There’s little time for seasonal transition built into baseball’s calendar. The visitors’ clubhouse at Dodgers Stadium might still be sticky with celebratory champagne, but the Major League Baseball Players’ Association has already made a formal announcement regarding the winter’s free agents. Clayton Kershaw last stepped off the mound scarcely two days ago, but time is running out for him to decide whether he’ll opt out of his contract. A World Series title might have a few hours, at most, before it transitions from an achievement to be celebrated in the present into a research opportunity for the future. What can baseball learn from this?
The question has carried weight in the last few years—with dramatic ascents to victory that required painstaking engineering visible to anyone watching from the outside. The 2015 Kansas City Royals took five years to go from cellar dwellers to world champions, building around a deep bullpen and a roster that emphasized speed and defense. The 2016 Chicago Cubs needed just two years to pull off the same worst-to-first turnaround, thanks to crafty player development and scouting. The 2017 Houston Astros did it in four years. Each of these teams was distinct—in construction, payroll, style of play—but all three suffered extended stays at the bottom of their divisions. (The Royals spent eight years in fourth or fifth place before beginning to climb the standings; Cubs, five; Astros, six.) And all three used that time to lay the groundwork needed to build aggressively from the bottom up.
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The 2018 Boston Red Sox aren’t like any of these teams. Rewind five years. They weren’t in fifth place, they were celebrating their third championship in a decade. Sure, they followed that title by spending the next season in last place. But they bounced back up just as quickly as they’d dropped, and this year’s victory came along with their third straight division championship. They had the highest payroll in baseball. They’d already been a good team, now built to be even better, and they happened to end up being historically great.
It feels a little silly to ask what baseball can learn from this team, because the answers seem obvious to the point of stupidity. Make sure your rightfielder is the MVP? Get one elite pitcher on a record contract, and add another in a blockbuster trade? Spend $230 million? Sure! Those are self-evident answers, but they’re also good ones. These are fantastic ingredients for a championship baseball team, arguably the best imaginable. Which is exactly what makes them a little dull—in the context of what baseball can learn from them, at least. Baseball knew this! We all knew this! It doesn’t matter how loosely you want to define “baseball,” or how royal you want to make that we. Grab a seven-year-old in t-ball—any one of them, even one whose primary concern on game day is whether the celebratory popsicles will be grape or cherry—and, yeah, this is probably exactly how he’d build a team if money was no object and the only goal was to win. The 2018 Red Sox don’t have an answer to the question of how a terrible team can strategically rebuild to contend. The 2018 Red Sox have an answer to the question how a great team can become greater.
That’s not the same question that’s been asked and answered by the last few years of championship teams, but it’s a valid one, all the same. And, maybe more critically, it’s a refreshing question. If bad baseball is brought about in the pursuit of future good baseball, it’s still bad baseball. It’s not inherently interesting, and it’s certainly not inherently virtuous. Of course, good baseball doesn’t necessarily fit those terms, either. It’s transparent about its goals, though, and it tends to chase them directly. (Is there a more honest way to win than just to show that you’re willing to pay for it?) There’s something a little exhilarating—particularly in a season that had so much bad baseball, with eight clubs that finished with a win total below 70—about a team with such a straightforward approach, one that gave itself the best chance to win just by acquiring the best players.
It might look like a boring way to win, if not an insufferable one. In a certain light, maybe, it is. But there’s no such thing as a blueprint that reads, Step 1: Spend a ton of money, Step 2: Win the World Series. Baseball’s highest payroll has won a championship just five times in the last 30 years. (The 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2009 Yankees, and the 1993 Blue Jays.) It’s the approach that seems the most obvious, and it’s the approach with the highest chance of success, but it’s still far from a guarantee. The postseason’s structure is far too finicky to allow for anything like a guarantee. The Los Angeles Dodgers offer better proof of this than anyone, with the highest payroll in each of the last five seasons before this one, and nary a trophy to show for it. The 2018 Red Sox might very well be on the list of baseball’s best teams ever; they’re certainly among modern baseball’s highest win totals, best run differentials, most remarkable postseason performances. And it took much more than $230 million to get them there.
It took a creative rookie manager. It took a recommitment to analytic research and data-driven strategy. It took a series of breakouts, both from the team’s homegrown core and from its more recent additions. Mookie Betts, a fifth-round draft pick who’d already established himself as one of the game’s best young players, made a dramatic evolution into baseball’s biggest threat, with a greater wins above replacement total than any hitter in this century not named Barry Bonds or Mike Trout. (The Red Sox’s last player to touch Betts’ 10.9 WAR, by Baseball-Reference? Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.) Xander Bogaerts rebounded from last season’s down performance at the plate to become the best hitting shortstop in baseball. J.D. Martinez, the winter’s biggest acquisition, was better than ever; Chris Sale, last winter’s biggest acquisition, wandered into the territory of historic greatness. Nathan Eovaldi, picked up at the deadline, was the best possible version of himself in the regular season and a godly Iron Horse in October. Steve Pearce—35-year-old journeyman Steve Pearce, acquired for next to nothing in midsummer—was World Series MVP. This requires a foundation of excellent scouting, development and coaching. And there’s something else; call it luck, or call it consistently beating the odds on the most likely individual outcomes. It’s being a very good team, and strategically maneuvering to get better, and getting a little extra bit of good fortune on top of that.
The Red Sox were the best team in baseball. They were “supposed” to win, by just about every projection and reasonable expectation, and they did. If it’s not a boring narrative of success, it’s a very conventional one. But even baseball’s most conventional pathways to success are still more likely to end in failure than not, and there’s something stimulating in seeing all of this come together in victory. This makes it very easy to hate the Red Sox, of course. But it also makes it hard not to respect them.