edge because the Dodgers aren’t going to do a header off of it.
Nevertheless, let’s assume that this weekend brings us more of the same of what we saw at Fenway Park, albeit under eminently more pleasant conditions. You then end up with a 108-win team that clubbed two straight 100-win outfits in the Yankees and Astros to reach the World Series, then dispatched another team of 100-win quality with the same relative ease. If Boston sweeps L.A., it will have gone 11-2 in October. If that’s how this plays out, where do we slot the Red Sox historically?
Let’s start with the run differential, which, as mentioned, ranks 47th in the modern era, right between the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1949 Red Sox, who got 159 RBIs apiece from Ted Williams and Vern Stephens and still finished a game behind Casey Stengel’s first Yankees team.
How many of those 47 teams went on to win the title? That would be 20, which tells you that run differential even at this level is far from impermeable to the randomness of the postseason series.
How many of those 20 survivors also won 67 percent of their regular-season games, as Boston did? Only 14.
How many of those 14 clubs lost two or fewer postseason games? Well, it’s 11, largely because for half of the modern era, the World Series was the only postseason round. OK, how about two or fewer losses with more than five wins?
By doing this last step, we’re eliminating all the pre-division era teams, but we’re left with one team in Boston’s class: the 1998 New York Yankees, considered by many the greatest team ever. Of course, one reason that Yankees team is held in such high regard is not just that season, when they won 114 regular-season games and then went 11-2 in the playoffs, but because they sustained that excellence over a number of years. That title was one of four that New York won over a five-year period.
It seems clear that if Boston can finish this off, it has to be considered one of the best one-season teams of all time. A great team, this season. Whether they can prove themselves over a period of seasons remains to be seen, but it does feel like the Red Sox are at the start of something, not the end. The thing is, you can say that about a couple of other teams as well.
In the New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James laid out some criteria of what he sees as constituting a truly great team:
1. A great team needs to win it all more than once. A great team needs to dominate over a period of three to five years, at least.
2. A great team should have great players in their prime.
3. A great team needs to be able to win anywhere, anytime.
The Red Sox pass the second two items easily enough. Of Boston’s regulars during the season, they used players 31 or older at just two positions — first base and second base. The only member of the starting rotation in that age range was David Price, who is 32. All of the primary relievers were 30 or younger.
Boston won 51 road games with a run differential worth 97 wins over a 162-game season. That qualifies as a team that can win anywhere, anytime.
As for James’ No. 1 criteria, that’s where the Red Sox will have to prove themselves, and that’ll have to come down the road. It’s also the last thing Boston is concerned about right now. The Red Sox have 93 or more wins in three straight seasons, but in the first two before this one, they fell in the division series. Add another title in there and it starts to look pretty dynastic.
For now, the Red Sox are a one-season comet that may or may not fizzle in a historical light. They are ostensibly following in the same path started down by the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Astros, both of whom have yet to establish the dynasties it seemed they were capable of building.
From a baseball perspective, this is great stuff because just as the Red Sox seem poised to challenge for more titles the next few years, the Cubs are still in that mix and so are the Astros. None of them may reel off two or three straight titles, but over the next couple of years, we may see one of these teams play themselves onto the level of the all-time great teams.
Or … the Dodgers and/or the Yankees could upset the apple cart this winter with league-tilting additions. Both stayed under the luxury tax threshold this season to do just that, and neither is that far away from where the Red Sox are anyway. Maybe we end up in a run of five straight historical one-season runs by five different clubs, but no true dynasty.
Until that happens, the opportunity is there for one team to emerge above the other super-clubs and come to define this era. With their dominating season, and postseason, the Red Sox have put themselves in position to be that team. The competition, though, promises to grow only more fierce.
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