How good are the Red Sox, really? As the light shines on them over these first few weeks, there are reasons to think this will be a bright season.
BY ART MARTONE
Let’s forget Thursday night, shall we, or at least put it aside. If you believe this season-opening sprint by the Red Sox is a mirage, the 7-3, 10-inning loss to the Mariners stands as Exhibit A. Shaky defense. Even shakier relief pitching. 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Sox pitchers allowed only three hits — and the first two could have been caught (had this game been played after August 3, they’d be doing champagne toasts in honor of Franchy Cordero in the executive offices of Jordan’s Furniture) — but, as George Stallings allegedly said on his death bed, those damned bases on balls. (Yeah, we’re lookin’ at you Adam Ottavino and Darwinzon Hernandez.)
If nothing else, it made for a memorable night:
But like I said: Let’s forget that.
So here we sit, well into the first month of the season, and we still don’t know the answer to this basic question: How good are the Red Sox, really? They had the best record in the American League up until Thursday and they’ve been in first place for what seems like forever (two weeks, actually). But what does it mean?
We’re trying to figure it out, all of us. Is it just a hot start, or have things really have changed? The Globe’s Alex Speier sees a vast (and possibly sustainable) improvement in the pitching staff. My good friend Sean McAdam, writing for Boston Sports Journal, points to their number of comebacks (they’ve rallied from behind in 7 of their 12 victories) and says these Sox “will scrap and fight . . . Not every game will yield a win, but to beat them, you will have your work cut out for you.” If you’re into such things, they’ve even dropped a couple of hints that team bonding — a concept always embraced by any fan base — is underway: Their own wave (no, not the one started by drunks in the bleachers) and the post-home-run, laundry-cart ride.
I can’t, and won’t, argue against any of that. All may be signs of greater glories to come . . . or not. But as long as we’re attempting to find evidence in small sample sizes, let me share my personal favorite:
Examining a team’s run differential . . . can prove instructive when trying to determine whether a club is capable of either sustaining a “hot” start or capable of rebounding from an early slump . . . Generally speaking, the stat is a good barometer for the overall talent of a given team.
That’s not me talking. That’s mlb.com, in its glossary of terms explaining various statistics. In this case, the stat in question is run differential.
Through Thursday night, the Red Sox had scored 106 runs in their 20 games and allowed 83; that’s where the +23 comes from. At that rate, they’d finish the season with 858 runs scored and 672 runs allowed, for a run differential of +186.
Is that good?, you may be asking yourself. Well, now that you mention it, yeah. It is. It wouldn’t come close to the major-league record of +411, set by the 1939 Yankees, but here’s where it would rank among other Red Sox teams:
|YEAR||DIFFERENTIAL||FINAL RECORD||SEASON RESULT|
|1912||+255||105-47||Won World Series|
|2018||+229||108-54||Won World Series|
|1949||+229||96-58||2nd place, 1 game out|
|1950||+223||94-60||3rd place, 4 games out|
|2007||+210||96-66||Won World Series|
|1903||+204||91-47||Won World Series|
|1946||+198||104-50||Won A.L. pennant|
|2013||+197||97-65||Won World Series|
|2002||+194||93-69||2nd place, 10 1/2 games out|
|1948||+187||96-59||Tied for 1st (lost playoff)|
With the exception of the 2002 bunch (more on them in a moment), that’s not bad company. And the current team’s +186 (yes, yes, only projected) beats the run differential of the four Red Sox World Series championship teams not on that list (+181 in 2004, +170 in 1915, +96 in 1918 and +70 in 1916) and their four missing pennant-winners (+142 in 1904, +108 in 1967, +87 in 1975 and +98 in 1986). And to put it in real perspective, understand that the 1939 Yankees are the outlier of all outliers. Only six other teams in baseball history have been over +300 (1927 Yankees, 1902 Pirates, 1936 Yankees, 1906 Cubs, 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners), and there are seasons when +186 would have led the majors in run differential. (teamrankings.com lists the rankings each year from 2007.)
mlb.com’s glossary also says a team’s run differential can help to identify teams that are overachieving and teams that are underachieving. Take, for example, the A’s, who are riding an 11-game winning streak and are tied for the best record in the A.L. Their run differential is -2, an indication they’ve been more hot than good. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, are +10 despite their 8-10 record, an indication they’ve been more cold (or unlucky) than bad. Over the course of a long season, run differential is a useful tool. We all sensed the 2002 Red Sox were Webster’s definition of underachievers when the season was unfolding and this is proof: They finished 10 1/2 games out with a run differential that should have produced a 100-62 record, which would have gotten them into the playoffs as the wild card. (And yet that would not be the most disappointing season of the Grady Little era . . . )
The reason run differential is such a telling number is probably best described by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein in their 1999 book Baseball Dynasties:
[Let’s] discard the popular myth that holds that the truly great teams are the ones that win the close games . . . [From 1900-1998] teams playing .600 or better in a season have an aggregate winning percentage of .633 [but their winning percentage in one-run games] is .580. In games decided by four or more runs, this same group of teams has a winning percentage of .686. Truly great teams win their share of close games, sure, but what they really do is blow away their competition. So when you’re looking for a great team, you look for a club with a great record and a run differential consistent with that record.
Which means that those of you who were thinking, “Yeah, but take away that 11-2 win over the Rays and that 14-9 win over the Orioles and that 11-4 win over the White Sox and the run differential doesn’t look so hot, does it??” . . . it doesn’t work that way. Those games are the real indicators of quality, probably moreso than the multiple comeback 6-5, 12-inning victory over Tampa Bay, or the four-run, eighth-inning rally that carried them over Chicago, or even that stirring late-inning uprising that ultimately fell short in Minnesota. When you’re truly good, it shows. And so far this season, it’s showed.
Now. Having said that . . .
You don’t have to tell me that it’s way, way, way too early to be making any kind of conclusions about team quality. Certainly not based on runs scored and runs allowed through 20 games. Comparisons to the super team of 2018 or the 1912 Sons of Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood are laughable on April 23. My friend Chad Finn says these Sox remind him of the surprise division champions of 1995 (run differential: +93) and I don’t think that’s a bad comp. But that team had to bolster its bullpen with a midseason acquisition (bet you forgot Rick Aguilera wore a Boston uniform for a few months) and after last night it would seem another such move will be in the offing a few months from now.
But at this stage of the year all we can do, as I said earlier, is attempt to find evidence in small sample sizes. When looking for small sample sizes in late April, run differential happens to be my favorite. Take it for what it’s worth.
At the very least, it’ll help ease the sting of Thursday night.
Art Martone wrote a Red Sox-based Internet baseball column for projo.com, for which he was named Best Sports Columnist by Boston Magazine in 1998. He also wrote about baseball for the Providence Journal and has had Red Sox material published in several baseball-only publications. He worked at the Journal from 1974 to 2009 and was Sports Editor from 2000 until leaving in 2009 to become Managing Editor of NBC Sports Boston’s Web site. He remained there until his retirement in 2019.