After a three-year layoff that included becoming a laughingstock just 12 months ago, the Boston Red Sox return to the postseason with aspirations of capturing a third championship since 2004.
This has been a remarkable turnaround for one of the most storied franchises in North American professional sports, but it shouldn't be that surprising when you consider the talent that was already in place and the work general manager Ben Cherington did in the offseason.
The Red Sox will take on a familiar foe in the American League Division Series when the Tampa Bay Rays come to town. This is the second time these two teams have met in the postseason, following an incredible seven-game ALCS in 2008 the Rays won.
Winning 97 games in the American League East, which had four teams finish over .500, shows the mental fortitude of this Red Sox team. It is also the most wins for this team since that 2004 championship won 98.
But as a 25-man unit, are the 2013 Boston Red Sox on the same level as the 2004 and 2007 championship teams?
We won't know the real answer to that question until the end of October, but we can certainly examine the rosters and what the numbers from the regular season tell us about this Boston team.
Basically since the Red Sox found David Ortiz on the scrap heap, the team has had one of the best offenses in baseball. Ortiz certainly isn't the only reason that has happened, but a decade of offensive consistency is incredible.
What's interesting about Boston's offensive stats is the way they have mirrored the way the game has changed in recent years.
The average AL team in 2004 scored 5.01 runs per game, while the Red Sox put up more than 5.9 runs per game.
As things have skewed more toward pitching, the overall offensive performance has dwindled. AL teams scored 4.33 runs per game in 2013, with the Red Sox leading the charge at 5.27. They aren't as prolific an offense as they once were, but given where the league is right now, they are every bit as good.
However, even as the amount of runs scored hasn't changed that much, the makeup of the Red Sox has. The 2004 Sawx had no speed and, per FanGraphs, were the worst team adding runs on the bases.
There were two players from the curse-breaking Red Sox with double-digit stolen bases. One was Johnny Damon with 19, which isn't surprising because he was a good stolen-base threat in his prime. The other was Jason Varitek with 10.
Fast forward to 2013, the entire dynamic has changed. The Red Sox don't have a lot of guys who steal bases, but Jacoby Ellsbury (52), Shane Victorino (21) and Dustin Pedroia (17) give them exactly what they need.
Going back to the FanGraphs' well, the 2013 Red Sox ranked fifth out of 30 teams in baserunning runs with 11.3. Being able to take the extra base or steal second when you need to makes this team more dynamic than the previous two teams, which helps make up for the dramatic increase in strikeouts.
As for the high strikeout total, you can attribute that high number to Mike Napoli (187), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (139) and Stephen Drew (124). They account for 35 percent (450) of the 1,308 whiffs the Red Sox had this season.
Strikeouts aren't the worst thing in the world, especially with a lineup as good as this year's group, and they can help keep you from shortening an inning by grounding into a double play.
This version may not have the star power of the 2004 or 2007 Red Sox, which boasted names like Ortiz, Damon, Varitek, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez, but they can certainly hold their own against those teams.
What's interesting about the Red Sox, particularly in 2004 and 2013, is they don't have that dominant starting pitching we think can run all the way through October. That could come back to haunt them this year, but it certainly didn't matter much in 2004.
Curt Schilling was the best pitcher on the 2004 staff and remained one of the best starters in baseball, though he wasn't as overpowering as he was in Arizona. He was striking out a very respectable total of 8.06 hitters per nine innings, but it was that impeccable command (1.39 walks per nine innings) that really shone through.
Pedro Martinez was starting to slow down with the highest home run rate of his career up to that point (1.08), though he still missed a lot of bats (9.41 per nine innings) and threw over 200 innings for the first time since 2000.
But the rest of the staff was a mess. Bronson Arroyo was the No. 3 starter on the team with a 4.03 ERA. Tim Wakefield was plugging along with an ERA of 4.87, while Derek Lowe was falling apart with an ERA of 5.42.
Even the bullpen, aside from Keith Foulke, wasn't a stellar group. No one with more than 30 innings, with the exception of Foulke, had an ERA under 3.50 or allowed fewer than 7.3 hits per nine innings.
That's similar to this year's Red Sox, though they don't have anyone at the top of the rotation who can touch Schilling or Martinez. Jon Lester has been strong in the second half with a 2.57 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 74-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
John Lackey has been okay overall but slowed down in the second half with a 4.35 ERA and 12 home runs allowed in 89 innings. Jake Peavy was a solid acquisition at the deadline, especially considering what they had to give up for him but was basically an average pitcher for Boston.
