This fascinates me, more than it probably should: Since the advent of the 162-game schedule, the Boston Red Sox have never won 100 games. Of course, many franchises have failed to achieve that mark, but it’s interesting in Boston’s case because the Red Sox have long been one of the most successful teams in the majors.
Since 1967, when the Impossible Dream Red Sox snapped a string of eight consecutive losing seasons and won the American League pennant, the Red Sox have the second-most wins in the majors, trailing only their rivals from the Bronx, and have had just nine losing seasons in those 51 completed campaigns.
Yet, no 100-win seasons, even though other teams have done it 53 times since 1967 — including eight by the Yankees. The closest the Red Sox came was 1978, when they finished 99-63, tied with the Yankees for the AL East lead. That required a one-game playoff, which counts as a regular-season game, and you may remember that Bucky Dent hit an important home run off Mike Torrez. The Yankees won 100 games and the Red Sox went home.
The 2018 Red Sox, barring an unforeseen fade down the stretch, are going to soar past 100 wins. They’re 76-34, on pace for 112 wins. It would be the franchise’s first 100-win season since the 1946 club went 104-50. The franchise’s other two 100-win seasons came in the halcyon days of the 1910s, when the Red Sox won four World Series titles from 1912 to 1918 and a young lefty named Babe Ruth contributed to the final three of those championships.
The best team in Red Sox history, however, is the 2004 club, in part for sentimental, curse-breaking reasons, which obviously are a key component of that team’s legacy, but also because it was a legitimately great team, finishing 98-64. They finished second to the Yankees in the division, but they outscored their opponents by 181 runs compared to just 89 for the Yankees. One reason the Red Sox were able to come back from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series is because they were the better team.
The 2018 Red Sox are an even more dominant team. They’ve already outscored their opponents by 184 runs. They’ve scored the most runs in the American League and allowed the second fewest. They have a Triple Crown candidate in J.D. Martinez, and he’s not even the best player on the team. That’s Mookie Betts, the do-everything supernova in right field. Then there’s Chris Sale, who started his third straight All-Star Game and was having his best season until he landed on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. That’s expected to be a short stint and Sale should still factor into the Cy Young voting.
What strikes me are the similarities to the 2004 club. The most obvious one is the first-year Red Sox managers. Terry Francona had managed the Phillies, but he took over the Red Sox before the 2004 season, replacing Grady Little after Little left a tiring Pedro Martinez in too long in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Alex Cora is a rookie skipper, and like Francona he brings a positive energy and strong communication skills to the job.
The ’04 Red Sox had the 1-2 punch of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez to anchor the lineup. The 2018 Red Sox have Martinez and Betts. Ortiz and Manny combined for 84 home runs and 269 RBIs, but Martinez and Betts compare favorably:
Ortiz: .301/.380/.603, .408 wOBA, 147 wRC+ (5th in AL)
Ramirez: .308/.397/.613, .417 wOBA, 153 wRC+ (4th in AL)
Martinez: .322/.388/.637, .426 wOBA, 171 RC+ (4th in AL)
Betts: .339/.423/.649, .446 wOBA, 184 wRC+ (2nd in AL)
Indeed, once you adjust for eras, Martinez and Betts actually fare better in wRC+ (weighted runs created). Understand that in 2004, the AL average runs per game was 5.01; in 2018, it’s 4.49. Martinez and Betts are beating Ortiz’s and Ramirez’s production in a lower-scoring environment. Incredible.
The 2004 team averaged 5.86 runs per game; the 2018 team is at 5.34, so both are pretty close in their edge over the league average. The 2004 lineup may have run a little deeper, especially in the postseason when Trot Nixon was healthy after missing much of the regular season.
The 2018 team may be the better defensive team given Ramirez’s deficiencies in left field and Johnny Damon’s noodle arm in center. In fact, the 2004 team took off after franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra was traded at the July 31 deadline, his defense at shortstop no longer deemed acceptable, with Orlando Cabrera brought in to replace him. The 2018 Sox also made a deadline move in the middle infield, adding Ian Kinsler to play second base.
Of course, the ’04 champs had the 1-2 rotation punch of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, although Pedro had a so-so 3.90 ERA that year after leading the AL in ERA in four of the previous five seasons. Schilling went 21-6, 3.26 in ’04. The ’18 Red Sox may not have that No. 2 guy, but the overall rotation is much deeper, as Derek Lowe (5.42 ERA) and Tim Wakefield (4.87) were mediocre in 2004. One thing the ’04 rotation did have was great health, as the top five starters — Bronson Arroyo was the fifth guy — all made at least 29 starts and started 157 of the 162 games.
The one thing the 2004 team had was no fear. “The Idiots” played hard and partied hard. As Bob Hohler wrote in the Boston Globe on the 10-year anniversary celebration of the team, “They were ‘idiots’ to the end — lovable, laughable, irascible and a little incorrigible. They had a taste for liquor before lunch and a knack for turning a victory party into a circus.”
In some fashion, as good as the 2018 Red Sox have been, their identity has yet to be defined. Granted, it’s impossible to match the larger-than-life personalities of Papi, Pedro and Manny, not to mention Schilling, Damon and Kevin Millar. The three superstars carrying the team in 2018 are dynamic between the lines, but far less quotable in the clubhouse.
Ultimately, no matter how many more games the 2018 Red Sox win than the 2004 Red Sox, this year’s team will be measured by one target: winning the final game of the season. Personally, I find that a little unfortunate. The all-or-nothing nature of that evaluation reduces the regular season to an insignificance beyond simply qualifying a team for the postseason. The beauty of a great team is doing it over 162 games. Sure, you want them to finish it off, but the postseason is a short affair where anything can happen, where an entire series can turn on one stolen base.
As Red Sox fans will remind us, Dave Roberts stole that base — and seven games later, he was a member of the greatest team in Red Sox history.