After Manny Machado waved at a Chris Sale slider for the final out of Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday — the final pitch of the 2018 baseball season — Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez bolted toward the pitching mound and leaped into the arms of the lanky Sale. The celebration began there and spilled into the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, where the Red Sox sported goggles to protect themselves from the salvos of alcohol. They sang “New York, New York” and “California Love” as both songs blasted from portable speakers. The Red Sox had their fourth World Series title this century with a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, taking the series four games to one.
But it’s how the Red Sox arrived at this point, as perhaps the greatest Red Sox team of all time, that is so interesting. While dominating the American League from wire to wire, and then doing the same to a postseason field of super teams, the Red Sox challenged so many narratives along the way.
David Price proved that players can shed the most damning of labels with a change in approach (and perhaps just a larger sample of work). Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations, cashed in trade assets accumulated by former general manager Ben Cherington for premium, veteran players like Sale — even at a time when so many teams were hoarding prospects and young talent. And when other teams elected not to spend in free agency, the Red Sox nabbed the best position player on the market in J.D. Martinez.
MLB’s stiffer luxury tax acted something like a soft cap last winter as even large-market clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees vowed to stay under the tax threshold. The Yankees did so for the first time in the luxury tax era, and the Dodgers spent just $4 million on free agents, electing not to bolster what became a suspect bullpen in this World Series. These teams may have taken this route in part because free agency is increasingly viewed as an inefficient way to build a club — but they also likely had an eye on the upcoming free agent class headlined by Bryce Harper, Machado and perhaps Game 5 Los Angeles starter Clayton Kershaw if he elects to opt out of his deal.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, were aggressors in a season of passivity. They ranked fourth in free agent spending, going over the luxury tax while leading the majors in payroll. With the slow free agent period, Martinez didn’t even reach an agreement with the Red Sox until spring training camps had opened. The five-year, $110 million contract he signed might not produce value for the club in its later years, but the Red Sox wanted to win in 2018 — and Martinez rewarded Boston with an MVP-caliber season and a home run in the clinching Game 5.1
Those investments — salaries that not every club was willing or able to pay — paid off this October. In many ways, Boston built a super team the old-fashioned way.
While much of the Red Sox’s positional group is homegrown beyond Martinez, the Red Sox paid a premium price to acquire Sale from the Chicago White Sox before the 2017 season — and he has been an elite arm in Boston. Prior to 2016, the Red Sox surrendered premium talent for closer Craig Kimbrel. They also gave a record deal to Price that winter — seven years, $217 million. It was their investment in Price that paid off in a big way in the final two weeks of October.
On the biggest stage in baseball, Boston kept handing the ball to a pitcher who many doubted could perform in the postseason. Entering his Game 5 American League Championship Series start, Price had never won a playoff game he had started. He was 0 for 11 with a 6.16 ERA.
To change his postseason reputation, Price changed his pitch mix.
In dominating the Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS, Price threw a career-high share of change-ups, at 41.9 percent of his pitches. He followed that up in Game 2 of the World Series with a change-up rate of 28.4 percent before nearly matching that on Sunday in Game 5 when he threw 89 pitches, 23 of which were change-ups, for a rate of 25.8 percent. He threw just seven cutters, which was his most frequent nonfastball pitch in the regular season.
After allowing a lead-off home run to David Freese on his first pitch of the game, Price blanked Los Angeles for seven innings. He retired 14 straight Dodgers before beginning the eighth by walking Chris Taylor, which ended his night. He allowed one run, two walks and three hits over seven-plus innings. He struck out five.
Price has now won three straight October games, including each of his World Series starts. He’s no longer a choker. “This is why I came to Boston,” he said during a postgame interview. “I know it’s a tough place to play. I know it’s challenging with everything that is going to go on here. I’ve been through a lot in three years since I’ve been here.”
Despite Price’s contributions, it was Steve Pearce who was named the World Series MVP for his home-run heroics, including a two-run blast off of Kershaw in the first inning Sunday. Pearce — acquired in a midseason trade — led all players in the series in win probability added, which measures the change in win expectancy between plate appearances. The Red Sox acquired Pearce for his platoon advantage against left-handed pitching, and he came through for them.
All teams are trying to do the little things, to find value where others do not. All teams are employing data and video, development and coaching, to get more out of players already on the roster. But the Red Sox did a lot of big things, things that others thought they ought not to. They ignored many common narratives and leaguewide trends.
It paid off in a big way.