.500 and in Playoff Position for Red Sox

Before the season, celebrating the Red Sox reaching the .500 mark would have seemed ridiculous. After watching the first 2 months of the season, this is certainly a benchmark worth noting and perhaps, celebrating. Sunday night is the first time all season, since the Red Sox were 0-0, that the hometown team has reached that .500 plateau thanks to a 3-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics. What’s even more interesting than that accomplishment? If the season were to end today, thanks to the struggling Los Angeles Angels (losing 11 straight), the Red Sox would claim the 3rd AL Wild Card spot. Over the last 30 days, the Red Sox postseason odds have jumped a whopping 43.2% and they now sit at a 55.6% chance to make the postseason, including an 18.4% bump just in the past week (Baseball Reference). Despite the awful start to the season and the seemingly endless struggles, the Red Sox are in the drivers seat with 108 games remaining.

On May 11th, the Red Sox were 11-20, 9 games under .500 and 11.5 games back in 5th place the AL East behind the Baltimore Orioles. To say the vibes were bad and the morale was low amongst fans was an understatement. The offense was struggling and the pitching staff was doing everything they could to keep the Sox in close games, but as Jon Madden would say, “You can’t win a game if you don’t score any points.” Since the walkoff 5-3 loss in Atlanta on May 11th, the Red Sox are 16-7 (.696), averaging 6.7 runs per game, and have a team batting average of just a tick under .300 (.297). Compared to the first 31 games of the season, that’s an astronomical improvement. The first 31 games of the year resulted in an 11-20 record, 3.5 runs per game, and a team batting average of .229. The Red Sox are getting contributions up and down the lineup and have seen several batting averages emerge from the depths of the .100s. During the most recent stretch, Franchy Cordero has been a nice surprise, collecting 6 of his 18 RBIs on the season in the Oakland series while Kike Hernandez has raised his average from .161 to .210 by grabbing at least one hit in 20 of his last 22 games (26 total hits with 3 HRs).

As much as some writers want to complain about the pitching staff (I’ve been known to spill some ink on occasion), the overall pitching numbers have remained quite steady all season. The only two numbers that have changed with any significance from the first 31 games to the past 23 games are K’s per game, which have dropped from 9.1 to 7.7 (Garrett Whitlock as a pitch-to-contact starter is the major contributor to that) and BBs per game, which has improved from 3.3 to 2.4. The team ERA was 3.77 the first 31 games and was 3.67 the past 23 games and overall the team has allowed 0.1 more runs per game the past 23 contests. Yes, the Red Sox need a closer and yes, the bullpen has struggled at moments, but overall, they have consistently done their job on a team constructed to score runs in bunches. On top of that, Chris Sale is on the road to a return and will be a huge plus for this team in the rotation and bullpen (whether he moves to the bullpen or remains a starter and a current starter is bumped there). He likely won’t be the ace of the staff, at least to start, but a mostly healthy Sale in any capacity is a bonus at this point. I said it from the beginning of the season and will continue to beat the drum: if the Red Sox offense can score 5+ runs per game regularly, they will win at an extremely high rate and will be a tough out in the postseason. It’s not rocket science.

Now that the Red Sox have reached the .500 plateau and are in the drivers seat for a postseason spot, they need to assert their strength and continue to win (obviously). There is a TON of season left and a near infinite number of scenarios to play out, but even being close to this position on June 5th is incredible. It just so happens the day following their rise into the 3rd AL Wild Card spot, the Red Sox begin a 4-game series with the Halos in Anaheim, the team 0.5 game behind them in the standings and struggling mightily. The Red Sox have a chance to put some distance between them and the Angels if they can pull off a big series win, and if they take 3 of 4, can ensure a winning record on their road trip despite still having a 3-game set in Seattle to close it out. The elusive .500 mark is great if they can blow past it and begin to put the rest of the league on notice, but useless if it’s the top of the mountain. Here’s hoping it’s not the destination, but a marker on the path to the top.

