Here they come again: For the fourth time since 2004, the Boston Red Sox will be the American League’s representative in the World Series. This time, it comes after beating the Houston Astros in an ALCS clash of titans, dispatching a club that many (e.g., me) thought might be baseball’s best. But the Red Sox aren’t your ordinary repeat contender, where a franchise keeps winning with the same formula time after time. This Boston squad is pretty different from each of the previous versions that sent a rolling rally of duck boats into the Charles River. Here are a few of the ways in which the current Sox squad differs from the franchise’s 2004, 2007 and 2013 World Series teams.1
Youth is served. Former General Manager Theo Epstein’s Red Sox teams were all about veteran leadership, as exemplified by a 2004 roster that was older than all but two other World Series winners. Five of that team’s six top players by wins above replacement2 during the season were on the wrong side of 30 — 28-year-old David Ortiz3 was the youth of the group — and pitcher Bronson Arroyo was the youngest of the team’s postseason regulars at age 27. It was fitting for an era of baseball where older players produced a disproportionate share of value across the major leagues, but the game has changed since then — and so have the Sox. This year’s team wasn’t exactly the youngest in baseball, but even having a roster that’s a pretty normal age represents a veritable youth movement by Boston’s earlier standards. This time around, seven of the nine best Red Sox by WAR were under 30 — a big departure from the ancient cores Boston had previously rolled with. And the team’s best player, Mookie Betts, is especially fresh-faced relative to those veteran groups of the past: He turned 26 just two weeks ago.
Swing first, ask questions later. The Red Sox of old knew how to handle a bat — Manny Ramirez owned a .312 career average, Bill Mueller won a batting crown, etc. — but they got more value out of classic Moneyball-style patience than from anything that could be described as a free-swinging approach. No team in 2004 saw more pitches per plate appearance than Boston, and only two teams walked more often. (The 2007 champs somehow took a free pass even more often than the 2004 group.) This year’s Sox aren’t the second coming of the 2015 Royals, of course, but they were closer to average in bases on balls and pitches per PA. Following the advice of new manager Alex Cora, they also got plenty of hits on early hitter’s counts, such as 2-0: “The key of the offense is to have a consistent approach, hunting pitches you can do damage with,” Cora said right after being hired as Boston’s manager. “First pitch or a 2-0 pitch. Sometimes a first pitch available is the one you can do damage on, so we’re going to have guys ready to do damage early in the count.” These Sox even had the best batting average in baseball during the regular season (highlighted by Betts’ MLB-leading .346 mark), and have hit .295 during the playoffs so far, including .370 with runners in scoring position. It all makes for a slightly different brand of Red Sox offense — one that can overwhelm teams with power, rap out key base hits or make good things happen on the basepaths.
Those killer Ks. Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester — Boston’s pitching staffs have always had strikeout artists at their disposal. But this year’s club took it to new levels, retiring 1,558 batters via the K, or 9.61 per nine innings. Every team’s pitching strategy is based around strikeouts in 2018, so in that regard Boston isn’t much different from any other contemporary club, but even relative to league average, Boston’s strikeouts per nine rate this year was significantly better than any of the Red Sox’s recent World Series teams. Led by Chris Sale — literally the all-time MLB leader in K/9 innings — plus four other starters who averaged at least eight strikeouts per nine innings during the regular season (including David Price, who had nine strikeouts in Thursday’s ALCS clincher) and closer Craig Kimbrel (13.9 Ks per nine), not even earlier incarnations of the Red Sox have featured so many pitchers up and down the staff who were so good at missing bats. And that tendency has come in handy, considering the defense ranks worse by WAR than either of Boston’s two most recent World Series teams. (Granted, the outfield glove work of Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi has earned its kudos, but the rest of the defense is generally mediocre, according to the stats.) The Red Sox have made defense irrelevant on 74 outs so far this postseason, so they’ll look to rack up even more Ks against the Dodgers or Brewers.
Closer woes? Speaking of Kimbrel, he has become synonymous this postseason with pitching the Red Sox into — and then somehow out of — big trouble. Over the entire season, his FIP minus (essentially, fielding independent pitching relative to the league, where average is 100 and lower is better) of 75 was worse than that of Keith Foulke in 2004 (72), Jon Papelbon in 2007 (57) or Koji Uehara in 2013 (42!!!). So this year’s version doesn’t exactly have the same lockdown back-of-the-bullpen presence that previous Boston pennant winners have enjoyed. However, Kimbrel still ranked among the top relievers in strikeout rate and posted above-average numbers overall. But don’t blame Sox fans for being on high alert if and when Kimbrel enters a close game during the World Series.
Latest is greatest. Relief worries aside, by just about every metric the 2018 Red Sox look better on paper than any of Boston’s other recent World Series teams. They set a new franchise record for wins with 108 during the regular season, and were also better according to deeper stats such as run differential or our Elo ratings. They then proceeded to go 7-2 in the postseason — better than any of Boston’s other runs through the first two rounds (in which they were 7-3 at the end of each ALCS) — and they did it against a much more difficult set of opponents in the 100-win New York Yankees and 103-win Astros. With Thursday’s win, this year’s Sox became the first team since the 2001 Yankees to beat a pair of 100-win clubs before even reaching the World Series. Although nothing could ever match the sheer emotional release of Boston’s 3-0 comeback against the Yankees in 2004, this year’s version has unquestionably been more dominant during its own run. Between the team’s regular-season superlatives and its relatively smooth postseason sailing (considering the opposition), it’s tough to imagine a more impressive way that the 2018 Red Sox could have arrived at the cusp of a title.
Of course, the one thing the 2004, 2007 and 2013 Red Sox had in common was that they finished the job after reaching the World Series. The 2018 version may have its differences from those earlier incarnations, but winning a championship is the one commonality that Cora and company would most like to share with their predecessors.