Red Sox playoff chances suffering from American League imbalance
By Sean Penney
The Red Sox are on pace for a record that would place them firmly in postseason contention if it weren’t for extreme imbalance in the American League.
We are in the era of the superteams. Parity is out the window as a select few teams are steamrolling their way through the American League while everyone else has become an afterthought. The Boston Red Sox were one of those superteams last year when they marched to 108 wins and a World Series title. It was never realistic to expect them to replicate their franchise-record win total and the regression this club has faced has been overblown by league imbalance creating a misconception of what elite teams should accomplish.
Remember when winning 100 games was a rarity? Three AL teams reached triple-digits in the win column last year, marking the first time in MLB history that three teams from the same league won 100+ games in a season. At least three are threatening to do so again. It may take 100 wins to be crowned a winner in any of the AL divisions. That’s unheard of.
The Red Sox enter the day at 67-59, a .532 winning percentage that has them on pace for 86 wins. They have no shot at catching the New York Yankees (83-43) in the AL East and currently sit six games out of a Wild Card spot.
So, this means the Red Sox are having a terribly disappointing season, right? Only in the context of the absurdity of the league’s current state.
Since MLB implemented a second Wild Card spot in each league in 2012, the average win total to secure the second Wild Card is 88.5. Both Wild Card teams won 89 games in 2016 and the Minnesota Twins made the playoffs with 85 wins in 2017. Between 2014-2017, at least one team qualified for the postseason in the AL with fewer than 90 wins.
We saw a drastic shift happen suddenly last season when a 100-win Yankees team had to settle for the Wild Card and the Oakland A’s took the second spot with 97 wins. As recently as 2016, 97 wins would have led the league! Now that win total is barely enough to squeak into the playoffs.
In any normal season, the 86 wins that Boston is on pace for would put them firmly in contention for a playoff spot. This is no normal season. FanGraphs projects the Red Sox to win 87 games yet gives them only a 5.5 percent chance to reach the postseason.
Since the second Wild Card was introduced, the largest deficit that any team has overcome this late in the season to make the playoffs is 4.5 games by the 2013 Cleveland Indians. That makes the six games that the Red Sox need to overcome seem insurmountable. Except this Red Sox team is better than any other that has been in this situation. I’m not just saying that because they are the reigning champions. Between 2012-2018, the best winning percentage of any team trailing a Wild Card spot by 5+ games this late in the season was .525, clearly inferior to Boston’s .532 winning percentage.
The fact that none of the teams facing Boston’s daunting deficit have rallied back to make the playoffs shouldn’t mean that a stronger Red Sox club can’t do it. They probably won’t – not because they are having a terrible season but because the teams currently holding playoff spots are on pace for staggering win totals.
The number of teams expected to flirt with triple-digit win totals isn’t a sign that the league is flooded with historically great teams. Instead, we’re seeing an unprecedented gap between the elite teams and the bottom feeders. Three teams lost 100+ games last year we’ll likely see at least three more this season. Six teams are on pace for 90+ losses.
The Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays have transitioned toward youth movements, aiming to develop their top prospects to make a leap in the near future at the expense of the present. The Kansas City Royals are in recovery mode after losing most of the key pieces that made up the core of their championship team a few years ago. The Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers are tanking while the Seattle Mariners have no clear direction.
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Having this many terrible teams in the league allows the top clubs to pad their win total. The Twins and Indians are locked in a tight race for their division but both benefit from facing the other three teams in the AL Central 19 times. The Astros and A’s can take advantage of the Mariners, plus the Angels and Rangers aren’t exactly providing a steep challenge. The Yankees have obliterated the O’s.
The Red Sox also have the luxury of two rebuilding teams in their division and they’ve fared well against the clubs they should beat, posting a .633 winning percentage against sub-.500 teams. Unfortunately, they play in the league’s toughest division, competing with the Yankees and Rays, both of whom get to spar with those same punching bags.
This season clearly hasn’t panned out as well as we expected. The Red Sox have underachieved and it will be disappointing if that results in the team sitting at home in October. However, it hasn’t been that bad.
Yes, the starting rotation was a mess before their two aces landed on the injured list and the bullpen has been undermanned all season. Yet Boston still ranks eighth in the league with a collective 4.72 ERA. An ugly number, certainly not postseason worthy, but it’s still better than half the league! Offense is on the rise with home runs flying out of ballparks at historic rates, which is inevitably going to inflate the ERA of most pitching staffs.
That’s not to say that pitching isn’t a problem for this team but those bemoaning the issue need a bit of perspective. The vicious backlash spewed by an unsatisfied fanbase and the “sky is falling” mentality is unwarranted. Boston will likely fall short of their goals but let’s not group them in with the league’s cellar dwellers.
This team isn’t far off the pace a division-winner typically reaches and they should be in the thick of the playoff race. The reason why aren’t has more to do with unusual circumstance rather than their own failures.