Huge West Coast Swing for Red Sox

After splitting a short 2-game set with the Cincinnati Reds, the Red Sox said goodbye to the friendly confines of Fenway Park after a 7-game home stand and 13 of the last 16 at home. While the home stand had a few signs of life with 3 series wins (of their 4 total on the season), including a 4-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners, it ended with some disappointing results against the Baltimore Orioles and Reds. Now the Red Sox head off on a 10-game swing in California with hopes of an above-.500 record when they return to Boston. With the calendar flipped to June, the urgency to turn around the 2022 season has ratcheted up a notch and the next stretch of series will be a true tell on whether the season is salvageable. Where will the Sox be when they return home on June 14th? Let’s take a look.

After grabbing back a little momentum on Wednesday night in the 2nd game against the Reds, the Sox are now 24-27, 3 games under .500. Losing 4 of 7 against two mediocre teams to end the home stand really put a damper on what appeared to be a turning of the tides. Getting back to the .500 mark is proving to be a challenge for this group, despite having one of the top performing offenses in baseball. The Red Sox led baseball in average, slugging percentage, and OPS in May but saw their pitching staff show signs of concern. This was everyone’s concern in the offseason, a strong offense with a weak pitching staff, but the script was flipped in April. The lack of an actual closer since they moved Garrett Whitlock to the starting rotation has been an achilles heal for this team.

Looking at their opponents in California, the Red Sox should be able to take care of business and definitely win the road trip against 3 struggling teams. They play 3 against the 20-33 Oakland Athletics to begin the trip and anything less than a series win or sweep would be a massive disappointment. It’s still a hair too early to call this series a must-win, but it’s pretty damn close. The As are coming off a 3-game sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros in Oakland and 1-6 in their last 7 games. The Red Sox are facing 2 of the As best pitchers in games 2 and 3 in Paul Blackburn, who is a surprising 5-1 with a 2.15 ERA on the season and Frankie Montas, who has a tough 2-5 record, but a strong 3.20 ERA this season. Realistically, I see the Sox taking 2 out of 3.

The Sox then head to Los Angeles for a 4-game set with the Angels. They have been scuffling as of late, losing 8 of their last 10 and 7 straight, but have a 3-game set against the lowly 22-29 Philadelphia Phillies before facing the Sox. The Angels will have a chance to get themselves back on track and come into the Sox series with more confidence. It appears that the Shohei Ohtani will pitch in the Red Sox series, so that’s always a challenge, but frankly they have been underperforming as a team. If they continue to underperform, the Red Sox could do some damage. The Sox should at least split the series, but if they can find a way to win 3 of 4, that would be a huge momentum booster.

The Sox wrap up the trip with 3 in Seattle against the 22-29 Mariners. Another surprise disappointment, the Mariners have really struggled this season and the Red Sox have already done some damage against them with a 4-game sweep at Fenway earlier in May. For what it’s worth, the Mariners are 5-5 in their last 10 and have a winning record at home (12-10), but it’s another series that the Red Sox should, and need to, win. A bright spot for the Mariners and someone the Red Sox will likely see, is starter Logan Gilbert. The 25-year old is 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in 10 starts this season. He has 60Ks in 59 innings and has a WHIP of just a tick over 1. Offensively, 1B Ty France has been mashing the ball, hitting .347 with 7 HRs on the season in 229 plate appearances. This should be another series win, taking at least 2 out of 3.

Overall, the road trip consists of 2 very winnable series against the struggling As and Mariners bookending a split/winnable series against the struggling Angels. West Coast swings are always tough given the time zone changes and travel, but with a day off leading into the trip, there are no excuses. If the Red Sox want to remain in the 2022 competitive conversation, this trip needs to result in 6+ wins, 2 of 3 from the As and Mariners and at least a split with the Angels. If they can somehow squeak out 7 wins, then the Sox will come home to Boston with at least a .500 record for the first time all season. Is that too much to ask?

