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The 2018 Red Sox Might Be the Best in Franchise History

In the regular season, at least. Thanks to a few key factors that call back to the last best Boston team, the Sox are on a record-setting win pace.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most successful regular-season Red Sox team ever played so long ago that it christened Fenway Park. It won the World Series in a Game 8 after Game 2 was deemed a tie on account of darkness; its best pitcher, Smoky Joe Wood, threw 344 innings; its center fielder, Tris Speaker, won the second-ever AL MVP award.

The 1912 Red Sox won 105 regular-season games, lost 47, and tied 2, good for a cumulative .691 winning percentage. No other team in Boston’s history has won so many games, even in a 162-game season, and no Boston team since integration has won even 100. Until, perhaps, this season, as the 2018 Sox are more than halfway to making their claim as the most successful Boston squad ever.

That’s not a minor thing for a franchise with eight World Series trophies and 13 total pennants. At least in the regular season, though, no Boston team has ever been better than the 2018 Red Sox have been through 98 games, as they wait at the All-Star break with a league-best 68-30 record (that’s a .694 rate), an illustrious run differential to match, and a season-high 4.5-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East. Yankees manager Aaron Boone wasn’t much exaggerating when he said the Red Sox “win every day”—Boston’s won 12 of its last 13 and has lost three games in a row just once all season.

In just about every possible permutation, the Red Sox are a top team. They have the best record in the majors at home, and the second-best on the road; they have the second-best record against teams with a losing record, and the second-best record against teams that are .500 or better. They also have the best record against right-handed pitchers, and their only relative weakness—their record against lefty starters is just 14-11—might now be fixed, with platoon masher Steve Pearce hitting .423/.500/.692 since coming to Boston in a late-June trade.

Boston’s worst month thus far was May, when it went 18-11; over a full season, that winning percentage still translates to 101 wins. In other words, the worst month Boston has had in 2018 would still put them on pace for the franchise’s most successful season in decades. If they play at a .500 clip after the All-Star break, the Red Sox will still finish with exactly 100 wins. If they duplicate their May performance the rest of the way, they’ll win 108. If they continue at their overall rate, they’ll reach 112. Boston is striving toward its third straight division title, but it’s never aimed this high before.

Although the actual connections between the 1912 and 2018 Red Sox are tenuous—again, the former played so long ago that Babe Ruth wasn’t even in the majors yet—the modern bunch is not too dissimilar from its ancestral group in terms of roster composition. Mainly, the 1912 Sox relied heavily on a handful of star performers rather than immense depth. Speaker paced the lineup with a four-digit OPS and league-leading WAR total, while Wood led the rotation with an MLB-best 34-5 record, hurling 10 shutouts and amassing a 1.91 ERA. Beyond Speaker, though, only one Boston regular managed a three-WAR season, and the Sox surrounded Wood with a group of solid but not spectacular starters.

In 2018, Speaker and Wood have been replaced by Mookie Betts and Chris Sale, respectively. The latter leads the majors with a 37.2 percent strikeout rate, has an AL-best 2.23 ERA, and is pitching even better than he did in his remarkable first half in Boston last season. Sale also looks to benefit from first-year manager Alex Cora’s more cautious workload plan, designed to give the Boston ace a more even pace throughout the season and prevent a second-half burnout. In his first 20 games last year, Sale threw 100-plus pitches 19 times and 97 in the other game; this year, he’s reached triple digits just 12 times in 20 outings.

Beyond Sale, Eduardo Rodríguez (3.44 ERA) has been Boston’s second-best starter, but David Price and Rick Porcello have been merely OK and the oft-injured Drew Pomeranz downright awful. Craig Kimbrel (1.77 ERA, 30 saves in 32 chances) has weathered a minor decline in velocity to control the ninth inning as effectively as any closer in baseball, but the bridge portion of the bullpen has been, again, solid rather than spectacular, and Boston is on the prowl for a more trustworthy eighth-inning man by the trade deadline. The combination of decent arms plus Sale and Kimbrel has worked thus far, though, as Boston ranks second in the majors in runs allowed per game.

The lineup is even more effective, ranking first in runs scored per contest, but it’s also even more lopsided, as Rafael Devers, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Eduardo Núñez have all been well-below-average hitters, as has the team’s complement of catchers. The top of the order has been sufficiently indomitable, though, that it has more than compensated for the stragglers at the bottom.

