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With Chris Sale’s 2019 Season Over, Boston’s Playoff Hopes Might Be Over, Too

Instead of angling for a championship repeat, the Red Sox are fighting to simply make the playoffs. Here’s the good news and the bad as they stare down an October miss.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Red Sox have learned good news, and the Red Sox have learned bad news. The good is that Boston is riding a five-game winning streak, including a comeback from a 6-0 hole against the Orioles on Sunday. The bad is that the Rays finished their weekend with consecutive walk-off victories, preventing Boston from closing much ground in the wild-card race.

There’s more good news: Chris Sale reportedly won’t need Tommy John surgery, after the Boston lefty went on the injured list with elbow inflammation. And there’s more bad: Sale will still miss the rest of this season, driving the defending champions into further despair as they face down potentially missing the playoffs.

Essentially every key player from last season’s 108-win Red Sox juggernaut is back this season, but that consistency hasn’t helped Boston maintain its winning ways. The club opened the season 2-8, didn’t exceed .500 until mid-May, and hasn’t spent a single day in first place. And now it has just six weeks left to save its season, down an ace, and with no margin for mistakes after too many months of them.

A playoff miss wouldn’t shatter the memory of last season’s World Series triumph, of course, and historically, it’s not all that uncommon for a champion or 100-game winner to fail to qualify for the following season’s playoffs. But in this superteam era, it would seem exceptionally strange for a 108-win champion to fall so far that it misses October entirely; the Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, and others are now annual playoff staples, so even if Boston completed one of the greatest single seasons ever in 2018, its 2019 performance suggests that the organization as a whole isn’t quite up to its rivals’ overall level.

But even with Sale’s absence, Boston isn’t quite cooked yet. The Red Sox still have a chance, if slight, of returning to October. Let’s play good news–bad news with a few key numbers that will explain whether Boston will, or won’t, advance to the postseason.

The Bad News: Six

The Red Sox are six games back of Tampa Bay. That mark in and of itself is all but disqualifying at this stage of the season. In the two wild card era (since 2012), 33 teams have trailed a wild-card spot by between five and 10 games through August 18, and not a single one has reached the playoffs. The largest deficit successfully closed came from the 2013 Indians, who trailed by 4.5 games at this point.

The Good News: .532

Comparing Boston to previous teams in its standings position is a tad disingenuous, if only because Boston has a much better roster than all those other teams. There’s little to learn from, say, the 2015 White Sox, who were also six games back on this date but got there with a far inferior 55-62 record. Only seven of these 33 teams had a winning record of any kind, and the best winning percentage among the group was .525. Boston, at .533, is better than any of them. So while Boston’s predecessors don’t offer much in the way of hope, the Red Sox are a unique team in this regard and can probably discard those warnings.

The Bad News: 94

Why is Boston, despite its decent record, so far back in the standings? The extreme imbalance in this year’s American League—which has three or four teams threatening to win 100 games, and another three or four threatening to lose that many—has essentially given the top teams, including wild-card contenders, extra wins.

Since 2012, the median number of wins for the team that wins the second wild card is 88.5. By their current winning percentage, the Red Sox are on pace for 86 wins; FanGraphs thinks they’ll be slightly better the rest of the way and finish with 87. So Boston is about where it needs to be—in an average year. But this year, again, isn’t average. The Rays are on pace for 94 wins, and even the Athletics are on pace for 93. The skewed AL standings mean that Boston’s target win total must climb. Reaching 94 wins would require Boston to win 27 of its 36 remaining games—the full-season equivalent of a 122-win pace. The Red Sox are basically doomed unless two teams ahead of them falter.

The Good News: Two

Ah, but Boston actually could benefit from the fact that it needs only two teams to falter, whether that’s Tampa Bay and Oakland or one of those teams plus one of the two leading AL Central contenders. Compare Boston’s situation to that of the group of mediocre NL clubs jostling for wild-card contention. The Giants, for instance, are much closer than Boston by distance alone—only 3.5 games back—but must hurdle at least four teams to get there.

What that compression means is that on any given night, the Giants will see one or more of the teams in front of them win a game, so San Francisco needs to win every night to keep pace. In the AL, it’s comparatively much simpler for Boston to win, watch both Tampa Bay and Oakland lose, and gain a much-needed game on everyone all at once.

The Bad News: Seven

On first glance, Boston’s remaining schedule appears to be an advantage. The Red Sox have the majors’ ninth-best winning percentage against sub-.500 teams (.633) but just the 21st-best record against teams that are .500 or better (.400); they lost their season series against the Astros and Dodgers, and are a combined 10-20 against the Yankees and Rays. So it helps that they’re done playing Houston and L.A., plus Cleveland, and that they have just one remaining series apiece against New York and Tampa Bay.