The Crazy AL Wild Card Race

From 3-way ties to AL East dominance, the AL Wild Card race is proving to be high drama in 2021. As it sits on the morning of September 17th, it is a a battle between the Toronto Blue Jays (82-64), the Boston Red Sox (83-65) and the New York Yankees (82-65, 0.5 games back), with the Oakland Athletics (79-67, 3 games back) and the Seattle Mariners (78-68, 4 games back) hoping for a slip from the teams above. With between 14-16 games remaining for every team, the final 2 weeks are absolute must-watch baseball every night.

As a Red Sox fan, it’s frustrating that the team is even in this position fighting for a playoff spot. Putting that aside, let’s take a closer look at the race, see what the next few weeks will look like for the 3 AL East teams, and make some predictions on the outcome.

Toronto Blue Jays

Playoff Odds: 84.0%

The Blue Jays have the 2nd best run differential in the AL and 4th best in the MLB this season. They have been on an absolute tear the last month or so, going 16-3 over their last 19 games, including an 8-game winning streak and a 4-game sweep of the New York Yankees about a week ago to make this race even more interesting. Their surge has been marked by tremendous offensive production. In the 15 games so far in September (13-2), the Blue Jays have scored fewer than 5 runs just twice, and have scored 10+ runs in 5 games. If they continue scoring at this same level, it will be incredibly hard to see them not getting one of the 2 wild card spots in 2 weeks. They will also be a very difficult out in the wild card game if they can continue to score in bunches.

Their schedule going forward isn’t terribly difficult, but has a few potential hurdles. They face the 64-83, 5th place in the AL Central Minnesota Twins 7 times in the final 16 games, including a 4-game set on the road at Target Field and a 3-game set to end the season at home against the lowly Baltimore Orioles. They do have 3 games at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay against the Rays and a huge 3-game set at home against the New York Yankees, but overall that’s a fairly light schedule for the highly potent Blue Jays offense. Overall, I think the remaining games are favorable for Toronto assuming they can beat the teams they are supposed to beat and not get swept by the Rays or Yankees. Their playoff odds have jumped a massive 42.5% in 30 days and it’s looking better and better for the team north of the border.

Boston Red Sox

Playoff Odds: 71%

The strange rollercoaster of a season continues in Boston. The most dominant and surprising team early on in the year is now in the mix to miss the playoffs all together with 2 weeks remaining. The Red Sox went from first place on July 30th to 8 games back tied for 2nd as of writing this, which is amazingly and improvement after spending 19 games in 3rd place in the end of August and into September. The September schedule for the Red Sox has been tough, with all but 3 of the 14 games against above .500 teams and the other 3 games were against Cleveland who are 71-73 and 2nd in the AL Central. The Red Sox went 8-6, which while not amazing, has kept them in the hunt for a wild card spot.

The good news for Red Sox fans is their schedule. They face the lowly Baltimore Orioles 6 times (3 at home, 3 on the road), the New York Mets 2 times at home, and the Washington Nationals for 3 on the road to end the season. The biggest three games in the middle are a homestand with the New York Yankees. If the Red Sox can win the majority of the games they are supposed to win against lesser opponents, they may have a chance to sink the Yankees chances with a series win at Fenway September 24-26. The Red Sox are 21-12 against their remaining opponents (they haven’t play the Nationals yet) and have the most favorable schedule of the 3 AL East teams fighting for the 2 wild card spots.

New York Yankees

Playoff Odds: 36.4%

After an incredibly hot August, the Yankees are struggling in a big way in September. In August the Yankees went 21-8 and climbed as close as 4 games back in the division race and 2 games up in the top wild card spot on August 27th. Now 15 games into September, the Yankees have fallen to 9 games back in the division and are 0.5 games back of even the 2nd wild card spot. According to Baseball Reference, over the last 30 days the Yankees playoff odds have dropped 12%, which is a tough spot to be in with 2 weeks remaining. That being said, if they get hot and start rolling, they have a reasonable shot at the 2nd wild card position and even the top spot if Toronto and Boston falter.

