Boston Red Sox: 5 Keys to a Deep 2017 Postseason Run
In a season that has not gone entirely to plan, the Boston Red Sox will nevertheless prepare for the postseason.
David Price lost most of the season to an elbow injury that nearly caused him to undergo Tommy John surgery before Opening Day, while Rick Porcello has followed a Cy Young Award campaign by allowing 236 hits and 125 runs. Although the lineup has performed well enough to lead the New York Yankees in the American League East, the power-starved offense has missed David Ortiz even more than expected.
Last year, Boston entered the playoffs as AL favorites before getting ousted by the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series. This time around, they will play the underdog in the same round against Cleveland or the Houston Astros.
The Red Sox have a tough path to earning their fourth World Series title in 14 years, but they do have some of the necessary ingredients to reel off a fruitful postseason run.
Let's lay out their blueprint for going deep into October.
More Domination from Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel
Cleveland reached last year's World Series without Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar because of elite performances from their elite pitchers. Corey Kluber carried the rotation, while Andrew Miller and Cody Allen shut the door out of the bullpen.
With Porcello's regression and Price's move to the bullpen, Boston also does not boast the potent October rotation it anticipated. It does, however, have superstar ace Chris Sale and lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel. The burden is firmly entrenched on both studs to lead the way.
Having spent his entire career with the Chicago White Sox before last offseason's trade, Sale will make his postseason debut. Kluber also had never pitched in the playoffs before hurling a 1.83 ERA in six starts, commencing with a Game 2 ALDS victory over Boston.
The Red Sox need comparable dominance from Sale, who has posted a 2.90 ERA with 308 strikeouts this season.
He has ceded one or no runs in 14 of his 32 starts, but he has yet to face Houston this season. Even more troubling for the AL East champs, the 28-year-old southpaw had his two worst starts against Cleveland, who pegged him for 14 runs over eight innings. He will need to buck that trend if they meet with larger implications.
Sale can't pitch every day, and he won't go the distance every time. A strong bullpen is essential to playoff success, and Boston's relief unit boasts MLB's second-best ERA behind Cleveland.
Kimbrel, who has a 1.34 ERA and 49.6 strikeout percentage, must play an even bigger role than usual to beat Houston and/or Cleveland.
The 29-year-old closer has not recorded more than four outs in a single appearance since April 20. That has to change next week. Miller pitched at least two innings seven times last postseason, and Allen registered at least five outs in four appearances.
It would also be nice to see him roam beyond save situations. At the least, don't leave him sitting in the bullpen during a tied game embarking on extra innings.
Boston cannot outslug Houston or Cleveland, so it will require individual excellence from its respective rotation and bullpen aces to hang with the AL's elite. Kimbrel might receive some notable support from an unlikely source.
David Price Must Be Right
The Red Sox did not pay David Price $30 million with designs on him working from the bullpen. Yet the forced move could become a blessing in disguise.
The ace’s well-documented postseason woes continued last year, when he surrendered five runs in 3.1 innings during his lone start. He has a 5.90 ERA in nine career postseason starts.
After missing nearly two months, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner returned this month as a reliever. Price has since given Boston a taste of what he can accomplish from the bullpen by tossing six scoreless frames with nine strikeouts.
Friday's outing bodes well for John Farrell making the most of the unique situation. The manager removed Porcello—who had thrown over 90 pitches in all but two 2017 starts—after four innings and 57 pitches so Price could face fellow lefty Joey Votto and the heart of the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup. The Red Sox secured a 5-4 lead with five scoreless innings from their relievers.
"He's healthy and that's the beauty of all this," Farrell told ESPN.com’s Scott Lauber. "All the work that he's put in to get back to this point, and then still, I don't want to say marvel at it, but the way he comes out and throws strikes—and quality strikes. We're talking five innings in the past two months, and it's impressive to see the way he commands the baseball."
Price has not operated in this role since helping the Tampa Bay Rays reach the 2008 World Series as a rookie, but he already looks sharper in shorter stints. Having him ready to relieve a non-Sale starter early with two or three high-leverage innings would give Farrell a major weapon before turning to Kimbrel.
