Times for good for those of us who reside in Red Sox Nation. Boston comes into Sunday’s games on a pace to win 111 games. They’ve got a comfortable seven-game lead on a New York Yankees team that’s on a pace to exceed 100 victories themselves. The Red Sox are the 11-4 betting favorite to win a fourth World Series title in the last fifteen years.
Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez might be on their way to finish 1-2 in the AL MVP voting. Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi hit for both average and power. The Red Sox lead the league in runs scored in spite of getting subpar production at a number of spots. Second base, third base and catcher have been weak spots. Jackie Bradley Jr. has had a bad year at the plate. Any one of Bradley, Eduardo Nunez or Ian Kinsler is fully capable of a big postseason and it wouldn’t be a big surprise.
But underneath the glitter of the record, the division lead and the offense lurks a problem and it’s the track record of this pitching staff in the postseason. David Price has a playoff record of 2-8 and an ERA of 5.03. Rick Porcello’s playoff ERA is 5.47 in a handful of starts. Chris Sale made his first appearance on the October stage last year and his ERA in two outings against the Houston Astros was 8.38. This adds to Sale’s established tendency to fade in August and September—a tendency that he’s added to with a couple DL stints already this month.
It’s easy to dismiss these numbers as the product of a small sample size and therefore a fluke. But we’ve seen over and over again that problems in the playoffs, regardless of sport, tend not to be random chance. Alex Rodriguez continually struggled in October. So did Barry Bonds. The Washington Nationals have made an art form of underperforming in the playoffs.
The hard reality that Red Sox fans have to face is that this starting rotation has all the makings of one that will make underperformance in the clutch a pattern of behavior. And while the bullpen is pretty good, it’s not the kind of lights-out unit that can take over playoff games from the fourth inning on.
By contrast, the Yankees have just such a bullpen. The Cleveland Indians have a weapon in Andrew Miller that can dominate a playoff series out of the pen. Houston has starting pitchers, most notably Justin Verlander, who have performed in the biggest of pressure situations. The Astros and Indians have won the last two American League pennants. The Yankees showed some playoff mettle with wins in two winner-take-all games last year and then going down fighting against Houston in the ALCS.
By contrast, Boston has rolled over dead in the last two postseasons, being steamrolled by Cleveland and Houston in the Division Series. The starting pitchers have a track record that inspires pessimism. A warning sign marked “Regular Season Team” is all over this rotation. I hope I’m wrong and this year will be different. But these Red Sox will have to win one postseason series—or even show signs of being competitive in one—before I get my hopes up for a Duck Boat Parade downtown.