Clay Buchholz might be that hammer Boston needs, but he only threw 108.1 innings this season due to injuries.
The bullpen, as a whole, isn't dominating. John Farrell did a fantastic job patching pieces together after Andrew Miller, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan went down with season-ending injuries.
Koji Uehara might be the best offseason signing for any team, posting a ridiculous 101-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74.1 innings. Craig Breslow got by on a lot of luck with a .254 BABIP despite striking out less than five per nine innings.
It's been a play-as-you-go group for the Red Sox bullpen this season, similar to the 2004 group.
That 2007 team got the best version of Josh Beckett that we saw since his performance with Florida in the 2003 postseason. He made 30 starts covering 200.2 innings with a 194-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio and was an absolute monster in the playoffs going 4-0 in four starts with 30 innings, 35 strikeouts, two walks and four runs allowed.
Schilling's body was breaking down, as he started just 24 games and had a pedestrian 3.87 ERA with 165 hits allowed, 101 strikeouts and 23 walks in 151 innings. Daisuke Matsuzaka was still lulling hitters asleep long enough to record 201 strikeouts in 204.2 innings, though he also gave up 171 baserunners.
The bullpen that year was devastating, though. Jonathan Papelbon's arm was still fresh as a second-year closer with an 84-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58.1 innings and a 257 ERA+. Hideki Okajima's funky delivery was effective, limiting right-handed hitters to a .182/.235/.277 line.
Manny Delcarmen was an unsung hero for that group, providing 44 innings with a 2.05 ERA with just 5.7 hits per nine innings (second only to Papelbon).
The 2007 pitching staff can't match the depth in starting pitching that the 2004 and 2013 teams can, though they did have the best No. 1 starter of the three teams. But that second championship squad trumps both 2004 and 2013 in bullpen depth.
Again, this is a case where we can see the dynamics of MLB as a whole change the way the Red Sox have built their team.
That 2004 team, while not exactly punting defense because they had Varitek behind the plate and tried to upgrade certain areas with the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera, but when you have Damon and Ramirez in the outfield and Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller and Mark Bellhorn in the infield, things aren't going to be pretty.
Three years later, things improved dramatically with players like Varitek, Dustin Pedroia, Coco Crisp, Mike Lowell and Julio Lugo. There were still problematic areas, like left field with Ramirez and right field with J.D. Drew, but for the most part this was a strong defensive unit.
The numbers certainly reflect that change, as the Red Sox saved 22 more runs in 2007 than they did in 2004 and improved the UZR by nearly 75 points in three years. That helps explain why the team's ERA and batting average against improved.
This season, just as the 2007 team did, the Red Sox put an emphasis on defense. Certainly there were some pleasant surprises along the way. No one would have told you that Shane Victorino would be the fourth-best outfielder by UZR, or that Saltalamacchia's defense would continue to grow exponentially with a career-best 7.3 UZR.
But the addition of Stephen Drew, who has always been a good defender, gave them exactly what they were looking for. The usual stalwarts like Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were their always-stellar performers on defense.
The 2013 Red Sox had four players perform at elite levels on defense; two of them were playing vital positions of shortstop and center field. When you can run a group like that out there, it takes so much pressure off the pitching staff.
This year's group is certainly the best defensive and most athletic squad they have had since this run of success started back in 2004.
The Final Word
There are definitely parallels between the 2013 Red Sox and both of the most recent championship teams, but for my money, this unit better resembles the 2007 group.
This team is more dynamic, from baserunning to power to defense, than the 2004 or 2007 teams. They don't boast as much pop or pitching depth as either of those title teams, though they aren't lacking in those areas either.
My biggest question remains about the rotation after Lester. Buchholz is still working his way back from the neck and shoulder problems that kept him out for two months. He's had some issues with command and control, walking seven and giving up 18 hits in 24 innings.
Peavy and Lackey have had some home run problems this season, the latter in the second half and the former more when he played in the band box that was U.S. Cellular Field.
That is not to say the 2013 Red Sox are guaranteed to win a World Series, though I can admit that I did pick them in B/R's official playoff picks. I believe this lineup will give a lot of pitching staffs problems, and the pitching will be good enough.
Would it surprise me if they lost? Absolutely not. I can see a scenario where Tampa Bay beats them in the ALDS. But on paper, the Red Sox are deeper than any team in the AL and arguably No. 1 overall, alongside St. Louis, among playoff teams.
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