Now that the “Eau de 2011” has stopped emanating from the Red Sox, it’s time to begin the deep dive into what’s in store for them next month.
The Red Sox appear locked in to finish the regular season as the third-best American League division winner. That could change depending on that season-ending four-game series with the Astros — whom the Sox trailed by five games as of yesterday — at Fenway Park, but for the sake of reality, let’s ask Equifax to freeze the standings where they are.
If they do thus finish behind both Cleveland and Houston, that would be a shame for Red Sox playoff fortunes. No playoff contender is better at home (46-28, .621) and few are worse on the road; short of an upset by the wild card winner, winning away from Fenway will be an October necessity due to lack of home-field advantage.
You can’t pick your opponent in the playoffs, but scouting them is mandatory. Without overlooking the impossible-to-ignore Indians, a team no one wants to face at the moment, it’s worth examining the pros and cons of each potential Division Series opponent, with an emphasis on the Red Sox’ more likely and more beatable opponent, Houston.
Pros vs. Astros
The age-old recipe for success in the playoffs is strong pitching, timely offense and airtight defense. The Houston pitching is top-notch, arguably a tick behind the Red Sox staff, and their offense is no contest best in the league.
Defensively, however, the Red Sox hold a decisive edge. In the big three FanGraphs’ defensive categories — UZR, Defensive Runs Above Average and Defensive Runs Saved — the Astros rank 14th, 14th and 13th in the AL. The Red Sox are 1st, 1st and 2nd.
Of all the comparisons and matchups, that’s the starkest difference you’ll see. A decisive edge in a category that nearly always rears its head in the playoffs.
The Red Sox’ outfield defense is the best by far in both leagues. The Astros are 10th-best in the AL. In the infield, the Red Sox rank higher at all four spots. Jose Altuve is having an MVP-caliber season with his bat, but he has been a below-average fielder for most of this season (and much of his career). Dustin Pedroia places fourth in UZR at second base this season.
When it comes to rotations, it’s obvious Justin Verlander represents a boost as important to the morale as the bottom line of the Astros. The Red Sox’ rotation compares favorably as far as overall ERA and WAR though, and the teams — along with the Indians — have the three best WHIPs and strikeout rates.
The difference maker is in the walk rate. The Houston starters rank 11th in the league, the relievers 10th. This year’s version of the Red Sox don’t draw as many walks as their predecessors, but still rank sixth. Plus, they tend not to strike out. Waiting out Astros pitchers for hittable strikes or taking a free base is a battle which should work in the Red Sox’ favor.
Cons vs. Astros
We’ve already noted WAR and ERA, in which the Astros’ rotation and bullpen rank third behind Cleveland and the Red Sox. The Aug. 31 addition of Verlander is hard to measure since he’s so new, but there’s no way to overstate what a 1-2 of Dallas Keuchel and Verlander could mean. That’s formidable, and the Astros have good options behind in Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh and Charlie Morton. The Red Sox offense is the No. 1 area of concern heading into the playoffs, and if the Astros’ starting pitching can set a dominating tone against the Red Sox lineup, this series will be done quickly.
No lineup in the league can put as much pressure on a pitching staff as the Astros can. This is an offensive powerhouse, ranking first in runs per game, WAR, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, plus lowest strikeout rate — even lower than Cleveland and the Red Sox. They don’t walk much (11th in the league), but they are hitting their way on base and knocking those runners home. The Red Sox don’t walk many batters anyway and have the second-best strikeout rate of any team in the league, and it’s imperative for the pitchers and defenders to be at the top of their game.
One more reason for any team to be wary of the Astros? Hurricane Harvey helped rally the team and the community. As the “Boston Strong” 2013 Red Sox can attest, it’s never wise to downplay intangibles in October.
Pros vs. Indians
This section will be short.
The Red Sox do hold an edge on Cleveland when it comes to the three big defensive categories, but it’s only a slight one; Cleveland defenders, overall, are not too far behind, but still, it’s something.
Pitching- and offensive-wise, the Indians hold the edge on the Red Sox. Not to diminish Cleveland’s superiority in the bullpen and rotation, but the differences are not vast. The Red Sox pitching staff is their strength and that’s not an illusion.
The Red Sox did beat the Indians 4-of-7 times during the regular season, outscoring them 46-39. The games were entertaining. Sometimes close, sometimes blowouts, but the Red Sox do understand what it takes to beat Cleveland. The Indians were not this hot when they last played the Red Sox, but the Red Sox need to cling to any shred of hope they can locate.
Cons vs. Indians
This section will be longer than the previous, but not by a lot. It won’t take too long to enumerate the ways in which the Indians are better than, well, virtually every other team.
Offensively, the Indians hold almost as much of an edge as the Astros do. No other team in the league draws walks at a higher rate than the Indians, and only the Astros strike out less often. Their OPS trails the Astros by a healthy margin, but leads the Red Sox by an even healthier margin.
Because of that high walk rate, the Indians offense poses just as stiff a challenge to Red Sox pitching as the Astros. Maybe even more.
Pitching-wise, the Indians are as good as it gets. Corey Kluber is every bit the match for Chris Sale, except Kluber’s entering October at his very best while Sale is off his peak. With Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer back, this is a formidable group of starters that tops what the Red Sox have.
With Andrew Miller back, their bullpen goes from real good to outstanding. Given how masterful Terry Francona is at making pitching moves in the postseason, it’s almost unfair the number of tools (not pejorative) the manager has at his disposal.
The 2017 Indians took a while to hit their stride, and all worries aside about reaching their peak too soon, this is the most balanced and talented team in the AL. Probably in both leagues. They are slightly better than last year’s team, which as we all know came so close to topping the Cubs.
This year, they are the Cubs. The Red Sox should want no part of them.
That folks got so bent out of shape about that racism banner at Fenway Park only confirms the necessity of continuing the conversation about race. And yes, that means addressing the topic when it intersects with sports. Which is often.
One person unfurls a banner, another takes a knee, somebody else wants to change a street name and another person speaks her mind about the President. On and on it goes.
We can all disagree about the content, style and delivery of the message, but these times offer way too many examples of disturbing, warped and dangerous deeds and beliefs when it comes to neighbors doing unto neighbors what they want done unto themselves. It would be folly to expect silence and it would be folly to want silence. Freedom of expression is still allowed, most of the time and in most places. It doesn’t need to be in the field of play during an actual Red Sox game at Fenway, but should Fenway be one site where the conversation about race should be held?