The upcoming schedule is really tough for the Yankees. On one hand, they have the opportunity to face the Blue Jays and Red Sox head-to-head which could change the race dramatically, but on the other hand, they finish the season with 6 of 9 on the road and all 9 against teams in the division fighting for a playoff spot. This season, the Yankees have been outscored in games on the road (322-321) despite a 41-34 record and more importantly, they are 19-29 against the Rays, Blue Jays, and Red Sox combined. If the Yankees want to put themselves in a better position, they need to take care of business at home against the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers over the next 6 games. Both teams are under .500, although Cleveland just barely, and the Yankees have gone 6-2 against the 2 clubs so far this season. The wild card will likely be decided in games 154-159 on the road in Boston and Toronto.


Prediction

  • 1st Wild Card – Toronto Blue Jays
  • 2nd Wild Card – Boston Red Sox
  • Wild Card winner – Toronto Blue Jays

While I think this will be a battle until the bitter end, the Blue Jays and Red Sox have the advantage going into the final few weeks. The Yankees are more than capable of making a run and stealing a spot from one of the 2 teams, but the way they have been playing and their schedule will make it a tough task. When it comes to the actual Wild Card game, I give the advantage to the Blue Jays regardless of location, but an even more significant advantage if they are playing in the Rogers Centre. If the game were to be at Fenway, it would be a closer call for me, but I always favor the hotter team and it’s hard to find a team with more momentum (as of today) than the Blue Jays. With all that said, a LOT can happen in two weeks of baseball and the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners are not going to sit back and watch the battle in front of them passively.

*All playoff odds are from Baseball Reference.

Injuries and Losses Pile Up for Red Sox

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Before Sunday’s game, the Red Sox were forced to make a flurry of roster moves. In 1 day, they lost their backup catcher, Ryan Hannigan, to neck inflammation and their 3rd string catcher/starting left fielder, Blake Swihart, to a sprained foot/ankle that could cost him the remainder of the 2016 season and even worse, will remove him from any trade conversations. Those two injuries force the Red Sox to tap into some organizational depth by bringing up C Sandy Leon and OF Rusney Castillo. The Red Sox also optioned RHP Noe Ramirez to AAA and called up RHP Heath Hembree.

Although neither Hannigan’s nor Swihart’s absence is devastating for the Red Sox, the injuries come at a time when the team is struggling against divisional opponents and has seen their division lead disappear. The Red Sox are 4-6 in their last 10 games (1-4 in June), all against divisional opponents (Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays). They are now in a virtual tie with the Orioles for 1st place in the AL East, with the surging Blue Jays (8-2 in their last 10) just 2.5 games back. The divisional race is likely to be tight all year because no AL East team has great pitching, hitting and defense, each has at least 1 major flaw.

Through almost 1/3 of the season, the Red Sox are just 14-15 against the AL East, but 19-9 against all other opponents, many of whom are under .500 for the season (Oakland Athletics, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, and Atlanta Braves). If you want to look at the positive, the Red Sox are taking care of business beating the teams they definitely should be beating, but that’s not enough. In order for the Red Sox to make the playoffs and contend in 2016, they have to beat divisional opponents.

It’s really simple. The Red Sox play their 4 divisional foes 19 times a piece, totaling 76 games in the division (47% of their schedule). If the Red Sox finish with a .500 record in the division, 38-38, then they need to go 52-34 (.605 winning percentage) against non-divisional opponents just to reach 90 wins, which may not be enough to make the playoffs. That’s a significant task for a team with an era of 4.38, ranking them 12th out of 15 AL teams. As good as the Red Sox offense can be, they will live or die by their pitching staff come September when the playoff push is in full force.