Am I the only person that looked back at the end of the 2017 season and said to himself, ‘How in the world did they win 93 games, the exact same number that they won in 2016’?
Did anyone else notice that the 2016 Red Sox, with David Ortiz, led all of baseball in almost every major offensive category including, batting average, .282; hits 1,598; runs scored 878; total bases 2,615; on base percentage, .348 and slugging percentage .461? On the other hand, the 2017 Red Sox, without David Ortiz, finished 13th in baseball in batting average, at .258; 8th in hits 1,461, 21st in runs scored 785, 22nd in total bases 2,305, 11th in on base percentage, .329 and 26th in slugging percentage at .407.
Obviously, not all of the reduction in offense was from the loss of Big Papi.
From 2016 to 2017, the offensive production of several key players in the Sox lineup fell off dramatically. Mookie Betts hit .318 in 2016 and just .264, in 2017, Xander Bogaerts fell from .294 to .273, Hanley Ramirez from .286 to .242, Jackie Bradley, from .267 to .245, Sandy Leon from .310 to .225.
In addition, Betts fell from 31 homers in 2016 to 24 in 2017, Bogaerts from 21 to 10, Ramirez 30 to 23, Bradley 26 to 17. On top of this, Dustin Pedroia who played in 154 games in 2017 and batted .318, missed a large part of the 2017 season with injuries and hit just .293 with 82 less hits and 8 less homers.
It should be noted that players like Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley and Ramirez, while experiencing great reductions in their production, did not, for the most part, have bad seasons, but when compared to 2016, those years looked terrible. There is nothing to indicate that their 2017 performance will be the norm in the future and there is nothing to indicate that they are not capable of achieving those heights again.
How can you explain the fact that the hugely less offensively productive 2017 team finished with exactly the same record as the 2016 team with 93 wins and 69 losses, won the Division again and was eliminated in the first round of the Playoffs both years, by the Indians in 2016 and in 2017 by the Houston Astros?
A large part of the reason has to be the improved performance of the bullpen pitching staff. The 2016 Red Sox pitching staff had a combined earned run average of 4.00, 8th best in all of baseball, while the 2017 staff had a .3.70 ERA, 4th in baseball.
As for the starters, the addition of Chris Sale, 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA, the improvement of Drew Pomeranz, 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA helped in this area. However, David Price went from 17-9 to 6-3, Cy Young winner Rick Porcello won just 11 and lost 17 after being 22-4 the previous year and knuckleballer Steven Wright, who won 13 and lost 6 in 2016, was just 1-3 before being lost for the season to Tommy John surgery.
The bull pen, led by Closer Craig Kimbrel, with 35 saves in 39 opportunities and a miniscule 1.43 ERA, Joe Kelly, 4-1 and a 2.79 ERA in 54 games, Matt Barnes, 7-3 with a 3.88 ERA in 70 games, Heath Hembree, 3.67 in 62 games and Robbie Scott, 3.79 in 57 games, gave the team a much needed boost.
In 2016, the Red Sox starters won 68 and lost 42, had an ERA of 4.22, 7th best in baseball, while the 2017 starters won 64 and lost 54, had an ERA of 4.06, 8th best in baseball. Opponents’ hitters averaged .252 average against Red Sox starters in 2016 .255 in 2017.
In 2016, the Red Sox relievers won 25 and lost 27, had a 3.56 ERA, 9th in baseball, while the 2017 relievers won 29 and lost just 15 and had a significantly lower ERA of 3.15, 2nd in baseball. Opponents had a .233 batting average, 7th in baseball, against Boston relievers, in 2016 and a slightly lower .226 average in 2017.
The improvement of the performance of the relievers was, obviously, a factor in offsetting the loss of offensive production.
Another factor, perhaps more important, which helped make it possible for the Red Sox to win the same number of games in 2017 as in 2016, without the offense, was the weakened competition in the American League East. Each team in baseball plays 19 games each year against opponents from its own Division or 76 games, or 47%, out of a total of 162.
The American League East has been one of the most powerful Divisions in baseball for many years. Boston, New York, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay, which make up the Eastern Division, had had at least three and as many as four teams with records of .500 or better every year for the past 11 years prior to 2017.
In 2016, four of the Eastern Division teams, the Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays and Yankees all won more than they lost overall, with the fourth place Yankees winning 84 and losing just 78. In 2017, only two of those teams, the Red Sox and Yankees won more games than they lost while the other three had losing seasons.
The other American League East teams, won 183 and lost just 161 in games outside the Division in 2016 but slipped to 173 wins and 172 losses in 2017, while the Red Sox improved to 52-34 outside the Division from 50-36 in 2016.
While the rest of the Division was losing the equivalent of 10½ games against the rest of baseball, the Red Sox were improving by two games against them. The obviously weaker Eastern Division also contributed to offset the offensive loss for the Sox.
David Ortiz had, perhaps, the greatest final season in 2016 that any baseball player has ever put together after announcing that it would be his last. There is no question that he was a major factor in the Red Sox improvement from a 78-84 record and a last place finish in 2015 to a regular season Division win in 2016.
There is also no question that his performance and his leadership inspired the young position players to perform at the high level that they did offensively. Unfortunately, there is no way to measure that effect or to measure the effect of his loss on the same players the next year.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, the improvement in their bullpen, and the weakened performance by other teams in their Division allowed the Sox to repeat as regular season champs, only to lose again in the first round.
This is still a very good Red Sox team, but, unfortunately for Red Sox fans, even though Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto don’t seem to be taking steps to make them more competitive, that very good, very young, New York Yankee team just got a lot better with the signing of Giancarlo Stanton and does not appear to be done spending money to make them the team to beat next year and perhaps for many years to come.
Whatever happens to the Red Sox under Alex Cora in 2018 and beyond, the ghost of David Ortiz will always be there and the answer to the question, ‘What if he had played just one more year?’, will never be known.