Tomase: Best team ever? Making a case for '18 Red Sox as greatest in franchise history

John Tomase
October 26, 2018 - 12:08 pm
Eduardo Nunez

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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Normally this kind of exercise would feel premature before a champion has been crowned, but let’s acknowledge the obvious: the Red Sox are gonna win the World Series, and probably sooner than later. This prompts a big-picture question: is this the greatest Red Sox team of all time?

With all due respect to the five title-winners before 1918, no squad that played pre-integration can be considered the best ever at anything. Nothing personal, Stuff McInnis, Harry Hooper, and the Bambino. But yer out.

Also not up for discussion: any team that didn’t win it all. I hope this goes without saying. So no dice, 1946, 1975, 1978 or 1986.

That leaves four contenders, all from these glorious past 15 years: 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2018. Let’s take them one-by-one.

2004

Record: 98-64
Run differential: Plus-181 (949-768)
Postseason record: 11-3

The team that started it all was in flux until the trade deadline, when young GM Theo Epstein staked his career on a series of audacious deals, including punting on franchise icon Nomar Garciappara.

When he had finished upgrading his defense with the likes of shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, the juggernaut that coalesced in early August was nearly unstoppable. The Red Sox went 40-15 to close the regular season before completing the greatest comeback in American League Championship Series by erasing a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees.

That was a complete team by the end. Sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez each topped .300-40-130. Leadoff man Johnny Damon scored 123 runs. Right-hander Curt Schilling burnished his reputation as the greatest big-game pitcher maybe ever by Bloody Socking his way to immortality. Pedro Martinez didn’t dominate like he had during his 1997-2002 prime, but that’s still a hell of a second starter. And then closer Keith Foulke basically sacrificed the rest of his career by pitching every day in October until throwing the pitch that officially ended the 86-year title drought.

Here’s where 2004 falls short. Yes, they were a killing machine by the end. But for four months they hacked their way in and out of sand traps, largely undone by an immobile defense and an unreliable setup corps that finally found its footing in October.

Is true greatness measured over six weeks or from start to finish? I vote the latter, which makes 2018 the clearly superior club, even if nothing will ever surpass the emotional connection we forged with the Curse-busters.

2007

Record: 96-66
Run differential: Plus-210 (867-657)
Postseason record: 11-3

This team was so good, it’s basically been swallowed by Boston’s other title-winners since the 2001 Patriots. They played drama-free virtually all year, save for overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS behind the brilliance of Josh Beckett and one very timely grand slam into the center field camera well from J.D. Drew.

That team assumed sole possession of first place on April 18 and never trailed again, and talk about a model of consistency: it never won more than five straight or lost more than four in a row all season. Ortiz led the offense with what’s got to be his most underrated season: .332-35-117 with a 1.066 OPS and a career-best OPS-plus of 171. We had come to expect his greatness at that point. What we didn’t expect was a Rookie of the Year campaign from Dustin Pedroia, a .324-21-120 campaign from the supposedly washed-up Mike Lowell, and the late-season emergence of rookie burner Jacoby Ellsbury, who’d soon win free tacos for everyone in America by swiping a bag in the World Series.

The Red Sox led the league in ERA based mostly on their bullpen – closer Jonathan Papelbon was immense – as well as a 20-win season from Beckett, a big Texan who channeled his inner Roger Clemens as the Horse with a capital H.

Much like 2018, this team cruised through the regular season. Unlike 2018 (so far), this one nearly got KO’d in the playoffs, sandwiching sweeps of the Angels and Rockies around a nail-biting comeback vs. the Indians.

I’m probably being unfair, but this team, as great as it was, didn’t really move me. Gimme 2018.

2013

Record: 97-65
Run differential: Plus- 197 (853-656)
Postseason record: 11-5

John Farrell replaced Bobby Valentine, in the quintessential case of right-man, right-time. General manager Ben Cherington imported a boatload of veteran talent and then watched in amazement as every single guy hit, from Shane Victorino to Mike Napoli to Jonny Gomes to David Ross to Stephen Drew.

The Red Sox finished top-three in every meaningful offensive category except home runs (they were 5th), and Jon Lester took the baton in the starting rotation after injuries ruined the best start of Clay Buchholz’s career (12-1, 1.74). Meanwhile, Koji Uehara, the third choice at closer, threw 90 mph fastballs by everyone all season to the tune of a 1.09 ERA.

“This is our (bleeping) city,” Boston Strong, and the 617 jersey made the team synonymous with the recovery from the Marathon bombings, which gives it a special place in our hearts. It also helps that Ortiz finished off the Cardinals in six games with one of greatest individual World Series efforts ever. He hit .688 with a pair of homers, and one of his outs required Carlos Beltran to slam into the bullpen and rob him of a grand slam.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect season. But let’s be honest. When we’ve discussed great Red Sox teams, from a pure talent standpoint, this one ranks behind 2004 and 2007.

2018

Record: 108-54
Run differential: Plus-229 (876-647)
Postseason record: 9-2

Let’s just take a step back and consider: there’s a chance this team will finish the season 119-56. That’s a winning percentage of .680. In the last 50 years, only the 1998 Yankees of 114-win fame can claim better.

What’s truly separating this group is the postseason run. The Red Sox dispatched the 100-win Yankees in four games. They dropped the 103-win (and defending champion) Astros in five games. The 92-71 Dodgers might not seem impressive, but their run differential projected to 102 wins, and they were still playing .500 ball on June 9 before finishing the season 60-39.

The Red Sox led the league in runs behind an MVP season from Mookie Betts (who went 30-30) and a near Triple Crown from free agent slugger J.D. Martinez.

Chris Sale led the rotation in the first half, and David Price took the baton in the second. Four starters won at least 12 games, and that doesn’t even count midseason acquisition Nathan Eovaldi, who became the club’s best pitcher in the postseason by pairing a 101 mph fastball with a mid-90s cutter.

The bullpen felt like a six-month tightrope walk, and Craig Kimbrel veered in and out of control, but the Red Sox still finished fourth in the AL in relief ERA.

It might not feel like this club’s pitching measures up to some past champions, until you consider that the 2004 Red Sox gave 65 starts to Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe, whose combined ERA topped 5.00. The 2007 Red Sox didn’t boast an above-average starter after Beckett – Schilling battled injury, and Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka posted ERAs over 4.40 – and in 2013, midseason acquisition Jake Peavy ended up starting a game in each round of the playoffs.

Here’s where this team separates itself – its breathtaking ability to win any kind of game. The Red Sox led the league in runs, average, on base percentage, slugging and OPS. They finished third in steals and still hit over 200 home runs.

With launch angle all the rage, the Red Sox have consistently proven better equipped to win games without the ball leaving the park. They scored 14 runs against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS before Brock Holt blasted their only homer in the ninth off a catcher to complete his cycle. The big hit in Game 2 against the Astros was a base-clearing double by Jackie Bradley Jr. Home runs put away games in Houston, but the Red Sox also capitalized on wild pitches and extra outs. They’ve scored 12 runs in the World Series on one homer – a game-breaker by Eduardo Nunez in the opener.

They’ve taken their lead from manager Alex Cora whose steady guidance and supreme confidence have translated to the field. The Red Sox haven’t lost more than three straight all year, and they’ve responded to every challenge en route to the most dominating season in Boston history.

Two more wins and they finish the job. And then we’ll have to give them their eternal due – no Red Sox team has ever been better.

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