Boston might even be better off with Price bolstering a poignant postseason bullpen.
Struggling Hitters Need to Wake Up
With the AL playoff pool locked in, the Red Sox have the worst offense of the bunch by a wide margin. While the Astros, Indians, Yankees and Minnesota Twins respectively rank No. 1, 2, 3 and 8 in weighted on-base average (wOBA), the Red Sox reside at No. 20 as of Wednesday.
This club needs a sudden offense influx to keep pace with stronger adversaries. And no, it can't borrow Rhys Hoskins for the playoffs.
Hitters, however, get hot and cold and hot and cold again during a long season. Anything can happen in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, which the Red Sox discovered the hard way when a stronger lineup stuttered to a .214/.278/.378 slash line in last year's ALDS.
Even if they're slumping now, most of Boston's position players have enjoyed a hot streak during the second half. Eduardo Nunez briefly hit like Alex Rodriguez upon his arrival. Andrew Benintendi registered six homers and nine steals in August, and Mitch Moreland hit .342/.390/.671 in August before batting .183/.236/.354 in September.
Jackie Bradley Jr. and Hanley Ramirez need to wake up from September slumbers. Red Sox fans would gladly forgive a down year from Xander Bogaerts if he heats up this fall. All three delivered high-quality offense last year, so a few great weeks is well within the realms of possibility.
Mookie Betts Rediscovering MVP-Level Form
Even 2017's diminished version of Mookie Betts has 23 home runs, 24 steals and 5.1 WAR fortified by top-shelf defense. He's still the focal point of Boston's lineup, but it needs the superstar who nearly took home MVP honors last year.
The 24-year-old outfielder's wOBA has dipped from .379 to .338, making him above-average rather than exceptional at the plate. Although a drop in homers is not too surprising, he had never batted below .290 in a single season. He's now sporting a mundane .265 batting average with days remaining.
There are signs of Betts turning the corner. After going over a month without a home run, he has five in his last 15 games. He's sporting a .586 September slugging percentage with seven doubles, two triples and a 45.2 hard-hit rate.
Boston must hope a wrist injury suffered on Monday does not derail his progress. Now would be an inopportune time for an ailment to his sap his power and lightning-fast bat speed.
Even if he's 100 percent and closes the weekend with five home runs, regular-season success does not foreshadow postseason glory. After logging a .338/.388/.547 second-half slash line last year, he went 2-for-10 with a double in the ALDS. A few plate appearances can change October's entire complexion, and they often come from the least likely players (New York Mets fans will nod accordingly at the memory of Conor Gillaspie dashing their dreams).
But the Red Sox have counted on Ortiz to fuel all three of their World Series runs. Now this is Betts' team.
If Boston is going to block Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Aaron Judge from the Fall Classic, its lone superstar position player must play a vital role.
Defense Wins Championships
Although Boston's lineup does not score runs as well as its playoff peers, few units are better at preventing them.
Their defense ranks third in MLB with 43 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and first in Ultimate Zone Rating. Along with Betts and Moreland winning Gold Glove Awards last year, Dustin Pedroia has won five over his career. Bradley may never overcome Kevin Kiermaier, Kevin Pillar and Byron Buxton, but he's an elite defensive center fielder.
Rookie Rafael Devers, who has already committed 13 errors in 52 games at third base, is their lone defensive weak link. A returning Nunez could have relocated the 20-year-old to designated hitter—an intriguing recourse with Ramirez slumping—but he reinjured his right knee in Monday's first game since Sept. 9.
Fielding would especially stand out as their edge over the Astros, who have minus-20 DRS with baseball's third-worst UZR. Despite tallying MLB's second-most strikeouts behind the Indians, they tie the Chicago Cubs for ninth with 4.35 runs allowed per game.
Since the AL West champions wield a mighty power advantage, the Red Sox must make the most of their superior fielding. Defense often isn't noticed until someone makes a mistake or awe-inspiring web gem, but sound glove work can save a run, which could save a game—which could swing a series.
Note: All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.