Does Red Sox's Versatility Make Them AL Pennant Favorites?

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Does Red Sox's Versatility Make Them AL Pennant Favorites?

The Boston Red Sox were the best team in the American League in 2013. 

One doesn't have to work hard to argue as much, mind you, as they posted the best record in the league and also led in run differential by a hefty margin. Also, Baseball-Reference.com's Simple Rating System rated the Red Sox as the best in the Junior Circuit by a notable margin.

And after what they did against the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series, it looks like overcoming the Red Sox isn't going to be any easier in October. The Red Sox played balanced baseball in the regular season, and it's clear that they haven't lost their ability to do so.

Boston's tilt with the Rays came to a close on Tuesday night. After grabbing some momentum on Jose Lobaton's shocker of a walk-off home run in Game 3 the previous night, the Rays fell to the Red Sox, 3-1, in Game 4 to secure the best-of-five.

It looked for a while like the Rays were going to be able to steal a victory after Joe Maddon chose to abort Jeremy Hellickson's start after only six faced batters (and three recorded outs), but Maddon's bullpen was unable to hold the 1-0 lead the Rays took into the seventh. The Red Sox scored two runs in the seventh and one in the ninth, and Koji Uehara retired all four batters he faced to seal the deal.

It's on to the American League Championship Series for the Red Sox now, where they will face either the Oakland A's or the Detroit Tigers starting in Boston on Saturday. When it comes time for either one of those clubs to prepare for the Red Sox, it will have its work cut out for it.

The Red Sox, after all, basically did against the Rays what they did in the regular season, in which...

 

They Won with Offense

It's simple: The Red Sox scored more runs than any other team in MLB this year. Their 853 runs scored topped the runners-up in Detroit by 57.

Or...We could do things the new-school way and make things a little more complicated by seeing how the Red Sox fared in some telling offensive categories. Sure they scored a lot of runs, but how good were they really on offense?

Pretty good, actually. Behold some of their MLB ranks, courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com:

Red Sox Offensive Ranks
AVG OBP ISO OPS HR wOBA wRC+ OPS w/ RISP
2 1 2 1 6 1 1 3

FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com

I hesitate to call Boston's offense a juggernaut, mainly because there are no real juggernauts in today's pitching-dominated MLB landscape. But Boston's offense was either the best in the business or among the best in the business in some very important categories. That's a good way to be.

The reason this is important now is because the Red Sox just showed that their offense hasn't become any less potent in October.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

In all, John Farrell's club scored 26 runs in the four ALDS games, including a whopping 19 in the first two games at Fenway Park. And while David Ortiz hit Boston's only two home runs of the series and the Red Sox had to battle for runs in Games 3 and 4, their scoring threats were pretty much constant.

Just check out how often Boston's regulars were on base in the four games, per ESPN.com

Red Sox ALDS OBPs
Player OBP
Shane Victorino .556
David Ortiz .556
Jacoby Ellsbury .526
Daniel Nava .429
Will Middlebrooks .375
Jarrod Saltalamacchia .364
Jonny Gomes .364
Mike Napoli .353
Dustin Pedroia .211
Stephen Drew .133

ESPN.com

Small sample sizes and everything, but that's eight regulars with OBPs of at least .350. That's significant because the American League average was only .320 this season and, more importantly, because of how it drives home the point of how few easy outs there are in the offense. This is a typical Red Sox lineup that can give pitchers fits even when it's not scoring runs in bunches.

It wasn't all about offense for the Red Sox, however. In both the regular season and postseason...

 

They Won with Pitching

The Red Sox were just an OK pitching team in the first half of the season. Per FanGraphs, they ranked 16th in MLB in ERA before the All-Star break.

The second half of the season, however, was different.

Jon Lester morphed back into an ace pitcher, the Red Sox got Jake Peavy at the trade deadline, and Uehara settled into one of the most dominant stretches in relief in recent memory. After posting a 3.91 ERA in the first half, Boston pitchers combined for a 3.58 ERA in the second half. They fared even better in the park- and league-adjusted ERA-, ranking seventh in the league with an ERA- of 86.

Boston's starting pitching promised to be a tough hurdle for the Rays to overcome in the Division Series, and that proved to be the case. Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Peavy combined to allow 10 earned runs in 24.2 innings, a solid 3.72 ERA.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Lester and Peavy were particularly impressive, as Lester allowed only two earned runs in 7.2 in Game 1 and Peavy allowed one earned in 5.2 in Game 4 before he was given an early shower so Farrell could start playing the matchup game with his bullpen.

