117 reasons to love the 2018 Boston Red Sox

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

There is a relentlessness about these Boston Red Sox that goes beyond the typical greatness baseball teams show over the course of a season. Others may ebb and flow, wax and wane, thrive for shards of time only to succumb to the rigors of a 162-game season designed to expose fallibility. The 2018 Red Sox laugh at this. They have sprinted three-quarters of a marathon and would happily run backward for the last quarter, barking the whole way, if it didn’t interrupt their crack at history.

Incredible though this may sound, it is becoming truer by the day: The Red Sox have a legitimate shot at winning 117 games, which would set a new single-season record for Major League Baseball. After winning their fifth straight Tuesday, they sit at 86-35. If they played at that same level for their final 41 games, the Red Sox would finish 115-47. A 31-10 stretch is far from fantasy. The Red Sox have done it nine times this season, including right now, when they’ve won 33 of 41.

The Boston Red Sox have a legitimate shot at winning 117 games. (AP)

Even if they slum the last six weeks of the season and play .500 ball, the Red Sox still are looking at the best regular season in franchise history. It’s a terribly enjoyable group, with Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez the new Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, with Chris Sale doing his Roger Clemens impersonation, with Alex Cora channeling Terry Francona, with a 25-man roster that oozes likability. They are great. They know they are great. And they make you know they are great.

One dig into the numbers, and it’s quite obvious. The Red Sox have scored the most runs in baseball and allowed the second fewest. They hit, they run, they catch, they don’t strike out. Here are their ranks in all of baseball in half a dozen significant categories.

OPS: 1st
ERA: 2nd
HR: 2nd
K/9: 3rd
SB: 2nd
Bullpen ERA: 4th

Perhaps we should’ve seen this coming after Boston won 17 of its first 19 games. That last happened more than 30 years ago and only four times in the last century. Two of those teams, the 1984 Detroit Tigers and 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, won the World Series. They also didn’t need to conquer three rounds of playoffs like the Red Sox will.

So until the division series dawns and the crapshoot that is the baseball postseason gives the Red Sox a new kind of test, the focus will be on 117. The schedule, though rough in patches, offers hope. Of those final 41 games, 24 come at Fenway Park. After finishing a quick series in Philadelphia tonight, Boston will sandwich two series against the tough Rays around a four-game homestand against AL Central-leading Cleveland. Then comes a cakewalk week (Miami and the Chicago White Sox), followed by a gauntlet (Atlanta and Houston), then another easing off the throttle (Toronto and the New York Mets). Boston finishes its season New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York.

The prospect of the Yankees waltzing into Boston and trying to prevent 117 is indeed rich and would be the perfect denouement for a season that the Red Sox have commanded. And in honor of that ownership, which has emboldened Red Sox fans not just to dream big but unleash hell on Yankees fans whose hatred simmers amid grudging respect, Yahoo Sports presents 117 reasons to love the 2018 Boston Red Sox.

13: Pitches in the best at-bat of the year

For 7 minutes, 20 seconds on July 12, Betts wore down J.A. Happ. The 25-year-old Betts is an athletic marvel. His power belies his 5-foot-9, 170-pound body. His wields his bat with the precision of an arborist. Pitchers rarely fool him, which is why he has the 20th-lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters this season. Just watch the at-bat. It’s classic Betts, grinding, annoying, infuriating and, finally, devastating. His other numbers – .350 batting average, .439 on-base percentage, .668 slugging percentage, 27 home runs, 99 runs, 24 stolen bases – are all impressive. If you want to know the story of his season – of the Red Sox’s season – the 13-pitch at-bat he took against Happ personifies them.

8: Chris Sale starts remaining

Trevor Bauer’s leg fracture seems to have cleared the path for Sale to finally win his first Cy Young Award. This may well be his piece de resistance, too. He’s looking for his second consecutive 300-strikeout season, and even more impressive, at 13.5 K/9, he has the highest strikeout rate ever for a starter. The record: Randy Johnson’s 13.41 in 2001. Sale is the closest thing baseball has seen to the Big Unit, and he’s starting to build an awfully interesting foundation for a Hall of Fame résumé.

3: Consecutive losses

The last time that happened? April 21-24. Yes, the Red Sox are approaching four months without a losing streak of more than two games. They’ve lost back-to-back games only nine times.

19: Years since we’ve seen a team hit this well with runners in scoring position

The Red Sox are a very good offensive team, hitting .269/.339/.465. With runners in scoring position, they are otherworldly: .285/.376/.506, the best since the 1999 Indians hit .306/.391/.519. How are they so good? Well, 333 players this season have had at least 40 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Boston has the three best hitters in the game with RISP: Steve Pearce (.421/.500/.816), Betts (.322/.506/.763) and Xander Bogaerts (.337/.423/.772).

1: Steve Pearce

Because there’s only one Steve Pearce, people.