The problem is that all of Boston’s playoff competition can claim similarly. Seven AL teams have a winning record, so naturally seven AL teams are in contention for a playoff spot. And all seven teams have an easy remaining schedule, with a rest-of-season opponents’ winning percentage below .500. Thanks to the dregs of the league, every AL team has easy opportunities to bank wins, and the Red Sox, remember, need a couple of teams ahead of them to collapse. Boston should want more variance in the contenders’ overall schedules, not less.

The Good News: 5.79

Those contextual factors all considered, let’s briefly look at the state of Boston’s roster, which, after all, needs to win lots of games regardless of how the Rays and A’s fare. The positive here is that Boston ranks third in the majors in runs per game, with 5.79, and nothing about the offense looks unsustainable for the remainder of the season. The scorching-hot top five of Mookie Betts, mid-breakout Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and Andrew Benintendi is worlds better than the core for either Tampa Bay or Oakland. Out of 166 qualified hitters since the All-Star break, each of Boston’s top five ranks in the top 50 in park-adjusted offense.

Boston’s Top Hitters in the Second Half

Player wRC+ MLB Rank
Player wRC+ MLB Rank
Rafael Devers 173 9
Xander Bogaerts 157 19
J.D. Martinez 155 22
Mookie Betts 146 36
Andrew Benintendi 141 44

If any lineup can simply bludgeon opposing pitchers for the next six weeks to carry an extended winning stretch, it’s Boston’s.

The Bad News: 19th

For as indomitable as Boston’s offense looked last year, it was actually pitching that propelled the Red Sox to unprecedented heights. The lineup, after all, has performed basically the same this year—it’s the pitching that has collapsed, taking the team’s record down with it.

And as disastrous as the Boston bullpen looks at times, having now cycled through a handful of closers and blown 23 saves (tied for the second most in the majors), it’s really the rotation that has looked the worst compared to last year. In 2018, Boston’s rotation ranked fourth in the majors with a park-adjusted ERA 16 percent better than average; this season, the Sox are in 19th place in the same stat, at 4 percent worse than average.

Boston’s top starters entering the season were Sale, who is now hurt; David Price, who is with Sale on the IL; Rick Porcello, who has the second-worst ERA (5.49) among qualified starters; and Nathan Eovaldi, who has been used in a variety of roles since returning from injury last month, but none of them effectively, as he’s collected a 7.63 ERA and allowed a .905 opposing OPS in that span. July trade acquisition Andrew Cashner posted an 8.01 ERA with a 1.019 OPS allowed in six starts before Boston moved him to the bullpen.

In one sense, it’s not as if Boston is missing all that much with Sale hurt; the seven-time All-Star will finish this year with career worsts in ERA (4.40), park-adjusted ERA (just 9 percent better than average), and record (6-11). He’s still amassing an extraordinary number of strikeouts, but he’s been just a bit worse in every other category. And while a pitcher’s win-loss record is just about meaningless as an analytical tool, Boston’s playoff hopes would look much better had Sale gone 11-6 instead.

But of course, Boston is much worse off without Sale, underperformance and all. For one, his inconsistency had included several runs of dominance, most notably an 11-start run from April 23 through June 15 in which he posted a 2.24 ERA and struck out 14.4 batters per nine innings. Just this month, Sale turned in a 13-strikeout, no-walk effort over eight shutout innings against the Angels. Boston needs to rely on variance to make the playoffs, and 2019 Sale provided that quality, along with the potential to give Boston an easy win in every he started.

Sale’s loss, moreover, creates ripple effects for the rest of the rotation. Eovaldi, who was ostensibly the team’s closer for a time—he didn’t record a save, and the only time he entered in the ninth inning, the score was 19-3—was already back in the rotation, and now Cashner, who was recently demoted to the bullpen, may be on his way back up, too. Without both Sale and Price, Boston’s top starter now is the mostly average Eduardo Rodríguez, and manager Alex Cora is essentially rolling dice the other four days out of five.

This analysis is to say nothing of the potential long-term effects of yet another Sale injury, after the 30-year-old pitcher signed a hefty five-year extension this spring. Those ripples are perhaps even more troubling as Boston attempts to sustain an annual contender—but Step 1 is to make the playoffs now, to give this same group a chance to repeat. The odds are long, though, and the path back to the postseason slim: FanGraphs gives Boston just a 5.5 percent playoff probability.

The good news, to finish the pattern, is that 5.5 percent isn’t nothing. That’s about the same chance any given Devers plate appearance has of ending in a home run. It happens! But compared to all the other possibilities—for Devers, an out, a walk, a double; for the playoffs, a much simpler Rays or A’s qualification—it’s a lot less likely. MLB will almost assuredly crown a new champion in 2019. The 1998-2000 Yankees—sorry, Boston fans—will remain, still, the most recent team to repeat.