No curse was broken, no drought was extinguished. It finished all too predictably, with Boston marching seemingly unstoppably towards victory in a Game 5 that was a bit boring, at least in comparison to what had come before. This was not the record-breaking, 18-inning monster of Game 3 or the come-from-behind gem for the ages of Game 4. It was just a dominant team doing what they do. If you’re not a Red Sox fan, and the final game of the series seemed more like a period than an exclamation point, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate Boston's accomplishment for what it was: a truly remarkable achievement by a truly remarkable team.
The modern MLB postseason often feels more like a lottery than anything else. One where the reward for nine of the ten teams that enter it every year is dejection, one where regular-season records seem to matter little. Not so this year. Only one team in the storied halls of MLB history won more games en route to a title, the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 in the regular season and 11 in the postseason. Boston started off the season looking like one of the best teams in baseball and never looked back, winning a franchise-best 108 games to set up an 11-3 run through the playoffs.
The teams Boston faced weren’t exactly pushovers, either. The 100-win Yankees, their bitter rivals, who they outscored 27-14. The reigning champion 103-win Astros, who looked to have as good a chance to repeat as any in recent history, and who Boston outscored 29-21. No champion has ever had to defeat two teams in the 100-plus-wins club, but the Red Sox made it look rather easy, losing only a single game to each.
While the Dodgers might not have looked as threatening as New York or Houston, with only 92 wins, they were (as we’ve repeatedly documented) extremely unlucky in that regard, and looked as good a representative as the NL could elect to block Boston’s path to victory. Boston was, once again, the better team, outscoring Los Angeles 28-16 and losing (yet again) just once. All in all, they went 11-3 against arguably the three (other) best teams in baseball and never really looked like they were anything but bound for a championship.
Is there a template to follow for would-be contenders who look to dethrone them next year? A magic formula we can turn to, like the 2015 Royals’ super-bullpen, the 2016 Cubs’ analytic approach or the 2017 Astros’ burn-everything-to-the ground technique?
It all begins with drafting and scouting. The Red Sox have a rather excellent homegrown core, one that will likely be around for a while. The probable AL MVP, Mookie Betts, was a fifth-round draft pick, there for the taking by 29 other teams multiple times over. His fellow outfielders Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Andrew Benintendi were both first-rounders. Both Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts were international signings at 16-years of age. Lessons: Draft well. Scout well.
Then you have to supplement that talent either with trades or free agent signings. In terms of the former, you obviously have to talk about the Chris Sale trade. Teams don’t often trade the top prospect in baseball, but teams don’t often put a pitcher like Sale on the chopping block. They needed an ace and they got one. But it’s not just the big trades that matter. Both the Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce deals flew under the radar this season, but those turned out to be intensely impactful. Congratulations to you if you placed a bet on Pearce as the World Series MVP. Lesson: Trade well.
Then there’s the most dangerous game of all, free agent signings. David Price and his postseason foibles are well documented at this point. He’s been a bit the recipient of much maligning in the notorious Boston sports media world. Yet, he was exactly the postseason hero that the Red Sox needed, whether he was coming out of the bullpen, starting on short rest or just warming up and providing a security blanket for manager Alex Cora. J.D. Martinez might have been signed for less than expected, but he didn’t perform any less than expected. Lesson: Sign well.
Oh, and we probably need to mention that it helps to have lots of money to make those signings. Price’s contract is the most expensive ever handed to a pitcher. While Martinez’s might have been a bit of a discount, it wasn’t exactly cheap. Boston entered the season with the biggest payroll in baseball and it paid off. Lesson: Be rich as hell.
Draft well, no matter the round. Scout the best international talent, sign them when they turn 16. Make shrewd trades. Sign the right guys. Be rich as hell. There’s your template, front offices. (Did I mention that I’m currently in the market for a GM job?)
There are other things to mull, though. There’s the fact that Boston’s lineup was able to produce at a particularly preposterous pace with two outs and were even better with runners in scoring position AND two outs. Will they’ll do it again next year? No idea, but probably not. There’s the fact that the lesser parts of their roster stepped up when they needed them most. When Boston’s one-through-four hitters were struggling in the first few games of the World Series, the rest picked up the pace. Lesson: Make sure your hitters pick the most opportune time to come through.
Where the Dodgers probably put a little too much faith in Ryan Madson, who somehow allowed every single inherited runner to score, Joe Kelly completely reinvented himself as a shutdown setup man. Despite having had notorious command issues throughout his career, he didn’t issue a single walk in 11 innings of work in the postseason. Lesson: Make sure your bullpen isn’t going to screw things up.
So, yes, everything broke in the right way for Boston. In an alternate universe, Benintendi doesn’t make the catch and Altuve’s hit is a home run. Craig Kimbrel’s many runs turn into blown saves and Kenley Jansen’s don’t. Kelly walks the side, rather than striking it out. Price is gassed. J.D Martinez never left the Astros. Etc., etc., etc. We could go on, but there’s no reason to belittle Boston’s accomplishments.
Boston caught some breaks, but that happens to every team that wins the World Series. They weren’t a perfect team and had their fair share of problems, too, as evidenced by Cora’s need to ride his starters so hard. It worked, and it worked really well, both in the regular season and once our calendars turned to October. Maybe that luck was the residue of design, and maybe it was just baseball. Regardless, it was just the best regular-season team in baseball winning the World Series, which is probably something that doesn’t happen often enough these days.