37: J.D. Martinez home runs
J.D. Martinez and his 37 home runs didn’t sign until the day of their first full-squad workout this spring. (AP)

It’s incredible, in hindsight, to think the Red Sox’s season started without Martinez. He didn’t sign until the day of their first full-squad workout this spring. Even if he is just a DH – and he is just a DH – so was Big Papi, and he seemed to do perfectly fine. It’s better to appreciate Martinez for what he is: a leviathan with almost-unmatched power; a legitimately great hitter who leads the league in hits as well as home runs; and an anomaly, in that unlike almost everyone else who signed late, he’s flourishing.

7: Hector Velazquez wins

Still trying to figure out how a guy who spent the first seven years of his career toiling in the Mexican League can come to MLB, not strike anyone out and somehow wind up 7-0 with a 2.82 ERA? Yup. Same here. And yet there is Velazquez, a 29-year-old right-hander who doesn’t throw much over 92 mph, retiring hitters game after game. For a team to win 117 games, there needs to be glitches in the matrix, and Velazquez is one of them.

2: Runs allowed by Ryan Brasier

It’s not just Velazquez. It’s Matt Barnes, never exactly known as a strikeout artist, punching out 14 per nine. It’s a coterie of other pitchers jumping in here, filling in there, putting in reliable innings. It’s a guy like the 30-year-old Brasier, who toiled for more than a half-decade in the Angels organization, underwent Tommy John surgery, kicked around with Oakland, wound up in Japan last year and was so good at AAA that Boston had to give him a shot. All he’s done is sit 96-98 and insert himself into the conversation for high-leverage pitchers to whom the Red Sox can turn come October.

4: Amazing catches by Jackie Bradley Jr.

There are plenty more than four this year, but you’ve got only a finite amount of time.

An over-the-shoulder jumping grab? Check.

A face-first leap into the wall? Yup.

A looks-like-he’s-gonna-break-his-wrist-but-he’s-Jackie-Bradley-so-of-course-he-won’t special? Made to order.

Words cannot do this one justice. Just watch it.

0: Outfield dances
What happened to the dancing in Boston? (AP)

Which is a shame, because Bradley, Betts and Andrew Benintendi, the left fielder, could move. If the retirement of the postgame victory dances in any way increased the likelihood of 117 wins, suppose it would be a worthy sacrifice for the cause.

8: Prospects traded by Dave Dombrowski

Dombrowski, the Red Sox’s president of baseball operations, has traded a lot more than eight prospects over the course of his tenures running the Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins, Detroit Tigers and now the Red Sox. It’s sort of his thing. And as much as others in the game are inclined to drag him for it, the deals for Sale and closer Craig Kimbrel are runaway winners. Sure, Manny Margot may be very good someday, and Logan Allen is an excellent and underappreciated Double-A pitching prospect, but the Red Sox giddily would give up the two of them along with Javy Guerra and Carlos Asuaje for Kimbrel. And, yes, Michael Kopech is one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues and Yoan Moncada a toolsy, if a tad strikeout-prone, major league second baseman. Both of them, plus Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz, for Sale is a no-brainer. The Sox are where they are in large part because of moves made prior to Dombrowski’s arrival. But among these two trades and the Martinez deal, he has helped plenty in assembling the juggernaut.

1: 2018 payroll ranking for the Red Sox

It would be wrong to ignore the near-quarter billion dollars Boston is spending on its team this season. And if we’re doing 117 reasons to love the Red Sox, well, this sort of thing doesn’t exactly inspire love. Perhaps the knowledge that they’re spending $51 million on Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo – none of whom play for Boston – can make for that schadenfreude kind of love.

9: Percent of pitches in the strike zone called balls when Sandy Leon is catching

If that sounds like a lot … well, it’s not. Among those who have caught at least 1,000 pitches, Leon has the lowest rate of those that actually were in the zone called for balls, according to StatCorner. Which means he is excellent at making umpires see what they actually should be seeing. Overall, StatCorner’s ranking of Leon as +58 means he has stolen strikes at the best clip in the American League. Baseball Prospectus’ framing metric doesn’t rate him quite as high, but it still has Leon well above average. It’s no wonder Red Sox pitchers love throwing to Leon. They are 28-2 in the last 30 games he has started.

4: Games in the sweep that buried Yankees

The Pearce trifecta. The comeback against Aroldis Chapman. They were bookends to the early-August series that put double-digit games between the two and added a new chapter to an invigorated rivalry. This year started with Joe Kelly burying a 98-mph fastball in Tyler Austin’s ribs in early April. It will end with a three-game series at Fenway for Games 160, 161 and 162 – or maybe the first week in October in the division series.

1: Manager of the Year

Alex Cora is in his first season in Boston, a place that chews up and spits out managers like they’re an unwanted piece of gristle. Not only has he survived the organization’s tendency to eat its own, he has done so with intelligence, grace, humor and humility. Now, the postseason will test all of those things, and in particular his strategic acumen, but Cora deserves this final number, because if the Red Sox really do get to 117 – if they depose the 2001 Seattle Mariners – due credit will wash over him.

Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora should win AL Manager of the Year in his first season. (AP)

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