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The 2018 Red Sox Are Baseball’s Best Champions Since The 1998 Yankees

In the celebration Sunday after Boston pitcher Chris Sale struck out Manny Machado to end Game 5 of the World Series, clinching a title for the Red Sox, much was made about this being the best Boston team ever. That’s a topic we covered as well going into the series, but this team was also an all-time great squad, period. After all, the Red Sox won 108 regular-season games and went a scorching 11-3 during the playoffs.1

So, we must ask: How does this Boston squad stack up against history’s greatest champions? Let’s put the Sox to the test using the same metrics we employed to judge another recent all-time champ, the 2016 Chicago Cubs. There, we looked at teams according to a handful of criteria:

  • Winning percentage. With a regular-season mark of .667, Boston ranks 17th all-time among eventual World Series winners. MLB hadn’t seen a 108-game winner since the 2001 Mariners, and no team that had won so much had captured the World Series since the 1998 Yankees. In other words, on wins alone, seasons like that of the 2018 Sox are exceedingly rare in baseball history.
  • Pythagorean record. Perhaps a better judge of a team’s performance than raw W-L record is its underlying run differential, as measured by the Pythagorean expectation. And by this standard, the 2018 Red Sox do drop down a bit — falling to 30th among all-time champs. According to Pythagoras, Boston really “only” played like a 103-win team that saw somewhat good fortune in close games.
  • Wins above replacement. Digging deeper into a team’s performance, we can also look at WAR (averaging together the versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs) to get a sense of how well its roster played at a player-by-player level. For Boston, WAR per game splits the difference somewhat between winning percentage and Pythagorean record, ranking the 2018 Sox 27th among champions. Their 53.3 total WAR during the regular season was almost exactly the same as Houston’s last season.
  • Elo ratings. Here at FiveThirtyEight, we also have our own pet metric for judging a team’s performance — the Elo rating. In a nutshell, it tracks a team’s estimated skill level over time, updating after every game and accounting for things like home-field advantage and starting pitching in each contest. Just as my former colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum did when rating MLB teams a few years ago, here I’m blending a team’s final end-of-playoffs Elo with its peak and average daily Elo from throughout the season.2 As we noted before the game, Boston ranks ninth all-time in final Elo, and its blended Elo comes in 12th among historical champs. Elo is the category in which Boston looks best, since it gives credit for both wins and margin of victory while also crediting the Red Sox for their outstanding playoff run.

Pulling it all together, we can add up a team’s ranking in each category — winning percentage, Pythagorean record, WAR and blended Elo — to get a master ranking of world champs since 1903:

Baseball’s greatest World Series champions

All-time best World Series winners, according to a mix of Elo ratings, winning percentage, run differential (Pythagorean record) and wins above replacement, 1903-2018

Blended Elo rating is based on an average of a team’s peak, final and average Elo ratings during a season.

Source: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference.com, Lahman’s Baseball Database

According to this measure, the 2018 Red Sox just edge out the 2016 Cubs (a team built by former Boston general manager Theo Epstein) to take 18th place among all-time champs. That also puts them right next to the 1975 Cincinnati Reds — the best version of Cincy’s “Big Red Machine” dynasty — and makes them the second highest-ranking World Series winner since the ’70s, trailing only the 1998 Yankees.

Sure, you can complain about tanking having helped to produce an imbalanced era where the elite teams are vastly better than the bottom-feeders. But even so, this Red Sox season was historic. And unlike its two championship predecessors — the Cubs and Astros — Boston didn’t really bottom out to help get there. The Red Sox finished with a truly bad record only once since last winning the World Series in 2013, and even that was only an ordinary-bad season (71 wins), not the sub-60-win atrocities some of today’s tankers are forcing their fans to endure.

But maybe the greatest testament to the team built by Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations, was how many different contributions it received along the way to the title. At the top, there was American League MVP favorite Mookie Betts, who had 10.6 WAR during the regular season — one of the best individual performances ever by a player on an eventual championship club:

The best individual championship campaigns

Most wins above replacement in a single season for players who ended the year on a team that would go on to win the World Series, 1903-2018

Wins above replacement
Player Season Team Batting Pitching Total
1 Babe Ruth 1923 NYY 14.5 0.0 14.5
2 Babe Ruth 1927 NYY 12.7 0.0 12.7
3 Lou Gehrig 1927 NYY 12.2 0.0 12.2
4 Mickey Mantle 1956 NYY 11.4 0.0 11.4
5 Joe Morgan 1975 CIN 11.0 0.0 11.0
6 Lou Boudreau 1948 CLE 10.6 0.0 10.6
7 Mookie Betts 2018 BOS 10.6 0.0 10.6
8 Hal Newhouser 1945 DET 0.7 9.8 10.5
9 Willie Mays 1954 NYG 10.4 0.0 10.4
10 Mickey Mantle 1961 NYY 10.4 0.0 10.4

Source: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference.com

Yet, before Betts homered to give Boston a 3-1 lead in Game 5, he was hitting .200 in the postseason and was 4 for 21 in the World Series. Boston was so deep, top to bottom, that it didn’t even need its MVP to play like an MVP. J.D. Martinez, who would have contended for MVP himself if Betts and Mike Trout were not so historically dominant, had an .881 OPS in the World Series. Reliever Joe Kelly appeared in every game of the series, refusing to yield a single run in six important innings. Much-maligned starter David Price turned around a disastrous beginning to his postseason with four straight rock-solid outings,3 earning his second victory of the World Series with a win in Game 5.

And none of those guys were even named series MVP! That nod went to journeyman hitter Steve Pearce, who didn’t join the Red Sox until a June 28 trade brought him over from the Toronto Blue Jays. After murdering the Yankees in both the regular season and the playoffs, Pearce took home World Series MVP honors with a 1.667 OPS and three homers against the Dodgers. Even in a universe where Edgar Renteria and Pat Borders have won that award, Pearce might be the single most random player ever to emerge as World Series MVP, in terms of just how little he’d done in his career before shining on the game’s biggest stage:4

None of that matters now, though. Pearce and the rest of the 2018 Red Sox are champions, and they can take their rightful place among the best World Series winners in history. As my ESPN colleague Bradford Doolittle wrote last week, Boston’s performance in 2019 and beyond will help further tell us where this group belongs in the context of all-time great team runs. But in terms of one-year performances only, this Red Sox season stands right up to the best the game has had to offer.

Footnotes

  1. Even if they were only favored in a surprisingly small number of those games.

  2. Starting at game No. 40, in order to help Elo “catch up” in cases where a team lost or gained a lot of talent over the offseason.

  3. Including two-thirds of an inning in relief during Friday’s 18-inning marathon.

  4. 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui had been the previous mid-30s player with the fewest career WAR to win the award, but he didn’t come to America to join MLB until age 29. Pearce, who made his U.S. pro debut at age 22, has no such excuse.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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