Nothing beats some good ol’ October baseball. The crisp fall air, the electric crowds, the unbelievable plays, and the unforgettable mistakes.
Good thing the MLB scheduled Boston’s first two postseason games on weekday afternoons WHEN WE WILL ALL BE AT WORK. But those complaints are best saved for another time. Right now, I’d like to provide a quick breakdown of Boston’s opening round matchup in the 2017 playoffs.
Win. Dance. Repeat. (Actually)
The Boston Red Sox have clinched the AL East for the second consecutive season. pic.twitter.com/QdQFR62Y2a
— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) September 30, 2017
The Red Sox will take on the Houston Astros in the ALDS, with Houston earning home-field advantage in the best-of-five series. Boston will come in as underdogs and have the tall task of extinguishing a red-hot ball club with as deep a lineup as you can find in the MLB.
Boston finished this season with a respectable 93-69 record, especially considering the off-season losses of David Ortiz to retirement as well starter Steven Wright and reliever Tyler Thornburg to season-ending injuries. The Red Sox struggled down the stretch, though, losing five of their last seven games in the regular season and dealt with nagging injuries to infielders Eduardo Nunez and Dustin Pedroia. The health of those two could help determine the potency of their lineup, since their replacements (Brock Holt and Deven Marrero) usually provide little at the plate.
It looks like (if healthy) the Sox will go with Mitch Moreland, Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers from right to left in the infield, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Andrew Benintendi from right to left in the outfield, Hanley Ramirez at DH, and Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez splitting time behind the plate to start the postseason. Eduardo Nunez, Brock Holt, Deven Marrero, and Rajai Davis will likely be used in pinch running situations or for defensive purposes late in games. Now, this is not a bad lineup by any means. There’s an excellent combination here of speed, contact, two-strike hitting, and defense, but I worry that the lack of power will cost this team dearly. To give that concern context, Brian McCann, the catcher who usually hits 7th for Houston, hit 18 home runs this season. Only four players on the Red Sox hit more home runs than McCann, and the team leader (Betts) managed only 24. But more on this later.
The Sox will send ace Chris Sale to the mound in Game 1, fresh off a 300-plus strikeout season. Drew Pomeranz is slated to take game two, and as it stands now, there has been no Game 3 starter declared for Boston. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m pulling for John Farrell to give Eduardo Rodriguez a shot here, and I’d settle for Doug Fister. I just can’t, with any confidence, want Rick Porcello to start a game in the playoffs, at least for now. Houston will answer with a one-two punch of Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, which should make for healthy doses of K’s across the board.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison
The Red Sox certainly have their work cut out for them going up against the AL West champs. They do have a realistic shot at winning this series, but it’s going to take a top to bottom effort from the team to get them there (and maybe not even then). Here’s how I think Boston stacks up:
Where the Sox are outmatched
I love me some Mookie Betts, Christian Vazquez has been arguably one of this best offensive catchers this season, and Hanley Ramirez has lethal postseason numbers. And still, the Red Sox lineup is light-years away from Houston’s. The regular-season numbers speak for themselves:
Total Runs – Houston: 896 Boston: 785
Total Hits – Houston: 1581 Boston: 1461
Home Runs – Houston: 238 Boston: 168
Batting Average – Houston: .282 Boston: .258
OPS – Houston: .823 Boston: .731
The Sox will be going up against baseball’s best offense, and will lose the series in short order if they try to beat Houston in shootouts. No team that made the playoffs this year has a lower OBP, SLG, OPS, or hit fewer home runs than Boston, whose offense looks more “National League” than it ever has in recent memory. They draw a lot of walks, like to steal bases, and produce above average numbers when it comes to hitting singles and doubles. Small-ball may not be enough to hang in there with Houston’s offense though, as a power surge from the likes of Betts, Ramirez, Benintendi, or Moreland is a must-have in this series. This team was rendered useless at the plate in the 2016 ALDS, so here’s to hoping they can learn from last year’s mistakes and missed opportunities to drive runners in.
— MLB (@MLB) September 13, 2017
Where the Sox have the edge
The only aspect of the game in which the Red Sox outclass Houston is out of the bullpen. Boston features one of the AL’s top bullpens, a group led by flamethrower Craig Kimbrel who solidified his place among the game’s best closers after striking out roughly half of all batters he faced in 2017. As a unit, the Red Sox bullpen had a 3.15 ERA this season (second in baseball only to Cleveland) and finished in the top-five both in BAA and WHIP. Houston’s bullpen ended the year in 17th, 6th, and 10th place in these categories, respectively. While the Astros back-end relievers are nothing to scoff at (particularly closer Ken Giles), I think Boston has a distinct edge here.
Expect to see a tight-knit group of Farrell’s most trusted arms in this series, including the ideal three-headed monster of David Price, Addison Reed, and Kimbrel to finish off games. Joe Kelly, Carson Smith, and lefty Robby Scott appear likely to round out this group. If the starting pitching can consistently turn the ball over to Price or Reed in the 7th inning with a lead, the Red Sox have themselves a more than fair shot at winning the series.
The outcome of this series for the Red Sox will boil down to starting pitching. If Sale is just ok, not great, and the guys behind him fare any worse, you can expect to see some 8-3 and 10-2 final scores going Houston’s way. But if the Sox starters can grind out six or seven innings and keep the runs to, say, four or less, then Boston has a serious shot at winning this series. They need to just keep it close, even if they are down (they have shown an unreal propensity for comeback wins this season). A game where the Red Sox trail 5-4 going into the 8th may not be the worst case scenario. That’s where they like to have the opposing team for some strange reason. And if the Sox can manage to turn the ball over to Price, Reed, and Kimbrel with leads, then who knows? Maybe Boston pulls off a bit of an upset here.
What do I think will happen? My head tells me that Houston, behind reliable starters and steamroller of an offense, finishes off Boston in four games. The Sox squeak out a win at home where they have played so well all year, and that’s all they can muster.
But, since when do Boston fans ever go with their heads?
Sox in five. Boom. Write it down. I think the starting pitching will hang in there, and the team’s unrelenting scrappiness will push them over the top. Maybe it’s just the homer in me, I don’t know. I try to be as fair and unbiased as I can in my analyses, but when it comes to predictions, I can’t help it. GO SOX!