The Red Sox sub-replacement start has set all our teeth on edge, but don’t worry – it’s all Part of the Plan. More or less. I hope. See you below the break.
The Red Sox are 2-8. The starting rotation’s ERA is something approaching one thousand. Price hasn’t looked great. Eovaldi’s cutter doesn’t seem quite as devastating as it once was. ERod’s been uninspiring. Sale’s velocity is down. The bullpen looked okay-ish until that one time, at Chase Field, when Johnson & Co. gave up seven runs in a single inning (I had tweeted that the bullpen had been a bright spot moments before Ketel Marte launched a grand slam for his second home run of the night – lesson learned about timely tweets). The pitching staff as a whole has allowed 23 home runs in the month of April. They’re batting .249 as a team. Mookie hasn’t signed an extension. And in the only two wins they’ve had, the Sox didn’t take the lead for good until the ninth inning.
Now, I don’t mean to go out on a limb, here, but this was all by design, right? I mean, they didn’t exactly draw it up this way – nobody could – no sane, well-adjusted mind could concoct from whole cloth the parade of horrors that Sox fans have endured so far this season, such as the rotation’s eye-gouging (think this guy) 9.60 ERA (functionally indistinguishable from and ERA of 1000, btw) – but once Alex Cora and Dana LeVangie announced their plan prior to Spring Training, didn’t you kinda sorta maybe see this coming? The starters were going to have a lighter workload during the spring and, during the first part of the season, they were going to work themselves into shape. And it just so happened that the scheduling Gods frowned upon the Sox this year, and gave them a brutal, 11 game west coast swing to start the season. And the starters weren’t going to be ready for opening day, or, to be fair, opening week, because they were still working themselves into shape. And we were going on a road trip for 11 games. Eleven.
But relaaaaaaaaaaaaaaax, it’s okay. All is well. Calma. Because it’s not about the starting rotation working themselves into shape. It’s not about Mookie’s contract, it’s not about getting blown out or not at Chase Field in early April, and it sure as hell isn’t about how I just watched David Price cough up another lead (ugh, these guys). It’s about Wins. Well, the marginal kind, anyway.
Put it this way: in order to repeat as World Series Champs, the Sox have to amass a certain number of wins during the regular season. It’s gotta be at least enough to make the playoffs and, one would hope, win the division. But here’s the kicker – there’s no award for amassing the more wins than you need. If you could take the East with 93, 97, or 101 wins, there’s no advantage conferred either in the playoffs or anywhere else if you grab more than that. If last year Cleveland won 95 instead of 91 games, do you really think they wouldn’t still have gotten swept out of the playoffs? To make the playoffs on firm footing (i.e, win the division), you have to win a certain amount of games every year, but you don’t have to win more than that.
Since the Sox are a team steeped in analytics, I think they’ve crunched the numbers. I think they’ve projected how many wins they’d need to take the East, and I think they’ve put in motion a plan to reach that target. Further, I think they’re content to play replacement-level ball for a certain amount of time to start the season, after which time the team is confident that everyone will not only have played their way into shape, but also, given the delayed time frame according to which they’ve brought everyone along, that their pitching staff will have something substantial in the tank come September and October.
How do I know this? I don’t. But it dovetails nicely with the plan Cora & Co. laid out for the media, and look, they wouldn’t be the first team in the history of a major sport to not-so-tacitly-admit that early-regular-season games are disposable. Hell, everyone knows Bill Belichick uses September as extended training camp.
So, with that in mind, how many games do the Sox need to win to make the playoffs, and quite how long can the Sox keep playing replacement-level ball before playing their way out of a repeat?
As it happens, there’s multiple projections on how many wins it will take to win the AL East.
If we look at the Vegas odds, we see that the Yankees, not the Red Sox, are the most highly regarded team in the AL East, with an over/under set at 96.5 wins. This would mean that the Sox would need at least 97 wins to take the East, assuming the Yanks juuuuuuust miss their target.
As for FanGraphs’ Depth Charts, the Yankees are here too regarded as the team to beat, with a projected win total of 95. Were Steamer to get this right, the Sox would need 96 wins to snatch the East from the Evil Empire.
Finally, Fangraphs ZIPS has 99 wins needed to take the East, and a roughly 50% chance that the final win total that takes the division will be somewhere between 93 wins and 100.
Using these three projections as a starting point, let’s say that the Sox play replacement-level ball for the entirety of their west coast swing, netting only 3 wins against 8 losses. Here’s how they’d have to do the rest of the way in order to hit their targets. Keep in mind that, last year, with essentially the same team, the Red Sox final win percentage was .667, and they played .700 ball as late as August.
Doable, right? Not desireable, if you’re a Sox fan, but doable! Now, what if the Sox said to themselves, “hey, our guys are gonna be outta gas come October unless we use all of April as extended Spring Training.” Riskier move, less room for error, and I think certain fans might literally combust if this happened, but here’s what they’d have to do the rest of the way to win the division if they played replacement-level ball for all of April (31 games, 9-22):
Less doable, but not completely out of the realm of possibility, based on the numbers. Now, what if the Sox looked around before spring training and threw up their hands and said “we’ve gotta go for broke. We’ve gotta do something unprecedented, because we really don’t believe our best pitchers can be their best when it counts UNLESS…we use both April and May as extended spring training.” Here’s what the Sox would have to do to reach their targets if they played replacement-level ball through the first two months of this season (59 games, 17-42):
Yikes. Let’s all just forget we saw this, shall we?
The point is, the Red Sox season isn’t over if they come away from this brutal, brutal, road trip playing at replacement level, and they could conceivably win the division if they played replacement-level ball a sight longer than that. And to be quite honest, I think that was the plan all along: buy their rotation some time to round itself into form while giving the nod to the poorly disguised truth that the MLB season is probably a pinch too long. But after this road trip ends, at the home opener, on April 9th, that’s when I think the real test begins. That’s when we’ll find out if this road trip was just all a bad dream, or whether it’s the beginning of an extended, season-long nightmare. Here’s hoping for the former.