The Red Sox could lose all three of their remaining regular season games, and aside from the fact that they’d be on a six game losing streak, they’d still be heading into the playoffs.
Once those games start, the results from the final week of the regular season should not be of to much concern. Here’s what should concern the Red Sox.
No.1: The Bullpen
Okay, to be fair, the bullpen has turned a corner. The Sox bullpen is currently ranked sixth in the AL in earned run average (3.61,) third in opponents batting average (.233,) and eighth in walks issued.
Those aren’t amazing stats, but after a mostly dominant September, the Red Sox bullpen is now ranked quite respectively among AL teams.
Consistency is a problem though. There really isn’t one single member of the bullpen who has has been both healthy and effective all season long.
It is easy to look at the last month of the regular season and think that the problem is basically solved. Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler, Robby Scott and Junichi Tazawa have combined to pitch 30 innings and have yet to allow an earned run.
Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes and Robbie Ross Jr have combined to pitch 23 innings and have allowed only three earned runs. As great as that is, the reality is that those numbers are all much worse when you look at the stats for any other month of the regular season.
Keep in mind that Tazawa, Ziegler, Kimbrel and Uehara have all dealt with injuries or missed time due to illness.
No matter how good a team’s starting pitching is, the bullpen has to come up big in order to win in the playoffs. When the 2013 Red Sox made their title run, it was the bullpen, not the starters who made the most dramatic difference in the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers.
The New York Mets had the edge over the Kansas City Royals when it came to starting pitching, but the Royals superior bullpen allowed them to shorten the game for their starters and shut down the Mets in the crucial late innings of last year’s World Series games.
The Red Sox bullpen has improved a lot since the early part of the season, but there are still reasons to be concerned.
No.2: Close Games
This is part of the bullpen issue, but the simple fact is that when games are close, the Red Sox have struggled. They’re not awful in close games, but they’re not as good as one might think a playoff team with World Series aspirations should be.
Boston is 92-67 but in one-run games they’re just 20-22. It doesn’t always matter. The 2013 Red Sox finished with a 97-65 record, but in one-run games they finished just 21-21. The 2007 Red Sox finished 96-66 but in one-run games they were only 22-28 and the 2004 Red Sox finished 98-64 but only 16-18 in one run games.
Last year’s World Series champs, the Kansas City Royals finished the regular season 95-67, but they were 23-17 in one-run games.
Close games have been a big deal this season. They might not be quite as big a deal as they’ve been made out to be. They’re still important. The World Series champion Red Sox teams of this century have never excelled in close games during the regular season, but they’ve found ways to eek out the close victories in the playoffs, that’s the path this year’s team will look to traverse.
No. 3: David Price
This was touched on earlier in the week, but it is worthy of another mention.
When a team adds a starting pitcher to be the staff ace, they need that pitcher to pretty much be an ace, especially once the playoffs start.
Over the course of his first season in Boston, David Price has been a dominant, ace-type of starting pitcher, and a guy who looks out of sync on the mound. A guy who gives up too many hits and too many home runs. A guy who struggles to get through five or six innings.
Just about every starter deals with a few bad starts, but Price’s 2016 season has been so inconsistent that Red Sox fans have to feel a degree of angst heading into the most critical games of the season.
Over the course of the six month regular season, Price has had four months where his earned run average exceeded 4.00 and in April it was actually 5.76. That sounds awful, but there were also two months, July and August in which Price had earned run averages under 3.00 .
Then there’s Price’s postseason history. When the Red Sox signed Price, he had the resume of an “ace.” He had been an elite or close to elite starting pitcher in just about every season of his nine year career.
His postseason resume was not nearly as encouraging.
Price’s career postseason earned run average is 5.12. He’s started eight games, pitched 63.1 innings and allowed 11 home runs. In fact Price’s postseason performances feel eerily familiar to the poor regular season outings that Red Sox fans grew frustrated with throughout most of 2016.
Rick Porcello’s Cy Young caliber season has made Price’s dominance less of a requirement, but he still needs to be a lot better than he’s been for most of this season, and through just about all of his prior postseason starts.
If the Red Sox can get Price to be the dominant starter that he’s been through most of his regular season career, then this year’s team could be the fourth Red Sox squad of the century to end their season atop duck boats.