That brilliance starts with Betts, who hasn’t relented from the scorching pace he set to start the season. Since returning from a disabled-list stint last month, his power levels have returned to the stratosphere, but he’s still reaching base nearly half the time, and his overall 202 wRC+ is still the best in the majors. Betts has more help than Speaker did, too: By FanGraphs WAR, four different Boston position players (Betts, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, and Xander Bogaerts) have been worth three wins already this year, while no other team has more than two such players.

Signed in February as Boston’s answer to New York’s Giancarlo Stanton acquisition, Martinez has been even better than the new Yankee this season. The Red Sox DH is hitting .328/.393/.644 and has a shot at the Triple Crown—he leads the league in RBI and is tied for the lead in home runs—and his 176 wRC+ ranks third among qualified hitters, behind only Betts and Mike Trout. Benintendi has improved after a rookie season that disappointed relative to expectations, and Bogaerts has been perhaps the greatest pleasant surprise in Boston’s lineup: In five previous seasons, the shortstop had never before posted even a league-average isolated power mark, but this year, with 16 homers and 26 doubles already on his ledger, he’s besting the likes of Stanton and Cody Bellinger in ISO.

The Red Sox boast an aberrant lineup compared with the 2018 baseline, as they successfully marry strikeout avoidance with batted-ball damage. Betts, with his 11.8 percent K rate, is the clearest encapsulation of this trend, as Boston’s hitters haven’t needed to sell out to access their power, nor have they diluted their success on contact in an effort to evade the rising strikeout tide. Rather, Boston strikes out the least of any team in baseball, and both its batting average on contact and isolated power marks are the second-highest in baseball. The Red Sox glean some advantage from playing in Fenway Park, but they’d be just as scary in a neutral environment: Baseball Savant’s xwOBA stat, which measures any given plate appearance’s “expected” outcome based on batted-ball data, pegs Boston with the most effective offense in the majors, with the Red Sox as a team approximating individual stars like Kris Bryant, Buster Posey, and Shohei Ohtani at the plate.

Even those individual performances, though, would not necessarily yield a franchise-best record were it not also for helpful contextual factors. The sheer imbalance in the American League this year—FanGraphs projects three AL teams to win 100 games and three more AL teams to lose 100—has afforded Boston the opportunity to feast on bad teams. They’re 9-1 against the Orioles, 6-1 against the Rangers, and 5-1 against the Royals and overall have a 36-11 record against teams with losing records. No team has done better in that split over a full season since the 114-win 1998 Yankees.

Unsurprisingly, the 1912 Red Sox embraced a similar strain of intraleague stratification, going 17-5 against the 53-101 St. Louis Browns and 19-2 against the 50-102 New York Highlanders in that franchise’s last season before changing its name to the Yankees. It’s no coincidence that Boston’s best-ever record dovetailed with New York’s worst-ever mark. This season is different, as New York is also playing at a 100-plus-win pace, but if anything, Boston’s current position relative to the Yankees’ is even more satisfying. There’s a real rivalry now, for one, as 1912’s season-long stomping came before the Ruth sale; for another, the dual-wild-card playoff structure means that if Boston maintains its division lead, New York will be forced for the third time in four seasons into the wild-card game. This year, that means, potentially, a winner-take-all date against Seattle star James Paxton then a divisional round with ace Luis Severino slated to pitch just once.

The wild-card route is inarguably worse than the division-winner route, but Boston will travel a perilous playoff path regardless of its ultimate standing in the AL East this season. The Astros have merged their historically great lineup from 2017 with a historically great starting rotation, with the second-best bullpen in the majors thrown in for good measure. The Yankees aren’t going away, with Gary Sánchez and Gleyber Torres slated to return from injury soon and an easier schedule than Boston’s in the second half, and Cleveland’s talented core makes Terry Francona’s crew as good a bet as any team to capture the AL pennant.

That’s the greatest difference between the 1912 and 2018 Red Sox; it’s not the respective innings totals of Wood and Sale, or Betts’s raised supporting cast versus Speaker’s, or even which team finishes with a better regular-season winning percentage. (Through 98 games, the 2018 version is one win ahead.) It’s that the former advanced straight from the regular season to the World Series, while the latter will have to navigate two equally impressive opponents just for the chance to win another title. These Red Sox might be the most successful in franchise history, better than any squad with Cy Young or Ruth or Williams or Yaz or Clemens, but they can’t escape the fact that they play in 2018. After all, the 2018 Astros are on pace to finish with the best record in franchise history, too.