And that bullpen? It was even more impressive against the Rays. Indeed, surprisingly so.

Red Sox relievers allowed only two earned runs in the four games. One was charged to Franklin Morales, and the other was Lobaton's walk-off against Uehara in Game 3. Apart from that, they did their job, especially Uehara, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa.

That core trio is Boston's late-inning brigade. They were the only three Boston relievers to make multiple appearances in the series, and they combined to allow four hits in nine innings, with 10 strikeouts to one walk.

Gather a strong offense and a strong pitching staff, and you can go far. The Red Sox did just that in the regular season because of these two things, and neither one let them down against the Rays. 

However, don't overlook how...

 

They Won with Baserunning and Defense

The Red Sox were good at both in 2013. Particularly the former.

Among AL clubs, only the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers stole more bases this season. By FanGraphs' "Baserunning Runs Above Average" stat, the Red Sox also happened to be the third-most productive baserunning team in the Junior Circuit.

This was mainly Jacoby Ellsbury's doing, as he ended up being the most productive baserunner in the league (his 52 stolen bases helped). But he was one of 10 Red Sox players who finished in above-average territory in BsR, and the club's baserunning habit had a big hand in its Game 4 win.

In the top of the seventh inning, the Red Sox had two outs with Xander Bogaerts on first base. He went first to third on a two-out single by Ellsbury, and came home on a wild pitch by Joel Peralta. On that same play, Ellsbury went all the way from first to third. When Shane Victorino squirted an infield single out toward short, Ellsbury was able to score the go-ahead run. 

Little things like that tend to go unnoticed during the regular season. But in the postseason, they can make a huge difference.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

As for Boston's defense, the Red Sox ranked 10th in MLB in Ultimate Zone Rating. It helped that three of their four best defenders played up the middle at shortstop (Stephen Drew), second base (Dustin Pedroia) and center field (Ellsbury). Victorino, meanwhile, was a huge asset defensively in right field.

Boston's defense didn't stand out so much against the Rays, but it certainly didn't do as much damage as Tampa Bay's defense. Miscues led to five unearned runs against in the four games, which is too many by about, well, five.

In addition to the better hitting, pitching and baserunning team, the Red Sox were the better defensive team in the ALDS. It wasn't a clean sweep, but in the end, they won because they played their usual brand of balanced baseball.

Which leads us to ask...

 

Can the Red Sox Be Stopped Short of the World Series?

Well, yeah. Of course the Red Sox can be stopped.

The Red Sox may have been the best team in baseball during the regular season and the best team on the field in their recent matchup against the Rays, but this is baseball. The best team doesn't always win on any given day, and it's kind of an open secret that the best team doesn't always win in October.

Luck and matchups are huge factors in the postseason, and it's because of the latter that I originally picked the Tigers to beat the Red Sox in the ALCS. The Red Sox are a better team than the Tigers, but Detroit's starting pitching seemed to me to be the single most dominant advantage possessed by any team in this year's playoff field.

But now...

The A's could do nothing with either Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander in the first two games of their matchup with the Tigers, but they more than handled Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. If the A's can do it, logic suggests that the Red Sox could do so too, given that they're the better offensive club.

Which of the three remaining American League teams will come out on top?

Submit Vote vote to see results

And yeah, the Tigers look like even less of a match for the Red Sox in light of Miguel Cabrera's pain-induced power outage and Prince Fielder's ongoing postseason struggles. Without the usual production from either of them, the Tigers lineup has a toothless feel to it.

As for the A's, the Red Sox would certainly rather face Oakland's starting pitching than Detroit's. Oakland's offense presents a worthy challenge, but it's not on par with Boston's bats. The Red Sox are also the superior baserunning and defensive team.

Because they're still kicking after their comeback victory in Game 4 on Tuesday, I have no choice but to stick with my pick of the Tigers over the Red Sox in the ALCS. There's a sort of honor system with these things, after all.

I did, however, feel a lot better about that pick at the time I made it than I do now. Since the A's have exposed Detroit's starting pitching as something less than an unstoppable force, the American League pennant now looks like a sword in a stone that will be claimed by the worthiest, most-balanced club.

And right now, that looks like the Red Sox.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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