By almost any measure it’s been a magical year for the Boston Red Sox. Take Wednesday afternoon in Atlanta as a microcosm of Boston’s season. Trailing 7-1 in the eighth inning, the Sox put together a six-run rally to tie the game, only to fall behind again on a Freddie Freeman homer in the bottom of the inning. No matter. With two outs in the top of the ninth, Brandon Phillips launched a two-run homer into the left field seats to put Boston back up a run…in his first game with the team! Minutes later, Boston clinched another improbable win.
It’s been an exhilarating regular season, with explosive offense, clutch performances and newcomers making unlikely impacts.
But if the Sox are to take the extraordinary success of their regular season and turn it into a deep postseason run, they’re going to have to overcome the bad luck of their divisional series playoff draw. That’s because it’s all but a certainty Boston is going to face the toughest opponent any team with the best record in the American League has had to face since the two-team Wild Card era began six years ago.
Barring a 2011-like September collapse, the Red Sox will easily finish with the best record in all of baseball and will likely set a club record for wins. Their reward? A divisional round matchup against the Yankees or Athletics, two of the best wild card teams we’ve seen so far.
This year’s American League is one of the most top-heavy in recent memory, with Boston, Houston and New York all potential 100-game winners. Not only are there a bunch of very good American League teams, they’re all way better than even the best National League team. The Red Sox are currently 14 games better than the NL-leading Cubs. The four teams with the best records in baseball all come from the A.L. The Mariners are currently on the outside of the AL playoff picture. If they played in the National League, they’d be tied for the third-best record.
Here’s a look at what Boston could be up against in the divisional series:
-The Yankees currently own a winning percentage of .621. Oakland is at .596. If those percentages hold, either team would have the highest winning percentage of any AL Wild Card team to reach the LDS since the Wild Card game began.
-Of the 12 teams that have won the Wild Card game since ’12, only two have had regular season winning percentages of .580 or better.
Highest Winning Percentage Among Wild Card Game Winners:
2015 Cubs .599
2013 Pirates .580
2012 Orioles .574
The Yankees in particular could be the most dangerous Wild Card team over the timeframe we’re exploring:
-New York has a shot at finishing with the second-best record in baseball. Since 2012, no number-1 seed in the American League has ever played a team with better than the seventh-best record in MLB. Only one Wild Card game winner from either league has finished with a record of better than fifth overall (the 2015 Cubs had the third-best record in baseball).
-New York’s 1.0 run differential per game is the second highest compared to any other Wild Card game winner. The only team with a higher run differential was last year’s Yankees club, which came within a game of the World Series.
-With 12 more home runs, the Yankees will become just the fourth team in the last six years to hit 240 dingers in the regular season. Their .777 OPS would be higher than any Wild Card game winner with the exception of last year’s Bronx Bombers. And when it comes to raw power, New York is posting the highest ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) of any team in baseball since 2010.
Highest Isolated Power (ISO) since 2000:
2010 Blue Jays .206
2003 Red Sox .202
2005 Rangers .201
2018 Yankees .199
-This year’s Yankee bullpen boasts the highest strikeout rate on record (30.2%) and the third-lowest opponent batting average against compared to any Wild Card game winner.
So Boston will have their work cut out for them in the opening round of the playoffs.
The 2015 Cardinals are really the only comparable team to this year’s Red Sox. They were baseball’s only 100-game winner that year but their divisional rivals, the Pirates and Cubs won 98 and 97 games, respectively. It was a ridiculously stacked NL Central. Chicago shut out Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Game, giving the Cardinals the honor of playing a 98-win team in the divisional round, while the 92-win Dodgers took on the 90-win Mets in the other LDS matchup. The Cubs beat the Cards in four games. No one ever said baseball was fair.
The team with the best record in the league plays the winner of the Wild Card game. That’s the way it works. But this year, the Red Sox are probably wishing they could pick their opponent. Or at least draw straws.