Today the 2021 Major League Baseball season begins its playoffs. Tomorrow we get the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Why the Dodgers, the team with the second-best record in all of baseball, need to play a one-game play-in is dumb, but a subject for perhaps another post. Tonight, however, is the American League (AL) Wildcard game and it features one of the best rivalries in baseball if not American sports: the Boston Red Sox vs. the New York Yankees.
Full disclosure, as many of you know, I’m a Sox fan and consider the Yankees the Evil Empire. But at the beginning of the year, the consensus around the sport was that the Yankees would win first place in their division and be followed by the Tampa Bay Rays or the Toronto Blue Jays. The Red Sox would place fourth and the lowly Baltimore Orioles fifth. The Red Sox, as the consensus went, were, after gutting their team of top-flight talent and a no-good, rotten, despicable 2020 showing, nowhere near ready to reach the playoffs. The Yankees were an unstoppable offensive juggernaut.
When the 2021 season ended Sunday night, as the dust around home plate settled, the Rays dominated the AL East to take first. But it was the Red Sox that finished second and the Yankees who took third. Whilst the two teams had the same record, in head-t0-head match-ups the Red Sox won more games than the Yankees, 10–9. Not bad for a team that everyone thought couldn’t make the playoffs and would be in fourth place.
That got me thinking though, how wrong were our expectations? After doing some Googling to find individual reports and finding a Red Sox twitter account (@RedSoxStats) that captured as many preseason forecasts as he could, I was ready to make a chart. The caveat here is that we don’t have data for all beat writers, who cover the Red Sox exclusively or almost exclusively on a daily basis, or even national media writers, who cover the Red Sox along with the rest of the sport and its teams. For example, ESPN polled 37 of its writers, but all we know is that 0 of 37 expected the Red Sox to make the playoffs. I don’t have a single estimate for the number of wins, which obviously determines who gets into said playoffs, for those 37 forecasts. Others, like CBS Sports, broke down each of their five writers’ rankings for the division and all five had the Red Sox finishing fourth. But again, we don’t have numbers of wins. So in a sense, if we could get numbers from back in the winter and early spring, this chart would look even crazier with the Red Sox being even more outperform-ier than they do here.
We should also remember that during September, in the lead-up to the playoffs, the Red Sox were struggling with a Covid-19 outbreak that put nearly half their starting roster on the Injured List (IL). The Sox had the backups to the backups starting alongside the backups, some of whom then also went on the IL with Covid-19 leading to signings of players who, despite being integral to the September success, are not eligible to play in the playoffs due to when they signed. José Iglesias brought some 2013 magic to be sure. Earlier in the year, MLB would postpone games when significant numbers of players were unavailable, but the Red Sox, for whatever reason, had to play every game. And there were instances where players started the game, but in the middle of the game their tests came back positive and they had to be removed from the field in the middle of the game.
I’m not certain where I stand on how much managers influence the win-loss record in baseball. But if the Sox manager, Alex Cora, doesn’t at least get some nods for being manager of the year, I’ll be truly shocked.
The Red Sox are not a great team. This is not the 2018 behemoth, but rather an early rebuild for a hopefully competitive team in 2023. Their defence is not great. They lack depth in the rotation and the bullpen. I, for one, never doubted their offence—2020 surely had to have been a pandemic fluke. But I had serious questions about their starting rotation. Ultimately the rotation proved itself to be…adequate. And while they played through Covid-19 and kept their heads above water in September, the last few weeks were, at times, hard to watch. The Yankees swept them at Fenway, site of tonight’s game, just last weekend. Of late, the Yankees have been the better team. And all year long, the Red Sox played less competitively than I’d like against the other teams that made the playoffs.
I don’t expect them to win let alone make the World Series, but nobody expected them to be here anyway. Maybe they still have a few more surprises in them. After all, anything can happen in October baseball.
Credit for the piece is mine.